Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

Kuruvunga Spring: right from the source

Land of Four Seasons

 

February 17, 2024

Jon Hammond.

Bob Ramirez is a Native leader who is in charge of Kuruvungna Springs.

A life-giving spring produces clean, clear water every day, filling a couple of small ponds that reflect the trees that tower above them, and the blue Southern California sky above. This natural gift of abundance was cherished by Native people for many centuries, and then sorely neglected by the newcomers who arrived and pushed them aside.

Not any more. Thanks to an effort led by Tongva tribal members, this bountiful source of fresh water is once more a place of beauty. It is a natural resource that is respected and treasured and cared for, not hidden away and ignored.

Known as Kuruvungna Springs, the site is located within the urban environment of West LA, in a fenced-off corner of the campus of University High School. The spring produces about 56,000 gallons of clean water a day, which surges quietly upward from the sandy bottom of a small pool.

There is another spring located on a different portion of the school campus, and a third that went dry decades ago due to groundwater pumping.

The location was a village site for the Tongva people, who have also been referred to as Gabrieliño because of their association with the San Gabriel Mission. The Tongva have a connection to the Nuwä of the Tehachapi area through their shared language stock: both are among the more than 30 tribes in the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Uto-Aztecan speakers were found in large parts of the American West, and also down south into Mexico and even Central America. Languages include northern ones like Shoshoni and Comanche, and southern ones like Aztec and Nahuatl.

Though the Tongva language was driven to extinction by the early part of the 20th century when the last fluent speakers died, linguists, especially John P. Harrington, did extensive documentation and thousands of pages of references are available. There are efforts to breathe new life into the language, and Tongva words are being spoken again.

With their shared ancestry, Tongva and Nuwä have some common words. For example, Great Horned Owl is mühütsi in Nüwa, and mühüt in Tongva. Bobcat is tüküts in Nüwa, and tüküt in Tongva. The words for 2, 3, and 4 are very similar, and other words are as well.

The two languages would not be considered mutually intelligible at a conversational pace, however, because Nuwä is part of the Numic subgroup of Uto-Aztecan and Tongva has been placed in the Takic subgroup.

After the Tongva were displaced and West Los Angeles developed, the springs were seen less as a precious asset and more as a potential threat from excess water or flooding. So the outflow from the springs was forced into pipes and whisked away to the ocean where it dumps into the sea. The site itself became weedy, junked and abandoned-looking.

Jon Hammond.

Visitors watch the pool where the clear spring rises from the sandy bottom.

But about 30 years ago, Native people, inspired by leaders like Angie Dorame Behrns, pressured the school district and city officials to do better. To treat the spring with the respect it deserved. After years of efforts by Angie and others, and the support of people like the late state senator Tom Hayden, the springs site was restored and a cultural center created. The springs became a welcome place to come visit.

As decades passed, the springs were getting overgrown, so about five years ago, a new Tongva leader named Bob Ramirez took over care of the site, and now it looks better than ever. There is the source pond, all edged in coping stones, and a couple of other attractive ponds into which the water flows.

There is a garden with many native plants, especially those that have historically been important to the Tongva. The largest Montezuma Cypress tree in California spreads its draping limbs over one of the ponds. This enormous tree has been nurtured for more than a century by the waters of the spring.

There is also a traditional Tongva house, which is nearly identical to the kahni built by Nuwä people. Domed and thatched, it resembles a giant upside down basket. Southern California was once home to many thousands of these structures, which blend harmoniously in with their surroundings. It is always good to see one standing in our time. Inside the museum there are Tongva displays and information.

Kuruvungna Springs are open the first Saturday of every month, when volunteers just show up to do any maintenance work that needs doing, and visitors enjoy the grounds. There are pleasant walkways around the ponds and landscaping. Angie Dorame Behrns herself is usually in the museum, greeting and informing visitors, and Bob Ramirez directs outside work and cheerfully makes time for interpretive talks about the site, as well as about Tongva history and culture.

On a recent Saturday, Japanese tea specialist Shingo Murayama and Chinese tea practitioner Shan Huan were there making traditional teas using the delicious water of the spring.

The rebirth and renewal of Kuruvungna Springs was the result of Native people reclaiming this remarkable source of life and vitality within the built environment of the West Coast's largest city. The spring is again honored and appreciated, and available for the enjoyment of all people.

Kuruvungna Springs is located at 1439 S. Barrington Ave in Los Angeles, and is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month. It is a rare and unforgettable place, and well worth a visit.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

Jon Hammond.

A traditional Tongva house at Kuruvungva. It is almost identical to the kahni (house) built by Nuwä people in Tehachapi.

 
 

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