In East Los Angeles, Toypurina stares magnetically from a mural at the Ramona Gardens public housing project, her penetrating black eyes evoking the night in 1785 when this young Indigenous woman organized men from six villages to storm Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and reclaim their ancestral land.
Northwest of East L.A., on a wall along Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, Toypurina is equally radiant, but her image is more subdued, perhaps reflecting the failed revolt that night, in which many of her Native compatriots were killed and the leaders, including Toypurina, were put on trial and exiled.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
On walls throughout Los Angeles, on plaques and medallions embedded in library floors, in statues that dot public spaces and galleries, Toypurina, a powerful shaman, the daughter of a village chief, and a brave warrior, is commemorated as the only woman known to have helped lead a revolt against European colonial rule on this continent.
But despite her ascendance to cultural icon among feminists and within many of Southern California’s communities of color, Toypurina’s story remains little known compared with those of Indigenous women like Sacagawea and Pocahontas, whom schoolchildren study in U.S. history classes.
“Those Native women helped the colonists—that’s why they got written about,” says Delia “Dee” Dominguez, a member of the Kitanemuk and Yowlumne tribes who gives talks on Toypurina’s legacy. “The only reason we know about Toypurina is because the Spaniards were so scared of her that they put her on trial.”
Dominguez, who splits her time between Covina and Bakersfield, calls Toypurina “one of my heroes and my inspiration.”
“Her people were being shot and killed and their houses burned down, and she fought back,” Dominguez says. “She fought with what she had available in that harsh time. Today, we use the pulpit, and we speak and mobilize and file lawsuits. Toypurina didn’t have recourse to that. She lived in a time of horrible turmoil.”
Toypurina was born in 1760 in a village called Japchivit in today’s San Gabriel Valley. The Spanish were barely glimmers on the horizon then—Gaspar de Portolá’s exploration of what Spain would call Alta California was nine years away—and Toypurina’s early childhood was similar to the lives of her ancestors, with men hunting and fishing and women gathering and preparing food.
As the eldest daughter of a high-ranking family in the Gabrielino band of the Kizh Nation, also known as the Tongva, Toypurina was part of the elite. Her father and her brother were village chiefs. She would become a powerful and respected shaman who oversaw her village’s spiritual life.
In 1769, when Toypurina was nine years old, the Portolá expedition passed through and a powerful earthquake (noted in the diary of the expedition’s scribe, Father Juan Crespí) jolted the land, bringing strong aftershocks for days.
It would prove an omen.
A SHAMAN RISES
Within a year, the Franciscan padres followed and introduced California’s mission system. In 1771, they built Mission San Gabriel near Toypurina’s village and began converting Indigenous people to Catholicism and using them as slave labor. Spanish soldiers enforced the occupation and regularly raped Native women. When children were born of such assaults, the women often strangled the infants at birth. As a result, the padres flogged all women who miscarried or lost infants. The sexual assaults so distressed the mission’s founder, Father Junípero Serra, that he encouraged the Spanish soldiers to marry Christianized Gabrielino women, according to John R. Johnson, the curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
When Toypurina was 11, a Spanish soldier captured and raped the wife of a village chief near the mission. The chief and his warriors pursued the man, but their bows and arrows were no match for the Spaniards’ steel and muskets. They killed and decapitated the chief. His head was put on a pike for all to see. This is what happens to those who challenge us, the grisly symbol said. Such actions aligned with the Spanish worldview.
“It is evident that a nation which is barbarous, ferocious and ignorant requires more frequent punishment than a nation which is cultured, educated, and of gentle and moderate customs,” wrote Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the president of the Franciscan mission system in Alta California.
Word of such atrocities would have spread quickly, and there’s little doubt that Toypurina would have borne witness to some of them. “She became aware of the severe threat the Spanish posed not only to her culture, but to the very survival of her people,” recounts the 2013 biography Toypurina: The Joan of Arc of California, published by Kizh Tribal Press.
