Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

CV’s First Inhabitants – What Did They Look Like?


I’ve been writing about the Tongva people and their likely village in the Crescenta Valley, the village of Wiqangna (Wi-Kong-Na). Imagine a group of Wiqangna villagers chattering cheerfully as they walked down the dusty trail that is today Honolulu Avenue, heading east to visit their friends in the neighboring village of Hahamongna, located in today’s Arroyo Seco. What would they have looked like?

They were short by today’s standards, but stocky of build. They were extremely clean. Cleanliness and good hygiene were essential, even a component of their religion. They started each day with a bath, and they frequently used sweathouses – a dry sauna ¬¬– followed by a dip in a cold pool. They were very healthy as well, as they lived in a veritable pharmacy of medicinal plants and they knew how to use them.

We might notice that their skin color was lighter than other tribes. Whether a quirk of evolution or an introduction early on from a lighter skinned gene pool, we don’t know. The men went entirely naked, wearing just a string or leather belt to carry tools and weapons. The women wore skirts made of various materials – animal skins, softened bark, tule and plant fiber – often bead decorated, and they treated their skin with red ocher to give them a glossy look and to keep their skin supple. In the winter a cape of animal fur was worn. They went barefoot, but had leather or plant fiber sandals for rough ground. The men, unlike other tribes, grew facial hair, but the clean-shaven look was overwhelmingly preferred. Rather than shaving, they plucked the hairs.

Just like their lighter skin, their hair was lighter in color as well, often appearing to be brown or slightly reddish, even described as blond by some early Spanish. Again, no clue why, although I have read that it may have had to do with the harsh hair treatments they used to prevent head lice. Men and women wore their hair long, parted in the middle. They sometimes wore a long single decorated braid, or they pulled their hair up into a bun with decorative hairpins of wood or bone. The women often wore bangs.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

What the Wiqangna villagers lacked in clothing, they made up for in adornment. Like the young people of today, they reveled in their tattoos and piercings. Both men and women pierced their ears using yucca thorns. Women wore large, flashy earrings manufactured from abalone and adorned with feathers. The men often wore a cane tube through their ear piercing and filled the tube with tobacco for an occasional pipe smoke (like you see some men today with a cigarette behind their ear). Village and religious leaders wore hawk feathers in their nose piercings. Women and children adorned themselves freely with bracelets and necklaces of shell and, in season, they decorated themselves heavily with flowers.

Tattooing for both men and women was extremely elaborate. Men wore tattoos of lines and circles on their faces, sometimes incorporating markings indicating property they owned (like tattooing your address on your face). A very common tattoo would be vertical lines on the chin, and we sometimes see modern day Tongva wearing that distinctive tattoo. Women were often elaborately tattooed starting from childhood. From eyebrow to breast, and all down the arms, patterns of blue and green swirled. The tattoos were pricked into the skin with a cactus thorn, using mescal charcoal for blue and nightshade leaves for green. The color was either rubbed into the fresh wounds, or a pad soaked in the dye was tied onto the wounds for slow absorption. Face and body paint was popular as well – red, black, white and occasionally blue.

So, returning to our group of Wiqangna villagers walking down the dusty trail that is now Honolulu Avenue, we have a clearer picture of what they would have looked like – mostly naked, but heavily adorned with tattoos, body paint and jewelry. They would have been bright, cheerful and beautiful visions on the green and brown landscape of pre-European Crescenta Valley.