One of the last surviving Native American sacred springs in all of Los Angeles hides in plain sight.
To find it, you must journey to the Westside and travel down a traffic-clogged boulevard until you come to a nondescript alley overlooked by tall condo buildings and shrouded by mature trees. There you will see a high iron fence.
An elder will accompany you, or a caretaker entrusted with the key. There are several gates. Your key will unlock only one of them. Once you step across the threshold and the gate clangs shut behind you, you walk past a circle of sacred plants and a decaying reed dwelling. Follow the sound of running water and the swoop of butterflies, more species than you have seen since childhood. If it’s a hot day, let instinct guide you toward the cool shade. Follow your nose to the mulchy smell of plants and water. When you see the red dragonflies, you’re almost there.
With each step, the roar of the boulevard grows fainter. The looming condos disappear behind a screen of tall willows, oak, cypress, ficus, and eucalyptus. The murmur of the spring sounds almost like whispered words.
Here in this riparian place, the 21st century slips away. It’s easy to forget that you stand on a precarious plot squeezed between busy Barrington Avenue and an athletic field where kids from University High School Charter run laps, their jerseys flickering in and out of sight just past the green foliage, their muffled shouts drifting across the chasm of time.
This is Kuruvungna, which in Tongva, the native language of L.A.’s first inhabitants, means “a place where we are in the sun.” Each day, the spring delivers a precious gift to the parched and polluted city: roughly 22,000 gallons of fresh water. Astonishingly, that water runs straight into an outflow pipe that dumps it into the sea.
In a sadly familiar story of dispossession, the Tongva community doesn’t own Kuruvungna. The Los Angeles Unified School District does—it’s part of Uni High’s campus. While there are no plans to sell or develop it, stakeholders have fought off several proposals to alter it over the decades. Today, Kuruvungna exists in a kind of limbo, leased to the nonprofit Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation for $1 each year.
The foundation depends on volunteers to weed and otherwise maintain the site. For years, there has been talk of building an interpretive nature center or a museum to house the artifacts that have been unearthed here. But without paid staff, concerted fundraising, or pro bono help with sifting through layers of bureaucracy, laws, zoning, and building codes, nothing much gets done.
It’s tempting to see Kuruvungna as a metaphor. For the abysmal treatment of Native Americans and their land. For the fragility but also the resilience of nature. For the battle between rapacious development and the hunger in our souls for spiritual transcendence.
The fact that it’s survived this long is a miracle. What the future brings depends on us.
TALE OF THE RANCHOS
I first visited the sacred spring six years ago, drawn by its history and seeking a window into the past that might illuminate my writing about Los Angeles.
As I made my way along the dirt path, I was horrified to see a woman dangling her feet in the bubbling water.
Didn’t she realize this spring was sacred, possibly the last intact holy site of the Tongva, whose settlements once dotted Los Angeles?
Marching past a brook teeming with crawdads and tadpoles, through tule reeds and along the stone-lined path to a circular pond, I raised one eyebrow and asked how the water was.
The woman looked up. Her eyes were a striking brownish-yellow. Her long hair hung in thick waves past her waist.
She smiled. “It feels great. So cold and refreshing. Give it a try! I come here often to think about the past. The ancestors. My family’s been here for a very long time. We’re an old family.”
“You mean, like, the Californios?” I asked. “The Spanish land grant people?”
She nodded. “And even before that.”
Her name was Lilly Contreras. She said her ancestry included Tongva, Spanish, Mexican, African American, and European heritage. On her father’s side, she traced her ancestry to the Marquez family, which once held the land grant to Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. On her mother’s side, she was a Bixby, a family that once owned vast tracts of L.A.
“A lot of the old families are still around,” she said.
The mighty ranchos are history now, lost to gambling debts, divvied up among too many descendants, sold through trickery for a song, or liquidated to cover back taxes. There is litigation over money, land, and lineage. There are tales of broken treaties and murder, of land grants and sepia-toned photos locked in hidden trunks (see “Death of a Californio”). Even among Tongva communities, there are schisms, feuds, rival factions, and lawsuits.