Coming of age in a world of violent, cataclysmic change, Toypurina hewed to her culture, marrying a Native man and bearing a son. She also trained as a shaman, learning astronomy and the use of healing and hallucinogenic plants, leading seasonal religious rituals, and attempting communication with the spirit world. Shamans, who could be any gender, held the highest status among the Gabrielinos, even above chiefs, because they were considered emissaries of the gods who were imbued with supernatural powers. This would later prove a key factor in the rebellion.
As the Spaniards seized their land and decimated their hunter-gatherer society, more Gabrielinos entered the mission system to survive. By 1785, the year of the uprising, 1,287 Native people, or half the area’s preconquest population of 2,500, had been baptized, and 853 Natives lived at the mission, according to meticulous records kept by the Spanish.
The baptized Gabrielinos, called neophytes by the Spanish, worked construction, wove cloth, herded, cooked, cleaned, and farmed. They were forbidden to practice their own religion. Floggings for small infractions were common. Meanwhile, tuberculosis, smallpox, and venereal diseases spread in the overcrowded mission quarters, ravaging a people without immunity to European infectious illnesses. Before the first Spanish mission was built in 1769, 200,000 to 300,000 Indigenous people lived in California. When the mission system ended 70 years later, only 10 percent remained, Johnson says.
Toypurina was 25 in 1785, when a neophyte named Nicolás José asked her to organize a rebellion among the nearby villages to overthrow the Spanish. Years earlier, he’d led a failed revolt, after which he’d moved to Mission San Gabriel and risen to the position of alcalde, a baptized Native trusted by the padres to supervise other Natives. But when his son died and the padres prohibited him from performing the traditional Kizh mourning ritual, the alcalde reconsidered his allegiance.
According to testimony from their trial, Nicolás José promised Toypurina help from neophytes inside the mission. He also brought her beads, possibly strands of the white shell beads the Gabrielinos used as money, but it’s unclear whether they were intended as a ritual gift or a venal bribe. There’s also debate over who deserves credit for the uprising. Trial testimony showed that it was Nicolás José’s idea, but that he needed Toypurina’s leadership and power to convince the village chiefs, since the Gabrielinos believed she could kill Spaniards “at long range” using supernatural arts.
Andy Salas is the current tribal chief of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians of the Kizh Nation and claims direct descent from Nicolás José, his great-great-great-great-grandfather. He lives in the San Gabriel Valley city of Covina, near his ancestors, and leads his 550-member tribe from there.
Toypurina “was the first woman who led a revolt, and that’s significant,” Salas says. “She stood up to the Spanish, and because of who she was and who her family was, in order to protect her people, she risked her life. So yes, she led the revolt that night, but the main instigator who pushed her to do that was my ancestor Nicolás José.”
Before agreeing to Nicolás José’s proposal, Toypurina sought guidance from the spirit world. After drinking a hallucinogenic tea made from datura leaves, which the Spanish called toloache, she experienced a vision in which the Spaniards lay dead and vanquished, according to James A. Sandos, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Redlands, whose essay “Toypurina’s Revolt: Religious Conflict at Mission San Gabriel in 1785” appeared in a 2007 issue of Boletín: The Journal of the California Mission Studies Association.
And so the plan went forward. Six villages and some Native people from farther away agreed to rebel. But a Spanish soldier who understood the Gabrielinos’ language overheard some mission Natives discussing the uprising and told the corporal guard.
On the chosen night, the warriors traveled to Mission San Gabriel and scaled its parapets. Inside, instead of launching a surprise attack, they were swarmed by Spanish soldiers. Many escaped, but 21 were captured. Of these, 17 were flogged. Toypurina, Nicolás José, and two village chiefs were held for trial.
