Southern California coast and off-shore islands (Los Angeles & Orange
Counties, parts of western Riverside & San Bernardino Counties)
Language: Uto-Aztecan family
1770 estimate: 5,000 (includes Fernandeño)
1910 Census: not known
The Gabrielino may have been the richest and most powerful group of people in southern California at the time the Spanish came in 1769.
The Gabrielino lived along the coast and inland in what is known as the Los Angeles basin, and on the islands of Santa Catalina, San Nicolas, and San Clemente. This was an area with pleasant weather and many kinds of food, so life was somewhat easier for the Gabrielino than for those who lived in harsher climates.
The name Gabrielino comes from the San Gabriel Mission which was built in this area in 1771. The people called themselves kumivit. They were also known as the Tongva. The San Fernando Mission was built in 1797 in this area, and the native Californians who lived near that mission, called Fernandeņos, are grouped with the Gabrielinos.
The Gabrielinos placed their villages in sheltered bays on the coast, and along rivers or streams in the inland areas. Those who lived on the coast often went to camping places in the foothills to gather food, and those who lived in the foothills had camping places along the exposed parts of the coast.
Each family in a village had its own leader. The leader of the richest or largest family was usually considered to be the village leader. This leader took care of the sacred objects belonging to the village. When several small villages were near a larger village, they joined under the leadership of the larger village.
The homes of the Gabrielino were made by placing poles upright in a circle and bending them in to meet in the middle. The framework of poles was covered with bundles of tule reeds or ferns, or with mats woven from tules. Some houses were large enough to hold 50 or 60 people, with three or four families sharing living space.
The Gabrielino village also had a sweathouse where the men met to talk and sweat. The sweathouse was round, built low to the ground and covered with brush and earth.
In the villages near the coast, the main food came from the sea. They ate many kinds of fish (tuna, swordfish, sharks), shellfish, sea mammals, and sea birds. Those who lived on the islands depended almost entirely on the sea, as the islands had very little vegetation, and few land animals Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and elephant seals were plentiful. Rock scallops, mussels, limpets, and sea urchins were gathered along the rocky shores.
Away from the coast in the foothills, the people gathered acorns, piņon nuts, sage, berries, and other plants. In some areas, edible cacti grew. Some deer were to be found in the foothills, and many small animals were hunted. The Gabrielino ate many kinds of birds and some snakes, as well as rabbits and other small rodents.
Gabrielino women wore aprons made of deerskin, or of bark from the willow or cottonwood tree. The men and children usually did not wear any clothing. When the weather was cold or rainy, they wore robes or capes made of deerskin, rabbit fur, or feathers. Those living on the islands used otter skins to make their robes and blankets.
Tattooing was popular with the women in this area. Young girls had tattoos on their foreheads and chins. Older women often had tattoos going from their eyes down to their chests. Men tattooed lines on their foreheads. Girls and women also used red ocher paint on their faces to protect them from the sun and wind.
Perhaps because living was easy for them, the Gabrielino had time to become skilled in crafts. They decorated the articles that they made with shell inlays, and with carving and painting. On Santa Catalina Island, the Gabrielino had a good supply of steatite, a stone also known as soapstone. From steatite they carved pots, bowls, and other cooking utensils, as well as small figures of animals, particularly whales.
Though they are best known for the objects made from steatite, the Gabrielinos also made cooking utensils from shell, wood, and stone. Wooden bowls and paddles were often decorated with shells. Spoons were made from shells. Pieces of shell or bone were used to make needles, fishhooks, and sharp-pointed awls for drilling holes. For hunting, they used wood to make bows and arrows, clubs, sabers, and slings. One hunting weapon was a curved, flat stick which was thrown at small game like rabbits and birds.
The Gabrielino women made baskets using the reeds and grasses that grew in their area. They used both the coiling and the twining methods of making baskets. Flat baskets were used as plates and trays. Larger round baskets were used for carrying and storing food. Some baskets were used in special ceremonies.
The Gabrielino used canoes to travel from island to mainland, and for fishing and hunting sea mammals. Their canoes were sometimes made of planks, lashed together and sealed with asphaltum (a type of pitch), similar to those made by the Chumash. Sometimes they dug out a log to make a canoe. They also used rafts made from tule reeds. From their boats, they fished with hooks and lines, and with nets made from cord. The cord was made from the fibers of sea grass. Fish hooks were made of shell, bone, or wood.
The Gabrielino had many contacts with other groups in which they traded goods. Those who lived inland traded with those on the coast. They also traded a great deal with other people. Shells and steatite from the Gabrielino made their way across the southwest as far as the Pueblo in New Mexico.
Steatite, both in its natural form and made into articles of use or decoration, was the primary trade item for the Gabrielino. They also supplied shell beads, dried fish, and sea otter skins to people living away from the ocean. In exchange they got acorns, seeds, obsidian (volcanic glass), and deerskins.
Much of the trading was of the barter type, where one item is traded for another. When money was needed, strings of beads made from olivella or clam shells were used.
As a place to hold their ceremonies, the Gabrielino marked off an oval area and built a fence of willow poles around it. The fence was decorated with feathers, skins, and flowers. This ceremonial enclosure was called the yuvar. Inside the yuvar was a special area where only the most powerful men could go. This area was decorated with sand paintings of the sun and moon.
The biggest ceremony was held in the fall to remember those who had died during the year. For seven days, the people danced, sang, visited, and feasted. Dancers wore outfits made with hawk and eagle feathers. During the ceremony, all of the children who had been born during the past year were given their names.