“I don’t dwell on the bad stuff. It’s too depressing,” Contreras told me. “I feel connected to this land. I can feel the presence of those who are gone.”
While visitors trickle in once a month when Kuruvungna opens to the public, the site retains an eerie overgrown atmosphere, which is both its charm and its lament.
“It’s in the middle of the city, but no one sees it,” says Julia Bogany, president of the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation. “It’s a peaceful place to sit under a tree. But we also have to take care of it. If we don’t rake and dredge the springs, it can become a swamp.”
Each October, the foundation has put on an Indigenous Peoples’ Day Festival, which draws hundreds and has featured dancing, music, storytelling, Native foods, and crafts. Bogany teaches classes on making dolls out of tule reeds.
In September, I sat under a majestic Spanish cypress with Bogany and Paulina Sahagun, the foundation’s vice president, as they explain that the Spanish exploratory expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá camped here in 1769 and planted the giant tree to signal the presence of water.
They show me another spot under tall trees, where Indian remains were reinterred after being unearthed when Uni High resurfaced an athletic field. Because smaller springs once dotted the land that became Uni High, water still occasionally seeps from the school’s grounds.
With much of the nearby Ballona Wetlands destroyed for development, migrating mallard ducks sometimes stop here too, Sahagun says. There is a resident coyote as well as herons and hawks. The day of my visit, the clean white skeleton of a possum pokes out from the leaf mulch. “It’s an island of rich biodiversity,” Sahagun says.
The fact that Kuruvungna still exists is due to the tenacity of volunteers, preservationists, and tribal descendants—and to the oversight of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Larry Goldblum, an attorney and University High School graduate who has done pro bono work for the foundation, says the district has long recognized the spring’s importance. “LAUSD was trying to preserve the site,” he says. “They were not always the bad guy in this story.”
UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center and the school’s Fowler Museum have also partnered with the foundation to do cleanup and bring classes here, respectively. Wendy Teeter is an archaeologist and UCLA lecturer in American Indian studies who focuses on Tongva history. She contributed to a two-day workshop for LAUSD history teachers at the springs.
“Most of the vibrant springs and rivers have been paved over, cemented, and polluted,” Teeter says. “This is one of the only places you can see the richness and diversity of what L.A. looked like at first contact. This is a rich opportunity to promote Tongva history and heritage.”
SAVING THE SPRING
While the Tongva never sold their land, it was claimed by Spain and bestowed on loyal subjects in land grants. Kuruvungna supplied water to the city of Santa Monica at one time. By the 1920s, the property was owned by LAUSD, which built Uni High, whose graduates include Judy Garland, Jeff Bridges, and Randy Newman. For decades, Uni High horticulture, art, and biology classes visited the spring for lessons.
But times changed, and by the early 1990s, the holy spring looked more like Hades: graffiti on tree trunks, drug paraphernalia and trash marring the site, and homeless living in the greenhouse.
Enter Westsider Angie Behrns, whose Tongva great-great-grandmother is buried at the San Gabriel Mission. She, too, had attended Uni High, and she was appalled by the deterioration of the spring. Rallying community members, she formed the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation to preserve Kuruvungna and educate the public about its history and culture. (Attention, teachers: the site offers school tours.) Kuruvungna was cleaned up, and LAUSD agreed to a 21-year lease for $1 annually.
That agreement expired, and the foundation now occupies the property on a renewable annual lease, which is not conducive to long-term planning. Both sides say they want a multiyear lease, but negotiations have stalled.
Bogany says her biggest fear is that LAUSD could take Kuruvungna from the Tongva (the district insists it has no such plans). Archaeologist Teeter says it would be difficult to build on the land owing to the historic use of the sacred spring, the water itself, the high cost of real estate, and expected community opposition. Tongva fears aren’t unfounded, however: In 1992, activists defeated a proposed development one block north of the spring that would have cut off its water source. Later, a small waterfall on the site’s north end was channeled underground because of fears that the water was contaminated with chemicals.
“This is the only Tongva site left that is intact,” Bogany says. “We have to protect this land.”
Denise Hamilton is an L.A.-based reporter and crime novelist. She wrote about the pop-culture industry around Charles Manson for Alta, Summer 2019.