The rabbit’s been singing, but nobody saw it
It’s a bright new mourning
by Bondo Wyszpolski
The coastline may not have changed much, but if we turn back the clock a few hundred years we’d have to clear the map of “Palos Verdes,” “Rolling Hills,” “San Pedro, and write in the names of the Indian villages and communities that dotted the Peninsula: Chowingna at Malaga Cove, Haraasnga at Abalone Cove, Toveemonga at White Point. In Malaga Cove alone, archeologists have found evidence of four stratigraphic layers.
Some 2,700 to 3,500 years ago, when Native Americans decided “Southern California” wasn’t such a bad place to live, they still had several centuries ahead of them before Europeans built seaworthy ships and went about colonizing worlds both known and unknown. In Los Angeles and Orange counties alone, there are over 3,000 known sites where our demographic ancestors hunted, gathered, and frolicked in the land of eternal sunshine.
In the Greater L.A. area, they were known as the Gabrielino Indians, to differentiate them from the Chumash farther up the coast. But in the last century, C. Hart Merriam coined the word Tongva because the Gabrielino with its Christian ringtone always conjured up the missionization of the original inhabitants.
However, “Tongva,” also pronounced “tong-vay,” is an abridged misappropriation of “Toviscangna,” a village near Mission San Gabriel. Also, it doesn’t mean “tribe” but rather “bedrock mortar,” referring to those flat outcroppings of rock with small, circular depressions in which, pestle in hand, Indians (or Indios) ground their daily meals.
Although tribes and communities referred to themselves after the settlements in which they lived, and apparently Indians occupied parts of the Peninsula until at least 1804, they did not have a written language. And so, when the Spanish tried to document their customs and culture in greater detail, it was necessary to play free and fancy with the spellings.
While “Tongva” is the generally agreed-upon appellation of the day, various Indian groups are currently at odds on how they want to be called. Many prefer Kizh, for instance. But while they debate the pros and cons of this name or that, let’s check in with Ivan Snyder, a third-generation Redondo Beach resident who is fairly knowledgeable about local Indian history. Together with Yvetta Williams, he’s put two and two together and come up with an important discovery.
In the ground, at our feet
“I hike around a lot,” Snyder says, “and I find where the habitation sites were, the villages, campsites.” By and large, these sites were near natural springs, and there were many such creeks, streams, or ponds on the Peninsula, although many of them have been funneled into pipes and concrete drainage ditches and covered over with the advent of roads and home construction.
“Water sources back then were sacred,” he adds, “but now we just build right over them.”
Snyder’s speciality is ethnobotany, and he’s the Rare Plants Chair of the California Native Plant Society’s South Coast chapter. Some years ago, he and Galen Hunter discovered that the historical artifacts Dr. Frances Palmer had donated to Redondo Beach (the high school first, later transferred to the historical society), consisting of items largely excavated from the bluffs of Redondo Beach in 1917, were not properly cared for. During a period of renovation, they’d been left outside in a wheelbarrow. It took Hunter’s and Snyder’s admonition to get the collection, which may have sustained damage, back inside.
To the untrained eye, many of these Indian artifacts barely look different from chipped stones or rocks polished by the sea. And all those broken abalone shells scattered around kitchen middens? It’s not like finding medieval armor or a chest with doubloons inside.
Yvetta Williams, who not only co-owned with her husband “The Sea” shell shops at Ports O’ Call Village and on Harbor Drive in San Pedro, has been involved for many years with the Point Vicente Interpretive Center near Golden Cove, just south of Palos Verdes Estates. That was where she and Snyder set up an exhibit devoted to Indian villages, which necessitated some research on their part as to where exactly these villages were. Some of this information came from mission baptismal records, but one of their key sources was John Peabody Harrington, an archeologist, anthropologist, and linguist who was able to interpret various place names, which in turn gave further clues as to precise locations. It hardly goes without saying that several of these sites have been bulldozed and cleared into oblivion.
Snyder mentions a large basalt bowl found just uphill from Pt. Vicente.
