By Nick Diamantides
For thousands of years before the Europeans came to North America, the Tongva Nation occupied the entire Los Angles Basin. Those Native Americans had villages on lands ranging from the San Gabriel Mountains to the ocean and from Topanga Canyon to Laguna Beach. Later, because of their close proximity to the Catholic San Gabriel Mission, the people became known as the Gabrieleno Tongva.
One of Tongva Nation’s most important villages— Puvunga— was located on what are now the campuses of the Veterans Administration Long Beach Health Care System (VA Hospital) and California State University, Long Beach, as well as the land extending in a several-mile radius from those two facilities. Last Saturday, the VA Hospital unveiled a monument erected to pay tribute to the Gabrieleno Tongva and to all Native Americans who had served or are now serving in the armed forces of the United States.
Rich Beam, the VA Hospital’s public affairs officer, said the monument was erected for two reasons. “One was to officially, physically make sure that we recognize the contributions that Native American veterans have made to this country,” he said. “Most of us forget that Native Americans played a huge role in some major victories for the Unites States military.”
He mentioned the movie Windtalkers, which depicts Native Americans using their own language to communicate back and forth over the airwaves during World War II. “The language could not be broken by the enemy forces because none of them had Native American language interpreters,” he said. “It’s probably the best known example of the tremendous contribution Native Americans have made to our war efforts.”
He noted that the monument highlights the positive aspects of the Native American warrior spirit. “The Native Americans are a very robust culture in protecting their lands and their people,” he said. “When it came time to defend this country, they were an important contributing factor to the military all around, and they gave quite distinguished service throughout all of our military campaigns.”
Rich added that the monument brings attention to the importance of Native Americans not just in the military, but also in all aspects of our civilization. “They have contributed much to our culture at large,” he said. “The monument is dedicated to the entire Indian culture, not just the warriors and not just the Native American veterans.”
According to Rich, the second reason for the monument is to pay tribute to the Gabrieleno Tongva Nation. “It is only fitting that we honor the people who occupied this land from ancient times,” he said. “This is especially true because the hospital and the university are built on the land where one of their most important villages, Puvunga, once stood.”
Chief Anthony Morales of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Tribal Council, agreed. “The Village of Puvunga was where our spiritual reality— Chungichnish— was created,” he said. “It was a major gathering place for all of our tribe.”
Morales noted that in the 1970s, while crews were digging a trench for a construction project on the CSULB campus, they discovered Native American artifacts and human remains that were later identified as the remains of Tungva. “It is an undisputed fact that this is where Puvunga once stood,” he said. “It is very good of the VA Hospital to honor our tribe and all Native Americans by putting up the monument.”
The monument is located in the northwest corner of the hospital’s 100-acre campus. The words engraved in it read as follows: “I am part of the Ground, the Wind, and the Air. The Spirit of the Gabrieleno Tongva flows through this sacred ground. Their souls rest in peace below this memorial. Our nation’s debt to our Native American warriors can never be repaid, but their sacrifice will be remembered, celebrated, and honored forever. With deep respect from one warrior to another, this monument is dedicated to the Gabrieleno Tongva by the Department of California Military Order of the Purple Heart.”
A lectern close to the monument also contains a printed message including these words: “For thousands of years, the land on which you stand was home to the rich village of Puvunga!.In the time when there was bountiful living, the graves of our ancient ancestors, pointing to our setting sun, overlooked and protected our land.”
In the native language, the word “Tongva” means “people of the earth.” Today, according to U.S, Census data, about 2,000 Gabrieleno Tongva live in Southern California. Villages that kept their original Tongva names include Cahuenga, Topanga, Tujunga, Cucamonga, Pacoima and Azusa.
“It’s very important for all of us to understand how much the Native American culture has contributed to who we are as a nation,” Rich said. “I think sometimes we do not appreciate all they have done for us.”