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Santa Monica's New Parks Memorialize Indigenous Tribe, Former Mayor

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

October 21, 2013 -- Santa Monica's two newest parks, covering more than seven acres of prime real estate near City Hall, bear names that span two very different periods of the bayside city's history.

While the six-acre Tongva Park memorializes the people that lived in the Los Angeles Basin before the Spanish arrive, Ken Genser Square, the one-acre lawn in front of City Hall, is named for a former mayor and champion of renters' rights.

City Hall celebration of square and park
Celebration of Gabrielino Tongva people next to Ken Genser Square. Photos by The Lookout. More Pictures.

“I had to take a private moment at (Ken Genser Square),” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown, adding that Genser, who died in 2010, was a personal friend.

Genser was a constant figure in Santa Monica politics after he was elected in 1988. In his time on the Council, he served as mayor three times and become strongly associated with renters' rights.

He earned a reputation as a supporter of affordable housing in the early 1980s when he helped found Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the bayside city's single biggest developer of subsidized housing.

But long before debates about rent control, development and affordable housing took Santa Monica, it was home to the Gabrielino Tongva people, whose history the City commemorated in the name of its new flagship park across the street from Ken Genser Square. ("Santa Monica's Newest Park Named for Local Tribe," February 15)

“Tongva means people of the earth,” explained Angie Berns from behind her booth in Santa Monica's new park, named in honor of the people that once occupied the Los Angeles Basin.

Berns, the president of the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation, is also a tribe elder. As part of the City's Saturday celebration of the opening of the Tongva Park and the neighboring Ken Genser Square, Berns had set up an informational booth to teach visitors about her tribe.

“We have a very sad history,” said Berns. She talked about her great-grandmother who was baptized by Spanish missionaries after they built the San Gabriel Mission.

“They baptized her with a Christian name,” Berns said. “Her Indian name was lost, woosh, like the wind.”

On the table in front of Berns was arrayed myriad traditional tools, foods and animal skins, used in the day-to-day lives of traditional Tongva people.

“I used to hate museums,” she said, because the represented for her the theft of her ancestors' culture. Now, she curates the historical foundation at The Kuruvungna Springs Site at University High School in Los Angeles.

It was a site of “a thriving, self-contained village,” according to Berns. According to the Foundation's literature, “the first Europeans to come to Kuruvungna were soldier of the Portola expedition which camped (there) in early August 1769.

“Less than sixty years later, this village was forcibly dissolved as a new way of life came to dominate the land and the people,” the literature reads.

That new way of life was portended by the construction of the San Gabriel Mission in 1771, the site of many of the Tongva people's conversion to Christianity.

To this day, “Gabrielino” is part of the tribe's name.

Berns called herself an “urban Indian.”

“What's it like to grow up as an urban Indian?” she asked, rhetorically. “It's hard.”

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