Students Reflect on Indigenous History and Poly’s Native Land

A map of Los Angeles showing the original Indigenous settlements.

During November, National American Indian Heritage month, Annika N. and Maaso O., both ‘22, gave a powerful presentation to Poly’s sixth-graders about Indigenous history. Throughout their education at Poly, their understanding of Indigenous history has evolved from the minimized experience of Native Americans in the California mission system to understanding the plight of Indigenous people throughout America’s history. Notably, Annika and Maaso learned that Poly was built on an Indigenous settlement of the Tongva people. As people across the nation celebrate Thanksgiving and the tainted narratives of the holiday, Annika and Maaso reflect on their understanding of the event and how everyone’s actions can honor Indigenous history today and in the future. Read on for both of their experiences.

Annika N. ‘22

In preparing to present to the sixth graders, I was reminded of a presentation I gave in the fourth grade at Poly, during a section on California history. We each had to choose a Native American tribe, and mine was on the Tongva people. In the typical fourth grade way, it touched on the houses they lived in, what they ate, and how they traveled. I’m a bit of a history nerd and looking back at my 12 years at Poly, California history is one of the classes that stands out to me the most. From the native vegetation to studying missions, I was enthralled by the class. I continue to love learning everything I can about our state.

The presentation that Maaso and I gave to the sixth-graders, looked and sounded a little different than that one almost seven years ago. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that there are parts of the history of our home state that tend to be avoided in elementary school classrooms. At Poly, I’ve learned how to fill in these gaps. The teachers here have provided me with so many opportunities to learn outside of the confines of a history textbook.

One aspect that has evolved since I gave the presentation in fourth grade is nomenclature. In lower school, the history books we read used the term “Gabrielino” in referring to the tribe. Since that time, I’ve learned that the term “Tongva” is preferred over “Gabrielino,” which was coined by the Spanish missionaries and carries a negative connotation.

Introducing the real history of Thanksgiving—the genocide and violence that Native Peoples suffered—was really impactful. Seeing the sixth-graders’ Zoom boxes as it dawned on many of them that the dominant narrative of a peaceful friendship, which they learned through textbooks and pop culture, did not accurately depict history was a moment I’ll never forget.

I found it important to share what I’ve learned with the Poly community. I’m so grateful that the Poly teachers have been open to our dialogue, allowing us to come into their virtual classrooms and share our knowledge. In the time of COVID-19, it’s been gratifying to connect with the sixth graders and share what we’ve learned. It’s been incredible to see how Poly and its curriculum continues to evolve.

Maaso O. ‘22

I have never liked visiting the missions that litter the California coast. I am not sure if it’s the contrast created by the modern surroundings, not sure if it’s the peaceful gardens, not sure if it’s the claustrophobic churches, not sure if it’s the reminders.

I can see through the facade of these places. What hurts and makes me more uncomfortable is when an older white man goes to the front and begins to retell the wonderful life the Indigenous people experienced. He says that the reason they found detailed pictures of the moon, the stars, and the animals of the forest, hidden in the beams of the ceiling, is because the Natives loved the church so much that they added their own little touch. The Natives added their own little touch to a building they slaved over, added their own little touch that was punishable by death, added their own little touch hidden in the rafters.

Sadly, this is not unique to the mission system of California. The rhetoric that conceals Indigenous peoples occurs all across this continent. I was reminded of this erasure when I learned this year, my fifth year at Poly, during my 11th-grade AP U.S. History class that Poly sat on top of an Indigenous settlement. Though I am not surprised because all of the lands we stand on in America is Indigenous land.

I will be honest, it felt the way I feel when I walk into a mission. I couldn’t help but think that just below the concrete that I have walked on for five years was the foundation of a Tongva village, whose people were stripped from this land and sent as slaves to the San Gabriel Mission, a village whose peoples have never once been discussed by the school and a people swept under the concrete rug.

To some, a land acknowledgment project seems like too much, an acknowledgment of something that happened too long ago. But for others, it alleviates a little bit of the discomfort. After learning about the Tongva story underlying the Poly campus, I wanted to not only alleviate my discomfort but to break a cycle of ignorant bliss that is perpetuated in American society.

When given the opportunity to speak to the sixth-graders during National American Indian Heritage month and with Thanksgiving break around the corner, I jumped at the opportunity. I did not want the sixth-grade class to learn about Poly’s land past in five years as I did. I did not want an Indigenous student in the audience to feel swept under the concrete rug as I have.

The purpose of our presentation was to encourage critical thinking, to allow all students to see beyond the facade that hurts their fellow peers, and see Thanksgiving in a more complete light than just the pilgrim story of peace. Though the celebration revolves around family, love, and life, we wanted students to see the underlining celebration of genocide. I wanted others to understand why I call it “Turkey day” or, if you want to be a little more historically accurate, “Thankstaking day.” I wanted others to know that yes, I sit down and celebrate with my family, but to know that I celebrate the resiliency of my people who experienced the climatic horrors of dehumanization.

I celebrate the life of my family as my ancestor’s wildest dreams come true, I celebrate being able to carry my name, Maaso, with pride, and I celebrate the continued resiliency of the next generations who may be my wildest dreams come true.

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