Los Angeles

11 Ways to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Los Angeles

Street murals, nature hikes, ancient pictographs, and Native art exhibitions.

Rather than celebrate the mistold legacy of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, cities across America are swapping Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day and using the holiday as a way to learn about Indigenous American histories. This is the third year that Los Angeles is observing the holiday after a measure was passed in 2017. 

Prior to the arrival of Spanish in the late 18th century, LA County was home to three Indigenous American tribes: the Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash, who were renamed the Gabrieleño, Fernandeño, and Ventureño respectively by Spanish settlers. At the time of colonization, an estimated 350,000 Indigenous people belonging to over 200 tribes lived across the state. Within 100 years, that number dropped to just 30,000 Indigenous people as many died from disease, violence, poverty, assimilation, and other factors.

California’s Indigenous tribes and communities have persevered in spite of those tragedies and today the state boasts more residents with Indigenous heritage than any other state in America. With the inclusion of Pacific Islander and Latin American Indigenous Diasporas, LA calls itself home to the largest Indigenous population of any city in the United States.

We’ve put together a few ways you can celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in and around Los Angeles, as well as from the comfort of your home:

Explore the real map of Los Angeles 

Your Home
UCLA’s Mapping Indigenous LA project uses digital and oral storytelling from community leaders, youth and elders to create a city map that illuminates the various Indigenous histories. This interactive map charts the movements of the Tongva-Gabrieleño people prior to Spanish colonization, the history of Native Americans in LA, as well as background on Pacific Islander and Latin American Indigenous Diasporas. 
Cost: Free

Admire Murals of Tongva Medicine Woman, Toypurina

Boyle Heights, Baldwin Park, and Pacoima
Toypurina was a Tongva medicine woman who gained notoriety for her opposition to colonial rule by Spanish missionaries and for her involvement in the planned 1785 rebellion against the San Gabriel Mission where she was responsible for recruiting six of the eight villages that participated in the foiled attack. After Spanish officials found her guilty at trial, she was forcibly baptized and banished to the most distant Spanish mission. She later married a Spanish soldier whom she had three children with, though it’s unclear if the marriage was one of convenience or love.

In Boyle Heights, Toypurina’s legacy is celebrated with a 60 by 20 foot mural that decorates the main wall of the Ramona Gardens public housing complex, featuring Toypurina’s youthful face alongside scenes of the neighborhood. 

At the Baldwin Park Metro Station, LA artist Judy Baca sought to reinsert memory in the land with her 1993 installation "Danza Indigenas" (“Indigenous Dance”). The 20-foot arch and 100-foot plaza is an artistic recreation of the San Gabriel Mission archway; etched into the platform below the archway are the floor plans of the four closest missions and the steps of traditional Indigenous dances. A stone mound within the installation is meant to replicate one that the Gabrielinos would have used as a place of prayer and acts as a tribute to Toypurina. 

Along “Mural Mile” on Van Nuys Blvd in the northeast San Fernando Valley is “Honoring Our Origins,” a 12 by 64 foot mural by the all-women art crew HOODSisters that features Toypurina surrounded by mountains and California flora. The mural also contains a brief summary of who Toypurina was in both English and Spanish. There are plenty of murals to admire if you’d like to create an impromptu art walk, or head directly to 12959 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, CA, 91331 to see the “Honoring Our Origins” mural.
Cost: Free 

Take in Native American History at Indian Alley 

Downtown LA 
Tucked down a nondescript backstreet in Skid Row is Indian Alley, which once served as a gathering place for homeless Native Americans in the area. In 1974, the building adjacent to the alley became the location for the United American Indian Involvement (UAII) outreach center, which provided health, housing, and other support services to the city’s Indigenous residents. In the 1990s, the center moved to 1125 West 6th Street and the significance of its location might have been lost were it not for artist Stephen Zeigler, who moved into the building with his wife in 2008. In 2011, after researching the significance of the alley, Zeigler recruited local artists to decorate it with paintings and sculptures that highlighted Native American history and activism, thus transforming it into a noteworthy site for street art in the city. Some of the works include portraits of Lakota-Sioux activist Robert Sundance and Tongva rebellion leader Toypurina. Contributors to the ongoing project include Maya/Nahuatl artist Votan, Jemez Pueblo artist Jaque Fragua, and local artists Wild Life and Shepard Fairey.

Take a virtual tour of The Autry’s exhibition on Indigenous Art and Activism 

Through January 2021
Your Home
Like so many of our favorite LA museums, The Autry is temporarily closed to in-person visitors and has begun offering virtual tours of their exhibitions. Slated to debut on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is When I Remember I See Red, an exhibition that highlights Native Californian artists and how they address Native identity, history, and activism in their work. 

According to Joe Horse Capture, VP of Native Collections and the Ahmanson Curator of Native American History and Culture, When I Remember I See Red is a rare opportunity to learn about Native artists with ties to California, their role in contemporary Native American art, activism, and cultural revitalization. Through the lens of this exhibition, we learn about the important role that California Native American artists had, and continue to have, in giving voice to their experiences. Whether it's activism, cultural revitalization, or their history, When I Remember I See Red addresses these issues through a visually powerful experience."

