Dr. Sharon Alexander donated her private home on a 45,000-square-foot lot in the city of Altadena back to the Tongva people, which were native to the land, as of March 2022 when the deed was transferred over.

3,500 years ago, the people of the Tongva tribe called this region their home, according to their conservancy’s website. The history of the San Gabriel Valley, including the land Pasadena City College resides on, does not begin with its current inhabitants. Alexander’s grandparents, who met as part of a Jewish literary hiking club, moved onto the property almost 100 years ago. The couple built a dance pavilion on the grounds, hosted parties and even built a firepit where a ceremonial circle is believed to be left by the indigenous people who originally lived there.

“Since 1930 my grandmother spent her entire life working all day outdoors on that property and keeping it in a sort of native shape,” Alexander said.

In the spirit of conservation and to avoid the construction of “a bunch of  McMansions,” Alexander opted out of making a profit from the property by selling it to a land development corporation or conglomerate, and she decided to donate the land to the right conservancy. 

Alexander said that it took six years to make the land donation due to a couple conditions the conservancy had to meet. She wanted to make sure the donee had funding for the property, a non-profit status and a board of directors for the conservancy.

Not knowing the native history of the land, Alexander was enlightened during a conversation with a Native American film director in Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, where she was a California delegate for Bernie Sanders. This exchange set into motion her connection with the people who would eventually lead the way for the land donation to the Tongva people.

“I met Ava Hamilton, I asked, ‘are there still Native Americans in Los Angeles?’ She told me about the Tongva people, and I said, ‘would they be interested in a donation of property?’ And she burst into tears and said, ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for somebody to make the offer,’” Alexander said.

The land is worth an estimated $1,810,200, according to Zillow, and it is now owned by the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy.

Teri Barton/Courier
Dr. Sharon Alexander donated a 1 acre property in Altadena ,California is part of the Land Return to the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy on Thursday, October 29,2015. It houses remnants of the past and land adjacent to the Eaton Canyon Park.

“It is our belief that we have been on our land, Tovaangar, since time immemorial. Our creator brought us into the world through song and dance. We are here, we have always been here,” as stated on the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy’s website.

The Tongva people continue to preserve their culture and reclaim the ancestral lands they once owned through the creation of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy, and by what they call “land return.” The idea of manifest destiny, residential, and corporate land development have overshadowed the history of the land’s original stewards, according to the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy’s website. Acknowledgement per its definition means the acceptance of the truth or existence of something, which is practiced in theory at PCC.

“When I was the board chair a couple of years ago I initiated the practice of having the dedication on the ancestral lands that PCC is located,” Jim Osterling, Pasadena City College Board of Trustee’s Area 2, announced on Wednesday, Oct. 19 during a meeting.

Although PCC acknowledges that the land it resides originally belonged to the Tongva people, and was taken by force through genocide, it has not returned any of the land the college owns to the Tongva people. Alexander also stated that she hopes land owners that have no intentions of keeping their property, and want to preserve its natural ecosystem should return it to the indigenous people with ancestral knowledge of the local ecosystem. 

“The whole Pasadena/Altadena area was basically settled at the same time,” Alexander said. “Which means that the original owners have passed away by now, and now their children have passed away or are passing away. And if they don’t have heirs, I would really like them to think about donating to the tribe instead of, you know, just auctioning it off or giving it away to some other charity.”  

Dr. Wallace Cleaves became the registered agent of the property in Mar. 2022. Cleaves is a member of the Tongva tribe and has served in various positions on the tribal council. He is also the President of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy, Associate Professor of Teaching, Director of the CA Center for Native Nations, and Associate Writing Program Director at UCR. 

“We need a place where we can perform our ceremonies, gather our foods, medicines and sacred plants without having to fear the arbitrary restrictions of a land management system that has mismanaged the land so badly that it now burns without end. A place where we can gather and renew ourselves, our culture and our community, a place of our own,” Cleaves wrote in a Bloomberg article called Native Land Acknowledgements Are Not The Same as Land. 

Alexander explained that, since the donation to the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy, she has experienced a loss of connection with the land and the people she originally entrusted in its care.

Elders in the tribe, Barbara Drake, and Julia Bogany, Barbara actually came out to the site and talked about the native plants that were there and the things that they could do with that site, ” Alexander said. “I had a lot of faith with these elders. They would know what to do with that site, unfortunately, both of those elders died last year. A huge loss for me.”

With the lost connections she had with the tribal elders whom she had full faith and admiration for, the legacy of her family’s history on the land is for Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy board to decide.

“The people that I’ve had a really heartfelt relationship with, that I trusted in my heart to maintain my grandmother’s legacy, are actually no longer involved, and almost immediately after I transferred the property,” Alexander said. “So I’m trying to work that out with the board.”

For the most part Alexander seemed content that the land itself is in good hands, and will be put to a good cause. The Tongva people have a place in Eaton Canyon to act as a center of education, to conduct tribal ceremonies, store artifacts, and truly exist in the land of their ancestors.

They have a lot of volunteers coming out to help. They’re doing a lot of work out there. It’s gonna be a really nice situation. I’m choosing to believe that it’s not the end of a story and that we’ll work it out eventually,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s family and the Tongva people both have history in Eaton Canyon, but the property now belongs to the tribe and its members, acknowledging that the land was taken by force from the Tongva people, but returned to the full discretion of the conservancy’s board of directors.

Michael Leyva

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