Among the Pasadena suburban demi-dramas recorded on Nextdoor.com, a New Years Eve post entitled Last Resident LA County Firefighter Vacates Henninger Flats speculated that something may be going on at the primitive Los Angeles County campground.
Make that definitely going on.
Local News Pasadena has confirmed that the County is planning to transfer ownership of Henninger Flats to the 700-member Tongva tribe, thereby creating a new tribal reservation in the San Gabriel Mountains and within a five-mile uphill hike of Altadena and Pasadena.
According to Helen Chavez, Assistant Chief Deputy and Communications Director for Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Tongva representatives have expressed strong interest in the property. In turn, County agencies including the Los County Fire Department, the real estate division of the Department of Public Works, along with a representative of the County’s Chief Executive Officer have met to “get their arms around some of the details,” said Chavez.
Those details include the County’s desire to maintain public access to the 230-acre Henninger Flats area, which remains a popular hiking destination. In addition to County-maintained fire roads to the site, there are property assets currently in place at the campground including a locked restroom facility and other structures, picnic tables and signage.
“When it comes to transferring ownership of Henninger Flats, we are at a very early phase of discovery and planning,” said Supervisor Barger. “At the onset of the pandemic, the area’s upkeep was discontinued due to staffing shortages experienced by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.”
“My top priority is keeping Henninger Flats accessible to hikers and the public at large,” Barger continued. “It’s a special space that requires significant resources to cultivate and maintain it.”
“The County needs to figure out what the maintenance costs entail,” said Chavez. “And then we can articulate that to the Tongva representatives. Negotiation will be an important next phase.”
The timing of those negotiations with the Tongva is likely to be within the first months of 2024, after tribal members conclude their traditional winter seclusion.
But why is Henninger Flats of special interest to the Tongva?
One reason involves securing federal recognition for the tribe, which could lead to the development of Los Angeles County’s first Indian casino.
A bill, H.R. 6859, was introduced in mid December by Los Angeles-area congressperson Sydney Kamlager-Dove “to extend the Federal recognition to the Gabrielino/Tongva Nation, and for other purposes” under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Those last four words are a clear indication of what’s to come, whether at the Henninger Flats site or elsewhere, possibly in Kamlager-Dove’s 37th Congressional District, as part of a land swap or straight purchase arrangement once the tribe is federally recognized as a sovereign entity under the Act.
Kamlager-Dove’s bill has amassed the backing of multiple organized labor unions including the Teamsters and Unite Here Local 11, representing approximately 32,000 hospitality workers.
The bill will require bipartisan support in Congress to pass, and any proposal for development of a casino would require the input of local communities, many of which were blissfully unaware that the reservation land acquisition was being planned.
For example, Dorothy “Dot” Wong, a member of the Altadena Town Council, responded simply “not aware” when asked if she knew about the plan to create a Tongva reservation near her home.
Barger addressed the issue by stating, “I’m supportive of exploring a partnership that will meet the needs of stakeholders and the community at large. I believe we can do this right, but it will take careful canvassing and planning.”
Beyond the property development issues, the Henninger Flats area probably holds special significance for the tribe. It may have been the location of a small Tongva village known as Topisibit, a trading partner with the northeast Pasadena-area Tongva village of Puntitavjatngna. Both settlements were leveled by Spanish ranchers in the late 1700s, with the surviving indigenous population forcibly relocated to the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in what is now Alhambra.
In other words, Henninger Flats may be one of the Tongva’s ancestral homes.
On a clear winter’s day, you can view that ancestral home from practically anywhere in Pasadena. Just look north, toward the mountains above Eaton Canyon.
At night, Henninger Flats is completely dark. That may change.