|What happens when different peoples first meet?|
When the Europeans first arrived in California, native people had been living here for thousands of years. (According to their own legends, they have been here since the beginning of time.) How did the lives of the Native Americans change as increasingly more Spanish explorers, soldiers, and missionaries began to arrive? The interaction of Europeans and Native Americans soon changed the lives of both groups of people.
What Primary Sources Can Tell Us about Early California History
The Native Americans and Spanish each had unique cultures and ways of thinking, acting, and living. Thus, suddenly facing other, very different ways of life was tumultuous for both parties.
Hugo Reid’s Letters
Shadow of a cross on a mission wall
In 1542, when Spanish explorer Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo arrived off the shores of Santa Catalina and San Pedro, Gabrielinos (Tongva) people rowed out to greet Cabrillo and his crew. At that time the Tongva inhabited all of what are now Los Angeles County and the northern parts of Orange County. After the Mission de San Gabriel was established in 1771, many of the Tongva converted to Catholicism and began to become more like the Spanish. Hugo Reid’s series of 22 letters, first published in the Los Angeles Star newspaper in 1852, described what remained of the Tongva culture. In these missives, Reid described the customs, language, and history of these people. As a rancher near Mission de San Gabriel and husband of Bartolomea, a Tongva woman, Reid had learned a lot about these people and their culture. His letters remain a valuable resource to historians.
California’s Native American Groups
In 1968 California Governor Ronald Reagan signed a resolution declaring that the fourth Friday of each September should be celebrated as American Indian Day. With more than 100 recognized Native American groups in California—more than any other state in the nation—it’s no wonder that, in 1998, the day became an official state holiday.
Though each of California’s Native American groups has its own rites and customs, there are also similarities among those living in similar climate and ecological zones. In the rain forests of the Northwest, for example, dugout canoes and rectangular gabled homes were common. In Southern California (where the Tongva lived), many Native Americans traveled by planked double-paddled tomols and lived in conical homes made of nearby plants—arrowweed, tule, or croton. Central California’s abundant food supply, in contrast, enabled large villages to be established, offering artisans in these areas (such as the Pomo), time to become highly skilled in their crafts.
Preserving Native American Cultures on Paper
1. Ask students to try to imagine how much life in California has changed since Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first explored its coast in 1542. On the chalkboard, create a simple two-column chart contrasting life here then and now. (Now there are cars, freeways, newspapers, airplanes, fast-food restaurants, and many big cities surrounded by suburbs and smaller towns. Then, there was no electricity; native Californians lived off the land, traveled by foot or by boat, and made everything they used; and lived in communities of villages.)
2. Distribute to each student a copy of the worksheet found on page 6 of your Primary Sources Handbook. (This excerpt can also be found in Letter V of Reid’s The Indians of Los Angeles County under the section labeled “Food and Raiment.”) As a class, read the excerpt aloud, and go over the answers to the questions on page 7 of the Primary Sources Handbook as a group. Use the information given above about Reid and the Gabrielinos to supplement students’ knowledge about them.
3. Tell students that when Hugo Reid wrote his 22 letters to the Los Angeles Star, he selected a different topic to focus on in each letter. These topics included:
(Tell the students that the remaining letters described how life for the Gabrielinos (Tongva) changed after the Spanish arrived.) Write these first thirteen topics on the chalkboard and then assign individuals or groups of students to specific California groups—making sure that one from each of California’s six culture areas are represented. (A map of these culture areas can be found on page 97 of students’ textbooks.) Tell students that, for their assigned group, students are to write five short letters, each focusing on a different aspect of that people’s culture, selecting from the list you have written on the chalkboard.
4. Once students have written their letters, offer them a chance to share their writing with the rest of the class. Then discuss as a class the differences and similarities among the Native American cultures in California. You might also have students help you create a classroom wall map generalizing various aspects of life for Native Americans in each of the state’s six culture areas.
Additional Primary Sources
Chapter 3: The First People of California
Chapter 4: Exploring California
Image credits: a. Royalty-Free/CORBIS; b. The Palma Collection/Getty Images