After nearly 200 years, the Tongva community has land in Los Angeles County

When Kimberly Morales Johnson looks up at the San Gabriel Mountains, she sees the history of her community, the Tongva, the first people of Los Angeles, written on the granite.

For thousands of years, the Tongva people turned to these chaparral foothills and mountains for food during the spring and summer months. Its canyons served as trade routes, connecting the thriving communities of the Los Angeles Basin with the Native American communities of the Mojave Desert.

Morales this month shared the story from the edge of a lot with a Spanish ranch-style home in Altadena being built along Eaton Canyon. When the house was completed in 1931, after centuries of displacement, enslavement, imprisonment, and genocide by successive waves of settlers—first Spanish, Mexican, and then white Americans—the Tongva were largely invisible in their ancestral homeland of southern California.

But Sharon Alexander Dreyfus, the owner of the Altadena house and its 1-hectare property, learned of the community’s desire to acquire the ancestral land. And in a land transfer released Monday, Dreyfus agreed to return the parcel to the Tongva, marking the first time they had land they would call their own in nearly 200 years since the end of California’s mission system in 1883.

Tongva leaders said they hope the land can provide avenues for the community to reconnect with their culture and encourage healing from centuries of trauma.

“We are working toward a common goal, and that is a place of safety, security, where we can hold ceremonies and exercise our self-determination,” said Johnson, vice president of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy. the non-profit organization set up by the community to preserve the land. “This is where the healing began.”

Nestled in the sprawling suburbs of Altadena, the donated property is easy to miss. While the neighbors preferred gaudy gates and manicured lawns, the Tongva site is set in a canopy of oak and shrubs.

“It’s a beautiful place,” said Wallace Cleaves, a member of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians and president of the Conservancy. “Another parishioner described it as ‘a green cathedral, a church of oak leaves.'”

Native to California, the oak trees bear acorns that are sacred to the Tongva community and a staple of traditional dishes.

Without land ownership, it was difficult for the Tongva community to perform ceremonial practices – such as solstices and equinoxes rituals and mourning ceremonies for the community’s dead. Cleaves recalled his father’s funeral ceremony, which gathered more than 100 parishioners at their home in Claremont.

Even with permission from local governments or academic institutions to enter their holy sites, the community faced restrictions on the size of gatherings and access to the wild land that has the plants necessary for the ceremony.

A woman standing under a canopy of leaves

Kimberly Morales Johnson, vice president of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy, walks on the donated land in Altadena on Friday.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Tongva and many indigenous communities see plants, animals and humans as interconnected, equal life forms, said Johnson’s daughter Samantha, who is working to revitalize plant life on the Altadena property.

About 18 oak trees already encircle the property, Samantha said when visiting the site in October, the start of the usual acorn harvesting season. As she spoke, several acorns crashed into a Prius and Toyota pickup truck parked in the driveway. Acorns dotted the gravel surface of the lot.

Samantha plans a harvest day for parishioners to collect acorns from the trees.

“This is a place where we can grow our plants and say, ‘This is how we take care of it and this is how we nurture it,'” she said. “It will really contribute to our cultural revival because our plants are a part of us.”

Reclaiming ancestral lands is rare for any Native American nation, tribe, or gang. People, including the Tongva, associated with the ancient Spanish missions in California do not have federal tribal status, which poses an additional challenge, said Angela Mooney D’Arcy, director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, a grassroots group run by indigenous people is headed in California.

Mooney D’Arcy traces the story of the US government’s broken promises to cede reservation lands, evictions in favor of white settlers, and California’s policy of killing Native Americans for money when the state was formed. LA County laws targeted and jailed large segments of Native American communities. They sold members for convict labor tending citrus orchards, cleaning up LA streets, and building the city’s burgeoning neighborhoods.

Many ancestral Indigenous lands have since been developed into some of the region’s most expensive ZIP codes, including coastal communities like Newport Beach, further complicating return efforts, Mooney D’Arcy said.

“Land is everything to tribal culture,” she said. “Landlessness, then, is an obstacle to full cultural realization.”

The return of Tongva land comes at a moment when California is becoming aware of its history of atrocities against Native Americans.

