Considering Ballona and the Tongva People

By Eric Strauss and Lisa Fimiani

In my 11 years here at LMU I have gotten to know members of the indigenous community, engaged students in their stories and undertaken research projects on their sacred lands that we call the Ballona Wetlands. Much of this work has been in collaboration with naturalist and CURes Fellow Lisa Fimiani.

We are proud of our university’s involvement in embracing the issues and challenges of our geographic area as they relate to the ancestors of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians. We have a beautiful Tongva Memorial on campus overlooking the bluff, where students, faculty and staff can look out over the Ballona Wetlands. As the developer of Playa Vista began creating their community below the university, we taught the geographic, biological, social, and cultural history of the area – and specifically what happened to the original residents on the land.

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Randy Roche, S.J., Lisa Fimiani, and Eric Strauss greet visitors to the Ballona Discovery Park, a cooperative project of LMU, Playa Vista, and Friends of Ballona Wetlands.

As one of three project partners, LMU, Playa Vista and Friends of Ballona Wetlands, we were involved in the design of a park to inform the public about the times, tides and transformations of the Ballona Wetlands, and very importantly, to tell the Tongva story, and through educational narratives we shared the truth of what happened at Ballona by listening to Indigenous elders and facing the humbling truths of our legacies.

The Ballona Discovery Park now stands as both a gateway to the past and a bridge to the future, located at the trailhead of the Ballona Wetlands. Through the years LMU has celebrated Ballona through the installation of an osprey pole going up on the bluff in 2019 with Robert and Megan Dorame’s blessing (Robert is tribal chairman of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians; Megan is a poet). We attended the Tongva Monument ceremony in Ballona Discovery Park earlier this year, a beautiful art piece created by Dorame and installed by the Developer as part of their responsibility to him to honor those buried on the Mound and the Tongva people. The university sent students into the newly created Ballona freshwater marsh in 2003 to research birds and wildlife, and continued sending students into the saltmarsh to conduct water sampling, study plants and the wildlife that thrived there, learning about the marine influence through the tidal channels that brought saltwater into the marsh. We embrace Ballona as a sacred Tongva site, including the LMU campus.

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The Swimmer Medicinal Garden connects visitors to the Ballona Discovery Park to the history of the Tongva people, the original inhabitants of Playa Vista.

Over the past decade much has happened to improve what’s left of the Ballona Wetlands, through partnerships and alliances forged out of a desire to Bring Back Ballona. The Ballona Wetlands is a treasure that is still unfolding its gifts to Loyolans, as the late Dr. Howard Towner, a beloved ecologist and professor in the Biology Department, discovered back in the late 1970’s. He was passionate about leading his biology students through the degraded wetlands and teaching about what was the natural history of this ecosystem, and what could be if restoration was undertaken. He joined the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands as an original board member and served on their board as the Friends sued to stop impending development of the last remaining wetland in L.A. County.

Fast-forward 32 years later and we have honored the legacy of Professor Towner’s work and in collaboration with Professors John Dorsey, Pippa Drennan, Jim Landry and others, and we continue to teach and conduct research about Ballona. With the state’s plans to restore most of the land designated as an ecological reserve in the coming years, the challenges will continue, the struggle to do the best we can to bring back the most wildlife and functionality of the Ballona Wetlands, while giving access to our Indigenous ancestors and the most vulnerable – our underserved neighborhoods who need and deserve their Wetlands.

Eric Strauss is the President’s Professor of Biology and executive director of the LMU Center for Urban Resilience. Lisa Fimiani is a program director with CURes and received the inaugural Dan and Susan Gottlieb Environmental Leaders Fellowship. 

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