From north to south, the domain ranged from the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Mountains and part of the San Bernardino Mountains down to the ocean and through most of Orange County, terminating near Aliso Creek, Irvine and the Santa Ana Mountains. Four of the Channel Islands off the coast are also part of the region, including Santa Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolás and Santa Barbara. Three large valleys (San Fernando, San Gabriel, San Bernardino) and two spacious plains (Los Angeles and Santa Ana) are also within the tribal lands.
For thousands of years, these native peoples built a society that was adapted to their environment, of which the most precious resource, as is the case anywhere, was, of course, water. While there were at least two other major watercourses that drained into the areas occupied by the Kizh-Gabrieleño, these being the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, it is notable that the greatest concentration of village sites and, obviously, of numbers of people was tied directly to the San Gabriel River watershed, including the many creeks and streams that fed into it.
The central point of that system was what we now refer to as the Whittier Narrows, where the San Gabriel River over many, many generations scoured away a narrow space between the Puente and Montebello hills. This pass was also memorialized in the name of a ranch within the Narrows area, Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which includes much of today's Whittier, the unincorporated area historically called Los Nietos and other adjacent locations.
The San Gabriel gathers its waterflow from three main branches in the San Gabriel (formerly known as the Sierra Madre) Mountains in Azusa Canyon, the north, west and east forks and empties down into its namesake valley. Historically, the water actually was directed underground through sand, gravel and boulders for several miles and then emerged above ground in the vicinity of El Monte.
One of its main channels for a long period of time after the written record came into being after 1769 is what is now known as the Rio Hondo and that "Old San Gabriel River" actually veered west around the Montebello Hills and headed off towards the Pacific.
In 1867-68, during a particularly strong rainy season (something like the one we are now anticipating), the river shifted eastward, with an unintended assist from ex-Governor Pío Pico, owner of the Paso de Bartolo rancho, whose irrigation ditch became the start of a new channel when heavy water flow poured into the Narrows. The river's route then took over the Los Coyotes Creek waterway moving southwest into the Pacific where the modern San Gabriel empties into the ocean where Seal Beach and Long Beach meet. Our "engineered" San Gabriel seems to ensure that the current channel will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
The "Old San Gabriel River" became the Rio Hondo and because it channel still continued to flow southwest and then into a frequently rerouted Los Angeles River, any tributaries in the western San Gabriel Valley that flow into the Rio Hondo, such as Alhambra Wash, Rubio Wash, Eaton Creek/Wash and Santa Anita Creek/Wash.
While these westward tributaries were part of the old San Gabriel system, the modern version has a significant number of tributary streams (creeks and washes) that have deposited water into its channel coming from the east and northeast. These include Big Dalton Wash, Walnut Creek and San José Creek.
Naturally, where there's water, there is abundant plant and animal life. When the first Spanish expedition came through this region in summer 1769, diary entries noted the profusion of wild grapevines, Rose of Castile bushes, oaks, sycamores, willows and many other plant materials. Bear, antelopes, deer, and many other animals were noted. Obviously, with this extraordinary supply of water, food and other resources, the native peoples congregated where they could take greatest advantage of what was available to them.
Several large villages dotted the landscape of the Narrows, including Shevaanga, which appears to have been located along the west side of the Rio Hondo in an area now north of the 60 Freeway in a corner of Rosemead near Whittier Narrows Golf Course. Others identified in sources are Houtgna, Isantcagna, and Wiichinga. To the east at La Puente was 'Awiinga, and it was said that an Indian baptized as Mateo in 1774 was acknowledged as the chief of that village, but also of a wide ranging area embracing several villages, presumably within the Whittier Narrows region.
When the Spanish decided to establish a mission in the area, there were several possible sites identified in the diaries of the first exploration of 1769-1770, but the chosen location was in the Whittier Narrows, precisely because of the availability of water, plant materials and animal life, as well as the larger concentrations of native peoples the Spanish wanted to convert to Christianity and European ways of life, including as forced labor for the mission.
Although the first Mission San Gabriel site was established along the west bank of the old river just north of the pass, flooding forced its removal to a higher, drier location by 1775 at the current location. The former site became known as "La Misión Vieja" or Old Mission, a name that remained until well into the 20th century.
About ten archaeological sites have been studied over the decades in the Whittier Narrows area and the work there, as well as what has been in the historical (ethnographic) record gives powerful testimony to the central importance of this region to the Kizh-Gabrieleño people of centuries and millenia past and to their descendants now.
It should be noted that the Spanish referred to the native peoples under their regime as Kichireños when the original mission site at the Narrows was in operation. Later, at the current site, the term Gabrieleños was employed. Accounts published in 1846 and 1856, however, make use of the term Kizh in reference to the natives, the descendants of which hold that the Whittier Narrows/Misión Vieja/Old Mission area is a central, sacred place of immense cultural and religious significance to the tribe.