Pitzer College Joins Tongva Tribe In Welcoming Spring


A woman with red hair and bangs sits at a table talking
Tongva Elder Barbara Drake welcomes members of the indigenous and Pitzer College communities to a traditional celebration of the Spring Equinox. (Courtesy of Justin Sleppy)

Last Sunday, I had the unique opportunity of witnessing indigenous peoples and members of Pitzer College come together in a traditional celebration to honor the land and the changing of seasons.

The ceremony, hosted by Elder Barbara Drake and member Glenn Miller of the Tongva tribe in collaboration with Pitzer’s Robert Redford Conservancy, took place at the Conservancy’s property at the Bernard Field Station to welcome the Spring Equinox and thank the earth for providing sustenance.

Tongva member Craig Torres said the ceremony is a good way to teach people about Tongva beliefs.

“It was important for me to make people aware of these seasonal markers that actually are very important in ushering in the seasons as they change,” Torres said. “There’s an upper world and a lower world too. …  So what happens up there is a reflection of what happens down here also.”

Pitzer has a long relationship with the Tongva, an indigenous tribe that was subjected to centuries of oppression by settlers. The tribe, whose territory once spread all across the Los Angeles area, no longer has property of its own and has not been given federal recognition.

Despite its suffering, the Tongva tribe continues to work to revitalize its culture. Some of its elders work with Pitzer to share and teach its culture on the college’s campus.

“We’re the one percent of the one percent in the area, and that goes for our culture because we’ve lost a lot,” Torres said. “I think the things that we can recover and bring back are the things that we know like this.”

When I arrived at the Conservancy, members of indigenous communities — some Tongva and some from other tribes — were greeting each other with hugs and laughs. Some Pitzer students and professors with their families also attended.

Pitzer Professor of Sociology Erich Steinman said he attended the event to continue the relationship between the Tongva and Pitzer.

“Re-learning a perspective on life that centers the natural world and its process is important in our time,” Steinman said. “I wanted my daughter to learn from the elders and stories and perspectives, especially giving thanks and being attuned to the natural world.”

Conservancy Director Brinda Sarathy said one of the reasons she wanted to hold this event is Pitzer’s core value of environmental sustainability.

“We see this as including ‘cultural sustainability,’ which in part involves affirming a link between land/natural systems and the peoples who live in relationship to these particular places and systems,” Sarathy wrote in an email to TSL. “For us to be able to learn from and with indigenous peoples who are of this place, and whose ancestral land now hosts us all, is an honor and responsibility.”

The ceremony was held in a sacred area where a dozen large logs were arranged in a large circle. Four poles surrounded the circle, placed at each cardinal direction, and were colored with the Tongva colors black, white, and red, which symbolize life.

Miller said he is glad to have Pitzer’s Conservancy as a place to hold ceremonies like these.

“This particular community at Pitzer offers an enormously valuable asset because we are dealing with all kinds of people, especially youth,” Miller said. “This gives us a chance to do our thing and invite others and school others on this that might be interested.”

Guests entered the ceremonial circle in a line, following a clockwise motion until we found seats on logs. Then the ceremony began, accompanied by a song.

The Ancestral Song was sung by several indigenous adults. The rest of us played a rhythm with clapping sticks. A man walked around the circle, sprinkling bits of tobacco, a plant sacred to the Tongva, on the ground. Trailing him, two girls sprinkled water from large shells to symbolize rejuvenating the earth.

At the back of the line was another man carrying a large wooden pole. He placed the pole in the center of the circle, creating a giant sundial.

Afterward, several Tongva members gave speeches and shared stories. Drake honored another Tongva elder for her lifelong work for the tribe. Miller talked about the stars’ significance to the Tongva. Others shared more songs, including the Water Song and the Willow Song.

Aaron Gonzalez PZ ’21 said his favorite part of attending the event was the singing.

“I liked that we all got to participate in [the songs] with the clapping sticks and that they had a song for everything in nature,” Gonzalez said.

Finally, at exactly 12:58 p.m., we celebrated the sun in all its glory. At this point, the sun was at its highest peak in the sky, and the pole’s shadow directed due north. The Spring Equinox was officially acknowledged.

We ended the ceremony by standing up and shaking each other’s hands. The Tongva gave us bundles of sage as parting gifts.

Gonzalez said he liked seeing how people gather in different ways but produce the same effect.

“For me being there in that circle … it kind of reminded me of [Catholic] church growing up,” Gonzalez said. “It’s kind of a peaceful time when you reflect on the past week and sing songs with people, and then, you go and eat food afterwards.”

While the Spring Equinox was actually last Tuesday, Miller said the day on which we celebrated it doesn’t matter.

“The importance here for us is it’s ceremonial,” Miller said. “As long as you do the honoring, as long as people are interested and involved … we’ll be more than happy with that.”

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