Returning the People’s Land to the Tongva Community

The act of returning ancestral lands to their original peoples is a small step in an important direction toward reconciliation and healing.

The acre of property sits at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena.

With the support of First Nations’ California Tribal Fund, one of the most recent tribes to join others ─ like the Lisjan Ohlone, Kashaya Pomo, and Wiyot Tribe ─ in once again receiving a piece of home in their territory is the Gabrieleno /Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians through its Tongva-led nonprofit, the Taraxat Paaxaavxa Conservancy.

“We plan on having ceremony here after we go public and we clean up more,” said Kimberly Johnson, vice president of the conservancy. “We will be on our own private land, so we won’t have to worry about coding, parking, and fire permits.”

The public announcement of this land reclamation was officially made with a story in the Los Angeles Times titled, “After nearly 200 years, the Tongva community has land in Los Angeles County,” published on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2022.

The news story chronicled the history of the Tongva people and how they have been displaced, starting with Spanish colonization ─ most notably during the era of California missionization ─ and how the Tongva people once again have a place of their own. The story also gives recognition to late elders Julia Bogany and Barbara Drake for all that they have done for the retention of Tongva heritage.

“Barbara and Julia had both been up here and we are just continuing the work in their memory. We wanted to honor them and what they wanted,” Johnson said. “They asked us to be involved. That’s why we took it on.”

Now in the hands of its rightful owner

Taraxat Paaxaavxa roughly translates to “the people’s land,” and the conservancy was formed to steward traditional Tongva lands in what is contemporarily called the Greater Los Angeles area.

The acre of property sits at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena, California. The grounds are highly lush with oak trees and shrubs and tucked into an affluent neighborhood at the base of Angeles National Forest. The air on the grounds is filled with the scent of eucalyptus and other plant medicines.

Now that the conservancy has purchased the property, work has begun to restore it and update features, such as plumbing.

With support from the California Tribal Fund, the property will someday include a garden of plants indigenous to the region.

The property ─ which includes a five-bedroom house, a cottage, and grounds for gatherings ─ was given via land transfer to the Tongva Taraxat Paaxaavxa Conservancy by its owner Sharon Alexander, who was interested in Indigenous land-back efforts.

Alexander went to a conference and started learning about the land-back movement, which led her to the original people of the area. Additional organizations who helped with the land acquisition include the Native American Land Conservancy and Resource Generation Los Angeles.

How First Nations helped restore the land

Once Taraxat Paaxaavxa Conservancy was able to purchase the property, a lot more work was still required. An arborist came in to remove some trees because they were widow-makers. The house and cottage needed to be completely cleaned out. In addition, the house still had its original plumbing from 1932 and demanded a lot of work. But now there is running water and functioning toilets.

With support from the California Tribal Fund, the conservancy received $60,000 in grants over the course of the spring and summer 2021. So far, the support from the California Tribal Fund has helped with repairs on the housing’s aging structure, including old plumbing and electric work. The California Tribal Fund is also funding a part-time coordinator and has helped the conservancy obtaining legal counsel.

Kimberly Morales Johnson, left, gives a hug to her daughter, Samantha Johnson, on the property in Altadena. Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

“We’d like to provide emergency housing for folks. We would like to have a place where we can grow and process our own Native foods and make them available to elders so they know where to get them,” Johnson said.

Despite all the work still needed, it does not take much stretch of the imagination to envision tribal gatherings, ceremonies, and other events there. It will be a wonderful place for children to run around and make memories in.

“We all see the vision,” Johnson said. “As a non-federally recognized tribe, this is our first chance to make history and to exercise self-determination and sovereignty, despite not having federal recognition.”