By Thomas Jang
The Los Angeles Landscape History Project is a 3-year project conducted by three tribes in the present-day Los Angeles Basin: the Chumash, Tatavim, and the Kizh-Gabrieleño peoples. The team included geographers, computer scientists, historians, and biologists from USC, UCLA, and Cal State Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Northridge, along with students from Accelcraft Institute of Geoinformatics and Telangana University in New Delhi, India. The project brings back to the public eye the original ecosystems, roads, and highways that existed in the area.
This immense effort included oral histories shared by the local tribes, remote sensing from satellites, and topographic maps from the US Geological Survey. Historical archives and law centers also assisted heavily. With over 15 million separate points found on the topographic maps, the project mapped multiple aspects: nature-human interactions, plant and tree distributions, and pathways compared with today’s highways. With these tools, they were able to highlight six villages named Humaliwo, Siutcanga, Achoicomenga, Yaangna, Shevaanga, Povuu’unga. Currently they are called Malibu, Encino, San Fernando, Los Angeles, Whittier Narrows, and Long Beach respectively. Other maps have revealed the locations of original sources of water, such as streams and wetlands.
The project showcases centuries of violence, colonization, and destruction of the natural environment and Indigenous communities. It also highlights the resilience of peoples and traditions, as well as meaningful, on-going attachments to the land. The project emphasizes the calamitous role of settlers on the communities that lived on these lands for thousands of years prior to colonization. It points to the historical effects of genocide and forced assimilation that occurred during Spanish and US colonization, the mission system, and the Gold Rush. But it nonetheless highlights Indigenous ancestors and belief in land and biodiversity as sacred. These efforts led by LA’s native peoples have been a way to rebuild their nations and reweave Indigenous and environmental histories back together.