The revolt troubled Pedro Fages, the governor of Alta California, so much that he traveled for 13 days by horseback from the Presidio of Monterey to preside over the trial himself. According to Toypurina’s biography from the Kizh Tribal Press, it was a show trial with preselected questions along the lines of this one, from a prosecutor: “After they’d been warned and advised repeatedly to keep the peace and tranquility, why did they come armed to kill the fathers and the soldiers when they had never been harmed by us at all?”
A bilingual Spanish soldier translated, but some historians believe that the trial transcript was incomplete and that its true purpose was to serve as propaganda, painting the Gabrielinos as savages and establishing the legitimacy of and moral imperative for Spanish rule. Still, the transcripts are all that historians have.
Asked why she had organized and led the revolt, Toypurina responded that “she was angry with the fathers and with all the others at the Mission, because we [the Spanish] are living here on their [the Gabrielinos’] land.”
All four Gabrielinos were found guilty. Toypurina was imprisoned at Mission San Gabriel’s garrison for two years. During that time, she agreed to have her son baptized, but he died just over a year later. She left her husband, converted to Christianity, took on the name Regina Josefa, and was exiled to San Carlos Borroméo in Carmel, where in 1789 she married Manuel Montero, a Spanish garrison soldier. Toypurina bore three more children before dying in 1799 at Mission San Juan Bautista in Central California, at 39.
AN ICON IS BORN
It’s unclear whether Toypurina willingly converted and embarked on a new life or was forced into it by the Spanish to convince the Gabrielinos that even a powerful shaman had renounced her religion and Native ways. Some historians suggest that Toypurina had no choice: that she couldn’t return home because the Gabrielinos blamed her for the failed rebellion. Others insist that she would never have agreed to give up her status and religion.
Her story fell mostly into obscurity until 1958, when genealogist Thomas Workman Temple II, himself descended from a Spanish mission family, wrote a melodramatic account of her life for a historical journal. Titled “Toypurina the Witch and the Indian Uprising at San Gabriel,” it painted a lurid picture of a treacherous, seductive sorceress who single-handedly led the rebellion, kicked over a stool at the trial, and made incendiary, Hollywood-ready speeches (suppositions wholly unsupported by the trial record). Later scholarly papers added nuance, pointing out the contributions of Nicolás José and adding that Toypurina’s brother, as a village chief, also helped convince people to rise up. In the journal Ethnohistory, Steven W. Hackel, a professor in UC Riverside’s History Department, points out that the Mission San Gabriel padres had moved in some Indigenous people from neighboring regions who were traditional enemies of the Gabrielinos, which made them unhappy and resentful. Since Toypurina and other Gabrielino leaders left no record themselves, we will never know their perspectives.
As for Toypurina’s children with her second husband, her son died in an accident and her two daughters married Spanish soldiers. Their children married European and Mexican immigrants. In “Toypurina’s Descendants: Three Generations of an Alta California Family,” published in the same 2007 issue of Boletín, Johnson teamed with Bill Williams, a Santa Rosa resident of Gabrielino descent who traces his maternal lineage back to Toypurina, to fill in the genealogical record.
Almost 250 years after the rebellion she helped lead, Toypurina has emerged as a cultural icon. In addition to the murals by various artists across L.A., Chicana artist Judy Baca painted a luminous and symbolic portrait of her that has been reproduced widely. Toypurina has inspired plays, poems, films, and other works of visual art. Among the Gabrielinos and many others who challenge oppression, Toypurina stands as a unique symbol of Indigenous resistance to Spanish colonialism.
“Everything was taken from them,” says Salas, who packs up his family every year for a pilgrimage to San Juan Bautista, where they honor Toypurina and leave flowers on her grave. It is something they do to remember their ancestors who, armed with nothing but bows and arrows and a belief in the righteousness of their cause, took on the Toledo steel, guns, and mounted soldiers of Spanish rule.
Says Salas, “They were starving. Their children were dying in front of their eyes. They’d lost their culture. Their ceremonies. Their beliefs. It’s always these historians and scientists and anthropologists who want to write our stories, but they never talk to us. These Natives are still alive. They’re here. They’re us.”•