In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom issued An apology for the State’s Role in Violence and Displacement of Native Americans in California. The next year, Newsom signed an executive order This encouraged government agencies to explore opportunities for Indigenous groups in California to jointly manage land or acquire “land in abundance.” In Monterey County, a 1,199-acre piece of wilderness along the Little Sur River has been restored the Esselen tribe in a $4.5 million deal with an environmental group.

Los Angeles County is also looking for improve access for indigenous peoples to perform rituals in wild land areas, such as gathering native plants for ceremonies.

The family of Dreyfus, the former property owner, built the house. She became interested in land transfer after a chance meeting in 2017 with Tongva leader Jerry Lassos, who told her about the importance of the land to his community.

The donation was no small thing; The 1-acre property was valued at $1.4 million, according to county public records, and neighboring properties are valued at more than $3 million.

Dreyfus, who owns real estate across the US, had rented the Altadena home to a tenant and only asked that nonprofit Tongva pay for several months of lost rent before the transfer. Including attorney and trustee fees, the Tongva community paid US$20,000 for the package.

After initial efforts by the Ti’at Society, a group dedicated to preserving the maritime traditions of the Tongva community elders Julia Bogany and Barbara Drake sought help from Cleaves, who had helped set up the overseen non-profit organization the Kuruvungna springs, a Tongva sacred site in West LA

Seated people at an event

Tongva cultural revitalization efforts have included Julia Bogany (left), Lolly Lassos and Barbara Drake.

(Kimberly Morales Johnson)

Cleaves recalls walking the property for the first time with Drake, who has since died. They marveled at the towering oak trees and the view of the vast Eaton Canyon.

“Barbara said this is a place where we need to come together to be ourselves and where we can share,” Cleaves said. “It felt right — you could feel it, you could see it.”

During one of the many cleanup days at the property, Cleaves recalled a bobcat wandering onto the property, staring at the group, and running away.

“We have our animal relatives here with us, and we feel like they’re welcoming us back to the country, too,” he said.

After gaining nonprofit status in January, the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy relies on donations and support from Resource Generation Los Angeles and the United States Native American Land Conservation, who led successful land reclamation efforts in San Bernardino County.

The nonprofit organization is looking for other land reclamation opportunities on both vacant and developed land, including affordable housing. Many members of the Tongva community who remained in Los Angeles have been displaced from their neighborhoods, said Cleaves, who described today’s displacement from their ancestral lands as “a slow form of genocide.”

Johnson said some of her cousins ​​moved out of the state because of high rents in Los Angeles. The conservancy uses the Altadena property to house a local Tongva artist in need of housing.

“If we could provide tribal members with some form of housing so that they can reconnect with the land, that in and of itself promotes healing and well-being,” Johnson said.

For Conservancy Board member Tony Lassos, working on the restoration of the Altadena estate has helped him reconnect with his Tongva heritage. His great-grandmother, who died in the 1970s, was thought to be the last known speaker of the Tongva language.

But he grew up in a home that his Tongva heritage did not possess. His grandfather, like many others in the “lost generation,” was harassed because he attended Native American boarding schools and assimilated into white American culture.

“It’s really about rediscovering roots and creating a safe place for future generations of Tongva people to know where they’re from and have opportunities that I didn’t have when I was a kid,” he said.

Kimberly and Samantha Johnson sat lassoing around a stone ring of fire on the property and described how they were able to connect to their heritage through community elders like Drake.

When Johnson was a young mother, she wanted her children to grow up with more knowledge of Tongva culture. Drake welcomed Johnson into her home with her young son on her hip. Drake took them on hikes along the Santa Ana River and around Yucaipa and Idyllwild and taught them knowledge of tongva plants.

“This wouldn’t be here without,” Drake said Samantha, pointing to the property. “She’s still here.”

Lassos said Drake always talked about the ancestors in the trees.

“Whenever a wind blows through and the wind rushes, that’s her,” he said. points to the oaks.

A pair of red-tailed hawks flew overhead and a screech echoed through the canyon.

“It’s a good omen,” Johnson said as the group paused to watch the circling birds.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-10/after-nearly-200-years-the-tongva-community-has-land-in-los-angeles-county After nearly 200 years, the Tongva community has land in Los Angeles County

Alley Einstein

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