“A big bowl like that you can’t move around,” he says. “It’s not portable, it’s not just for one person but for a group of people, and that tells us there was a community there.
“These people, here on the coast of Southern California, were really special for a couple of reasons. They traded between Catalina (Pimunga to the Indians) for the soapstone that’s quarried over there, the same stone found in Northern California, Oregon, and New Mexico.”
“They don’t find it anywhere else,” Yvette Williams points out, “so we know where it came from.”
Snyder recounts finding large bowl fragments elsewhere, and mentions Abalone Cove in particular: “There were two water sources there. A beautiful place, and ideal for a large community.
“I can read these artifacts,” he continues; “I know how they were used. And I can see that their monetary system was not like ours at all. Their wealth was not of individuals, it was community wealth. These large bowls, that’s a symbol of wealth, the people working together. That’s something we’ve lost today. Now it’s all about individual wealth. I really admire the way they lived more in harmony with nature back then.”
Williams interjects that these people didn’t always stay put. “They traveled all over, into the deserts,” and even into present-day Arizona and south into Mexico.
Snyder explains that their language is of the Uto-Aztecan family, and thus related to languages in Central America.
If it wasn’t exactly globalization, it certainly was in the same spirit of exploration and trade.
Here, but where?
We were talking about John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) and his research, which was of immense help to Snyder and Williams while they attempted to map out the Indian villages on the Peninsula.
“One we were really interested in was this Toveemonga,” Snyder says.
In writing his book, “The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles,” William McCawley frequently referred to Harrington, whose notes he had access to. Harrington seems to have had contacts (Snyder calls them informants) who provided him with reasonably accurate information as to the whereabouts of each village.
“And the one we’re looking for, Toveemonga, they gave him really precise directions for it,” Snyder says. According to McCawley’s book “it’s at the next point up the coast from Point Fermin. That’s White Point.”
As a youth, Snyder was familiar with this area, on the bluffs of South Shores. Snyder’s grandfather had built a home on those bluffs and from the backyard there was a perfect view of White Point, not to mention a fine one of Catalina. Snyder lived with his grandparents for a while, occasionally hiking down to the beach to skindive. The beach is also accessible by car, and in the early 1900s, a hotel and a bathhouse were constructed at the water’s edge. They’re long gone now, but large concrete slabs are still visible in the shallows.
At the end of White Point, like the dot sitting above the letter ‘i’, there’s a mound, a rounded hill that’s crept away a few yards from the cliff towering above it. If you approach it from the parking lot, it’s fairly undistinguished.
Snyder remembers that rock from his childhood. Furthermore, and we’re beginning to circle the wagons as you will shortly see, “Harrington’s informants told him that the village got its name from a rock on the shoreline there… Tovemur. The village was Toveemonga, and Harrington interpreted it as possibly meaning ‘place of the rabbit.’”
While Harrington may have placed an X at White Point as the site of the Toveemonga community, “He didn’t find the rock,” Snyder said. Instead, “He went farther up the coast and he puts it at Pelican Cove, because there’s another rock that sticks up out of the water. But we know why he missed it.” And by now you probably know as well.
“If you drive down the road, which was there at the time when Harrington was there, in 1913, he would have seen only this side of the rock. He just saw a pile of dirt.” What he didn’t see, as the accounts suggest, was the other side of the rock.
He did, however, have lots of nascent information, believing that this rabbit rock had some connection to a dance or dancer. Gerónimo Boscana, a mission padre in San Juan Capistrano, delved into Indian customs and beliefs and was told about a character named Tovee who’d come from the stars to impart knowledge. At this point, and forgive me if I stumble, we come across several words that sound very similar. “Tobet” means “to be initiated,” but “Tobet” may be derived from “Toovit,” which was the word for the California brush rabbit. So, are we by chance talking about a dancing rabbit?
“Another part of the story,” Snyder says, “is that Tovee sings the primeval mourning song for Wiyot, or Moa, the Moon. It’s kind of like their genesis story.”
