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Los Angeles' first people, the Tongva community, have land in the county once again after 189 years

'Land is everything to tribal culture. So being landless is an impediment to full cultural realization.'

Los Angeles' first people, the Tongva community, have land in the county once again after 189 years
Cover Image Source: Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy

For thousands of years, the Tongva community relied on the chaparral landscape of the San Gabriel Mountains for sustenance during the spring and summer months. Its canyons facilitated trade by connecting the flourishing communities of the Los Angeles Basin with Native communities from the Mojave desert. However, with the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the region in the early 1770s began centuries of displacement, enslavement, incarceration and genocide that ultimately resulted in the Tongva losing their ancestral home of Southern California. "Settler-colonialism and capitalism and land exploitation has been something we've been dealing with for hundreds of years," Joely Proudfit, the chair and professor of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, told LAist.



After nearly two centuries, this injustice was finally rectified earlier this year when Sharon Alexander Dreyfus, who inherited a Spanish ranch-style house and its one-acre property in Altadena in 2015, decided to give it back to the Tongva tribe. According to Los Angeles Times, upon learning of the community's desire to obtain ancestral lands, she agreed to return the parcel to the Tongva people, making it the first time in almost 200 years that they would have land to call their own in the region. Community leaders now hope the land can pave the way for the community to reconnect with its culture and promote healing from centuries of trauma.


"We're working towards one common goal, and that is to have a place of safety, security, where we can have ceremonies and where we can exercise our self-determination. That's where the healing has begun," explained Kimberly Morales Johnson, vice president of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy, the nonprofit set up by the community to receive the land. The property represents the dawn of a new future for the Tongva community which has struggled with carrying out ceremonial practices—such as solstice, equinox rituals and mourning ceremonies for the community’s dead—without land ownership.


Now, Johnson’s daughter Samantha is working to re-indigenize the plant life on the Altadena property which is already occupied by 18 oak trees. "This is a place where we can grow our plants and say, 'This is how we take care of it, and how it takes care of us,'" she said. "It will really help with our cultural revival because our plants are a part of us." According to Angela Mooney D'Arcy, who heads Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples—a grass-roots group led by Native people in California—some of the region's most expensive ZIP Codes are ancestral Indigenous lands. "Land is everything to tribal culture," she said. "So being landless is an impediment to full cultural realization."


Alexander's gesture was no small matter. Although the land was assessed at $1.4 million, she only asked that the Tongva nonprofit pay for several months of lost rent before the transfer. Including legal fees and escrow fees, the Tongva community spent $20,000 for the parcel. "I didn't want somebody to move in and... destroy the property," said Alexander. "It's quite special. And what my grandparents used it for was quite special. And I just thought it should go to somebody that's going to honor that vision."

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