The exhibit features more than 60 works by 40+ Indigenous artists including Rick Bartow, Harry Fonseca, Frank LaPena, Judith Lowry, and James Luna. It’s scheduled to run through January 2021, so fingers crossed that we’ll be able to have socially distant in-person visits soon. In the meantime, The Autry has video and different options to experience the exhibit from the safety of your home. 
Cost: Free 

Visit Indian Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon

Aguas Caliente 
Take a day trip to Palm Springs and get to know the sacred lands of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians by visiting Tahquitz and Indian Canyons. Tahquitz Canyon is home to a 60-foot waterfall, rock art, ancient irrigation systems, and hikes to explore the native fauna and flora.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have thrived in Indian Canyons (which includes Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon and Palm Canyon) for thousands of years. The 15-mile long Palms Canyon is notable for its abundance of California fan palm plants and rock gorges that contrast against the desert landscape. At Andreas Canyon, more than 150 species of plants live along Andreas Creek, where fresh springs continue to flow and ancient rock formations color the trail, while centuries-old bedrock mortars and metates give a glimpse into ancient food preparation techniques. While the creek at Murray Canyon is currently dry, the easy-to-moderate hike is the least-frequented within Indian Canyon and hikers occasionally get lucky spotting endangered species like the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep and Least Bell's Vireo bird.
Cost: $9 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, $5 for children, and free for military

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Photos By Clark / Flickr

Study Ancient Native American Pictographs

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 
If you’re in the mood for an adventure, you can set about finding the ancient Native Californian pictographs in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.The almost two-mile Pictograph Trail, which features a collection of red drawings on a large isolated boulder. Hike the nearby Morteros Trail to see the morteros, or grinding bowls that were carved into large boulders and used to grind nuts and seeds by the Kumeyaay Indians who have inhabited the area for 10,000 years. 
Cost: Free 

Hike Castle Peak and the Cave of Munits

Simi Hills 
Another option for the outdoorsy is to visit the Cave of Munits AKA “The Shaman’s Cave,” which is rumored to be the former home of a powerful Chumash shaman who was killed after murdering the son of a powerful chief. While the uphill hike is relatively easy, it’s a steep climb to get inside of the cave and you’ll have to use your hands so be careful not to scrape elbows and knees. Once inside of this chimney-style cave, you can look up to see the sky through an opening that lets just enough sunlight in to cast dramatic light across the cathedral-like ceiling. 
You can continue on from the cave to Castle Peak, another area of ceremonial importance that was used by the Chumash during the solstices. Finding the cave is relatively simple, for a short hike, depart from El Escorpión Park, or use the Victory Trailhead for a longer loop.
Cost: Free 

Learn about the First Californians at the Bowers Museum

Santa Ana, CA 
In the mood to explore art in person? Head to the Bowers Museum, which is now open to visitors with new safety precautions in place. The museum has a collection of over 24,000 Indigenous American objects including basketry, pottery, beadwork, stone and shell tools, weapons, and jewelry, with most of their collection from the southwest region of the US. The permanent collection in their First California exhibition places focus on Southern California’s Indigenous history and includes Native American art and artifacts in stone, shell, plant fiber, and feathers.
Cost: $10-15 and free for children under 12

Visit the Kuruvungna Springs

Every first Saturday of the month
Santa Monica
Only open on the first Saturday of the month, you’ll have to plan in advance if you’re interested in visiting these peaceful springs, which were used as a natural freshwater source by the Tongva people since at least the 5th century BC and continue to produce up to 25,000 gallons of water a day. Kuruvungna Springs, also known as Serra Springs and Gabrielino Springs, are located at two separate places on the campus of the old University High School in Santa Monica. The larger spring is under the care of the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation, while the other spring is located on the northeastern edge of what’s known as the “Girls' Field.”
Cost: Free 

Explore the Tongva Exhibit at Heritage Park

Santa Fe Springs 
South of Downtown LA is Heritage Park, a 19th-century ranch with a vintage steam train and in-depth exhibit that honors the culture of the Tongva people who’ve lived in the area for thousands of years and once had a village near Heritage Park. The exhibit includes a Tongva dwelling, sweat lodge, granary, and life-size sculpture of a reed canoe, built by volunteers of the San Gabriel Band of Tongva Indians. 
Cost: Free 

Attend the 45th Annual American Indian Film Festival

November 4-14th
Your Home 
Like so many film festivals, the American Indian Film Festival has gone virtual, with the exception of a few films that will be screened at a drive-in theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Led by the American Indian Film Institute, the festival premieres the best movies, music videos and original entertainment by, for and about American Indian and First Nations people. This year they’ve got 102 films and 55 world premieres slated to run over the course of nine days. Their film catalog is open for browsing and pre-order tickets.
Cost: Pay what you can

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Danielle Dorsey is the Los Angeles editor at Thrillist. 
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