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Batting first for the Yang-nas ...

The Yang-na Indians were living in the basin when the first settlers came. It would be a fitting tribute to them to rename the L.A. Dodgers after the tribe.

March 29, 2011|By Leon Furgatch

The new baseball season is almost upon us. And, as a fan and a history buff, what continues to disturb me is that Los Angeles' team is nonsensically called the Dodgers.

That name is a vestige of nostalgia for a time when Brooklyn fans of the team had to dodge heavy trolley car traffic to enter Ebbetts Field. It has no relationship to Los Angeles or meaning for local fans. And given that a messy divorce custody battle could lead to the team changing hands in the near future, this former Brooklynite asks, why not change the name now?

But what to rename our blue crew that makes baseball sense and conveys civic pride?

Drum roll, please, for the Los Angeles Yang-nas. No, not the Los Angeles Yankees. The Yang-nas.

Hold on now. Stop laughing. I know it's not a name that rolls off the tongue easily, but let me explain.

When owner Walter O'Malley brought his Brooklyn team to Chavez Ravine in 1958, he did not know the historical significance of the site. (Neither do most Angelenos, unless they attended Los Angeles public schools in the 1950s or earlier, when Yang-na history was still being taught.)

Historians tell us that Los Angeles was first founded on Sept. 4, 1781, by 44 settlers from Mexico on a spot not far from where the Olvera Street tourist attraction is located today. But that is not entirely true.

The pobladores from Mexico were the first foreigners to settle here, by the authority of the king of Spain, and the new community was blessed with the Los Angeles name. But Chavez Ravine — the area now occupied by Elysian Park, Dodger Stadium and the Los Angeles Police Academy — was first peopled by the Yang-na Indians.

The Yang-na village was just across the Los Angeles River from the Mexicans' settlement, and the Yang-nas watched with great curiosity as the newcomers first made camp and carried water from the river for cooking and washing.

Although the Yang-na tribe is now extinct, there is proof that it existed in the diary kept for the Gaspar de Portola Expedition of 1769 by Father Juan Crespi.

Crespi was one of two priests who became famous for assisting Spain in establishing a series of Roman Catholic missions, presidios and pueblos throughout the length of what was then called Alta (upper) California. The other priest was Father Junipero Serra.

On Aug. 2, 1769, members of the expedition became the first white men to view the site of the future Los Angeles, and Crespi described the occasion:

"After traveling about a league and a half through the pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill [Elysian Park], it went on afterward to the south.

"This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement....

"As soon as we arrived, about eight heathen from a good village [Yang-na] came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river.... They presented us with some baskets of pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men were smoking pipes well made of baked clay, and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and some glass beads and they went away pleased."

Today, not much more is known about the peaceful Yang-nas, except that they spoke in a Shoshone Indian dialect, lived in huts made from the surrounding brush, and their diet included pinon nuts. It's not such a big leap from pinon nuts and the Yang-nas to peanuts and baseball.

Had O'Malley known of this connection, he surely would have jumped at the chance to rename his team and the stadium in honor of the first Los Angeles residents. Visualize his portly body shaking with laughter at the thought of pitting his Los Angeles Yang-nas against their former bitter New York borough rivals, the Yankees, in a World Series in Yang-na Stadium.

It's not too late to correct this missed opportunity. At the same time, the team would provide a valuable civic service by immortalizing the forgotten Yang-nas, who deserve a better fate.

Leon Furgatch, a freelance writer, has lived in Los Angeles since 1937.

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