“Between Homelands” is a series produced in partnership with students from USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism. They’re bringing us stories of people living in California who have come from afar, or who were born in the U.S. but feel like cultural foreigners.
When Cindi Alvitre walks across the parking lot at California State University, Long Beach, she sees the asphalt, the buildings and the rows of cars. But she also sees something else. In her mind’s eye, she sees Puvungna, the sprawling tribal territory overlooking the Pacific Ocean that was once home to Tongva people.
"When I walk around, I live in two worlds,” says Alvitre. “The other one is a constant conversation with nature and with the ancestors."
Alvitre’s ancestors were the dominant culture here until the Spanish conquest. In fact, the entire Los Angeles basin and beyond -- from the hills of downtown L.A. to the beaches of Catalina Island -- is the ancestral homeland of the Tongva.
Today, Alvitre is one of fewer than 2,000 remaining Tongvan descendants. The tribe is still seeking federal recognition. And in a region that’s been home for millennia, some contemporary Tongva struggle to find their place.
For those who are struggling, Alvitre, 60, is a pillar of cultural strength, helping them to connect with their indigenous roots. She talks about how the Tongva were ocean people, living in huts by the beach, wearing grass skirts and shells, and diving for abalone. And when she needs to reconnect, she goes to the ocean.
“Nature is a comfort zone,” she says. “To sit on a rock, out at the end of the jetty, to go in the water, to watch the seals and the sea lions … [it’s healing] just to be back in the natural world."
Alvitre traces her sense of connection back to her father. He filled her childhood with stories of the past. On car rides through Southern California, he would point out Tongva burial sites and former villages, or spots where her Indian grandfather once foraged for medicinal plants.
“I was always told, ‘This is your home. Your ancestors are from this home, and this is where they are buried,’ ” she says, remembering hikes with her dad. “When he walked through there, he would tell us, ‘Shh, don’t talk loud. This is a sacred place.’ ”
That’s how the beach sand and the grassy hills -- and even the land under L.A. high-rises and strip malls -- became embedded with ancestral meaning.
Alvitre took this knowledge into her life’s work. She is a professor of American Indian Studies at Cal State University, Long Beach. And she was the first female chair of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Tribal Council.
One night, nearly 30 years ago, her ancestors came to her in a dream.
In the dream, a massive Tongvan warrior emerged from the mounds of the Saddleback Mountains. Beneath the mountains, a lake formed. Native Americans paddled across the lake in wooden canoes while speaking to each other in the Tongva language.
As soon as the rowers found their cadence, paddling in synchronicity, the warrior’s eyes opened, the mountains parted and the canoes set forth onto the ocean, toward Catalina Island.
“It was this amazing vision of mountains that I grew up around in Orange County, but here [are] these boats I’ve never seen,” says Alvitre.
Two weeks later, she got a call from Jim Noyes of the California Indigenous Maritime Association. He asked if she’d be interested in reviving her tribe’s naval culture by building a ti’at -- a traditional Tongvan canoe.
“He described the boat in my dreams,” Alvitre says. “I was really blown away.”
Noyes and Alvitre joined forces then to start the Ti’at Society. The group built Moomat Ahiko (Tongvan for “Breath of the Ocean”) -– the first and only modern ti’at in Southern California.
This spring, after more than two decades of use, Moomat Ahiko underwent repairs. At Cal State, Long Beach -- the former site of the village of Puvungna -- Ti’at Society members met every Sunday to restore the boat. They fixed leaks, gave it a chestnut-colored stain and painted a red ochre around its glittering abalone accents.
Alvitre and her group displayed the new and improved ti’at at the 45th Annual Cal State Puvugna Pow Wow in March. Moomat Ahiko was a focal point amid the singers, drum circles and throngs of dancers dressed in the regalia of many tribes.
The next destination for Moomat Ahiko is the ocean. Members of the Ti’at Society plan to return the boat to the water in a ceremony this summer.
The ceremony will allow more Tongva to connect with the ocean -- and with their heritage. For Alvitre, that connection is so key to her identity that Moomat Ahiko is tattooed on her arm. Through immersing herself in Tongvan maritime culture, she’s unlocked a passion that feels like home.
“This is my life,” says Alvitre. “This is the language I feel comfortable speaking."