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Spare Time for Eight Centuries

Author: It took accountant Bill McCawley of Midway City 17 years to research and write 'The First Angelinos,' about the Gabrielino Indians, whose culture once thrived locally.

October 04, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill McCawley of Midway City has been fascinated by Southern California history since he was a kid growing up in Long Beach in the 1960s, a time when there were still wide open fields waiting to be explored by children hoping to find Indian arrowheads and dinosaur bones.

He got his first real glimpse into the history of the area when he took a class at Cal State Long Beach taught by Frank Fenenga. And it was Fenenga, a respected California archeologist, whom McCawley went to for advice when he decided to write a magazine article about the local Gabrielino Indians.

Fenenga listened quietly to his former student, then uttered words that, for McCawley, hung in the air as heavily as the smoke from Fenenga's ever-present cigarette:

"Why don't you write a book instead?"

That was in 1978.

Now, more than 17 years later, McCawley's book has finally been published.

"The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles" (Malki Museum Press/Ballena Press; $49.95 hardcover, $34.95 paperback) is the first book-length treatment of the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles region in more than 30 years.

The Los Angeles region where Gabrielino culture thrived for more than eight centuries encompassed most of Los Angeles County, more than half of Orange County and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

McCawley says the Gabrielino culture is estimated to have first taken shape between AD 500 and 1000. At its peak, just before the arrival of Spanish colonists in the late 1700s, there were an estimated 5,000 Gabrielino in the region.

It was the labor of the Gabrielino on which the missions, ranchos and the pueblo of Los Angeles were built. They were trained in the trades, and they did the construction and maintenance, as well as the agricultural work and managing herds of livestock.

"The Gabrielino are the ones who did all this work, and they really are the foundation of the early economy of the Los Angeles area," he says. "That's a contribution that Los Angeles has not recognized--the fact that in its early decades, without the Gabrielino, the community simply would not have survived."

When he started working on his book, McCawley says, "I thought I knew a lot about the Gabrielino. As years went by I found myself continually amazed by the complexity and intricacy of their culture."

His thoroughly researched, illustrated book covers the Gabrielino community, place names, political and social structure, economic organization and trade, religious beliefs and ritual practices, music, games and recreation.

Fenenga is no longer living, but Thomas C. Blackburn, professor of anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, calls McCawley's book "a much needed addition to the basic literature on Southern California native peoples, and one that fills a major gap in our understanding of aboriginal life ways in this area prior to European settlement."

John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, writes that "The First Angelinos" is "destined to become the standard reference work about the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles region."

*

Not bad for someone who majored in psychology and who has spent most of the past 18 years working as a corporate accountant.

Indeed, for McCawley, who had only one freelance magazine article to his credit at the time he visited his former professor, Fenenga's advice was rather bold.

"That was Fenenga; he was always encouraging people to write," says McCawley, now 43. "The funny part of it is, when he told me that, I sat down and thought, 'That could take me two or three years--or even longer. I don't know if I can do that.' "

He did, of course, but 17 years?

"People always focus on that," he says with a laugh. "It's sometimes a little embarrassing."

But, as he says, "the book kind of took on a life of its own."

McCawley, who researched and wrote the book in his spare time--he had no grants, no outside funding--quickly discovered that major publishers weren't interested in publishing a regional book. Even university presses that publish anthropology and local histories felt the book was too regional.

He did come close to selling his book early on. The University of California Press reviewed the first version of his manuscript in 1981, then turned it down. He's not sure why.

He rewrote his manuscript and began resubmitting it. In 1983, he came even closer to making a sale--to Stanford University Press. He later learned it had been turned down by one vote from the editorial board.

"It was certainly not as good a book as we finally published," McCawley concedes. "But one vote shy of being published more than 10 years ago . . . ."

*

Instead of being the driver of his book on the road to publication, he says, "I felt more like I was just a passenger: It was going to happen when it was ready to happen."

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