Resilience and Resistance: The Tongva and Nüümü Communities' Struggle for Indigenous Rights and Cultural Preservation


Norine Holguin

9/13/20233 min read

a long road going through a desert with mountains in the background
a long road going through a desert with mountains in the background

In the heart of California's rich and diverse history, two indigenous communities, the Tongva and the Nüümü (Owens Valley Paiute), have stood resilient in the face of adversity, defending their ancestral lands, water rights, and cultural heritage. AnMarie Ramona Mendoza's thesis, "The Aqueduct Between Us," delves into the profound impact of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the enduring struggle of these communities to assert their rights amidst institutional discrimination.

The Tongva: Guardians of the LA Basin

The Tongva community, the original inhabitants of the LA Basin, boast a rich cultural heritage rooted in their deep connection to the land and water. Their complex social structure, guided by a council of elders, made decisions that profoundly shaped their community. They were skilled hunters, gatherers, and fishermen, with an intimate knowledge of the local ecology, utilizing tools such as nets, traps, bows, and arrows. Their artistry was celebrated through intricate basket weaving and pottery.

However, the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 18th century brought devastating changes. The Spanish established missions that forced many Tongva to convert to Christianity and relinquish their traditional practices. These missions disrupted their way of life, leading to the loss of ancestral lands and the rapid decline of their population due to introduced diseases.

Los Angeles Aqueduct: A New Tragedy

In the early 20th century, the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct would bring a fresh tragedy to the Tongva and Nüümü communities. Built on their ancestral lands, this engineering marvel led to the loss of their homes, traditional hunting and gathering grounds, and sacred sites. The aqueduct also disrupted the natural flow of water, causing rivers and streams essential to their way of life to dry up.

Asserting Their Rights

The Tongva community's struggle for recognition and justice extends to the realm of law. In a landscape where they lack federal recognition, they've relied on government codes and executive orders requiring consultation between tribes and state agencies. This strategic approach has allowed them to insert themselves into the water politics of the city, creating visibility and advocating for tribal water protection.

The Nüümü Community: Guardians of the Owens Valley

While the focus of this narrative has been on the Tongva community, the Nüümü, the Owens Valley Paiute, share a parallel tale of resilience and resistance. Their history is marred by the same destructive forces, particularly the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which had devastating consequences for their ancestral lands and waters.

Fighting for Justice

Like the Tongva, the Nüümü have also engaged in legal action to protect their water rights and ancestral lands. They've filed lawsuits against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to address environmental damage caused by the aqueduct. This legal battle underscores the tenacity of indigenous communities in the pursuit of justice.

Community Organizing and Cultural Revitalization

Community organizing has played a pivotal role in the Nüümü community's resilience. Organizations like the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley have emerged to promote cultural revitalization and safeguard ancestral lands and water rights. Their efforts echo the spirit of solidarity that transcends generations.

Strategies of Resilience

Mendoza's thesis highlights the resilience of these communities. Despite institutional discrimination, both the Tongva and Nüümü employed a range of strategies to protect their ancestral lands and water rights.

1. Legal Action: Non-federally recognized tribes like the Tongva relied on government codes and executive orders that required consultation between tribes and state agencies. Legal action became a vital tool to safeguard their rights.

2. Community Organizing: Community organizations, such as the Gabrielino Tongva Springs Foundation Kuruvungna Springs Cultural Center & Museum, and the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, were established to promote cultural revitalization, education, and the protection of ancestral lands and water rights.

3. Cultural Revitalization: Both communities worked to preserve their cultural heritage through language revitalization programs, traditional arts, and crafts, and cultural events. Sacred sites and traditional hunting and gathering grounds were protected.

A Call for Recognition and Justice

Mendoza's thesis underscores the ongoing struggles of the Tongva and Nüümü communities and their unyielding determination to assert their rights and protect their cultural heritage. These communities continue to be an integral part of the cultural landscape of California, and their contributions to the region's history and culture, deserving of recognition and celebration.

As we reflect on their journey, let it serve as a reminder of the enduring power of indigenous communities in the face of adversity. Their fight for justice and cultural preservation is not just a historical narrative but a living testament to the strength of the human spirit and the enduring importance of honoring indigenous rights.

The stories of the Tongva and Nüümü communities remind us of the enduring power of culture, heritage, and the indomitable human spirit. They compel us to recognize and celebrate the contributions of indigenous communities to our shared history and culture. As we engage with their past in a meaningful way, we shape a future where tribal sovereignty and environmental sustainability can flourish, especially in the vital context of initiatives like LA River Revitalization planning.


Mendoza, AnMarie Ramona. “The Aqueduct between US- Inserting and Asserting an Indigenous California Indian Perspective about Los Angeles Water.” eScholarship, University of California, 18 June 2019,

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