He’s probably referring to this line from McCawley’s “The First Angelinos”: “José de los Santos Juncos reported that tovemor, the rock located on the Palos Verdes coast near the community of Toveemonga, ‘was mentioned in the mourning songs at San Gabriel.’”
Rock of ages
“Harrington believed that the rabbit refers to the dancer,” Snyder says. Possibly Harrington pictured an Indian attired in rabbit fur or skin in what might have been a ritualistic performance (José Zalvidea conjectured that the rock stood erect on the shore, which suggests height over width). But Snyder had a clear recollection (or maybe it was from a dream, he says) of having seen a face in profile on that shoreline rock. “And I thought, okay, that’s the dancer; that’s got to be the rock.
“So I went down there one day. It was July 10, 2017. I took a bunch of pictures and then I came right back to Yvetta.”
Walking over and exploring the top of the rocky mound, Snyder discovered a spread of reddish soil. “That was the only place around the whole area where you see it, just right on top of the rock, this brown ochre.” But apart from that? “I didn’t find anything. I looked all around. I didn’t see the Indian face on the rock.”
Intuitively, however, he sense he was getting close. “I knew there was something there, but I didn’t see it. I couldn’t find it.” As he walked away, taking more pictures, “Two ravens landed on top of the rock. And they’re calling to me, ‘Hey, hey, hey!’ so I took their picture.” Well, at least that was a pleasant coda to a fruitless search.
Sitting down with Williams in her home overlooking the San Pedro and Long Beach harbors, Snyder showed her his photos.
Apologetically, he told her, “I couldn’t find it.”
But Williams studied the images, and especially the one of the rock with the ravens perched on top.
“I see an animal head, and the mouth is open.”
“What?” Snyder replied. “I don’t see that, and I just kind of dismissed her. I didn’t know what she meant.”
Stories like this always come to a crossroad. Snyder could have gone straight home, which he did, packed up a suitcase, moved to Switzerland, become a skiing instructor, and never be heard from again. But maybe those two ravens were saying more than just “hey, hey, hey.” Ravens are messenger birds of a sort, especially in pairs. We find them in Goethe’s “Faust” and at a crucial juncture in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” at the conclusion of “The Ring of the Nibelung.”
Like an epiphany, it flashed on him the next day: “Animal head… rabbit. He’s got an open mouth. He’s singing. It’s not the dancer that the rock is a simulacrum of, it’s a singing rabbit. Yvetta saw it first.”
If toveemonga means “place of the rabbit,” maybe tovemur, so Snyder reasoned, was originally tovee-mar, Spanish ‘mar’ for sea and then sea rabbit. “It looks like a rabbit,” he says; “It’s got an eye, it’s got teeth, it’s got an open mouth, it’s singing.”
Lest the reader think that I’m taking this on faith, I recently accompanied Snyder to the rabbit rock, saw the ochre soil for myself, and looked at the singing creature with my own eyes.
Is it possible that the rock was sculpted or altered in some way?
“I think it’s natural,” Snyder says, and Williams agrees. “I think in the past the rabbit looked a lot better.”
Even on the day we were there people were climbing over it, standing on top for the surrounding view.
And yet there’s another curious rock formation, this one halfway up the cliff and slightly to the north of the rabbit rock. It’s a moon-like crescent of white rock, a bracelet of stone, embedded in the cliff face but to all appearances nature’s handiwork, not man’s.
Snyder points up to it and says, “That’s the waning moon, the dying moon, and that’s why the rabbit is singing the mourning song for the dead moon.”
It hardly needs mentioning that civilizations worldwide have envisioned an upright rabbit on the Moon’s surface. It’s part of mythology in both Eastern and Western cultures.
Is this a string of coincidences, of mere suppositions molded into a coherent hypothesis, or have Ivan Snyder and Yvette Williams discovered something key to our understanding of local Indian history and lore, something that has been sitting under our collective noses, and in plain sight, for over 200 years?
“Some of these mysteries,” Snyder says, “there’s a lot more out there. Maybe more interested people, more experts, can find more clues.”
As for Harrington and the others, they only needed to walk a little farther, to the other side of the rock where the rabbit was singing.