Local News Pasadena’s story reported on January 2nd about Los Angeles County discussing turning over the Henninger Flats campground to the Tongva has taken some interesting left turns.
We now know considerably more about the organization and its leadership that approached the County to acquire the 230-acre mountain parcel.
First, the organization interested in acquiring the land says they don’t plan to build a casino on that property. They claim it’s another group that wants to build a casino, somewhere else. More about casinos in a moment.
And it won’t become a Tongva or Gabrieleño reservation. We got the reservation part wrong. That’s because LA County isn’t planning to turn the property over to “the Tongva” or even a tribe, although Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office has used both terms to describe the organization that contacted the County.
Rather, the party interested in acquiring Henninger Flats is a California 501(c)3 non-profit founded in June 2021 named the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy (TTPC). According to correspondence sent to Local News Pasadena from Wallace T. Cleaves Jr., the non-profit’s president and co-founder, the TTPC is “a Tongva non-profit, not a Tribal government.”
The TTPC is the same organization that in 2022 paid local resident Sharon Alexander $20,000 for a one-acre Altadena property inherited from her family and worth over $2.1 million per TTPC’s 2022 federal tax report. The Altadena acre represents the bulk of the organization’s net assets of $2.5 million, per the non-profit’s Form 990 filing.
TTPC is also the conservancy that recently received a $779,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife “to remove invasive trees and pay Tongva people to remove the understory taking over our oak grove” on the one-acre parcel, per TTPC Land Return Coordinator Samantha Morales-Johnson.
The grant was awarded, “as a valuable agricultural learning process for Tongva Community Members to revitalize culture, language and traditional land stewardship,” according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s press release.
Having a state agency award $779,000 for Tongva workers to clear trees and shrubs will certainly improve the property’s views of Eaton Canyon, especially if it helps realize one of the non-profit’s stated goals to provide free tribal housing. Per a recent donation solicitation regarding the acquisition, Morales-Johnson wrote, “We need to give Tribal members secure housing so we can come together on Tovaangar again.”
Two of the non-profit’s other goals include performing traditional ceremonies and educating “Tongva people and members of the public about Tongva culture.”
Clearly, the potential acquisition of Henninger Flats would represent a real estate valuation step-up for the non-profit.
And the organization has enjoyed quite of bit of national and local media coverage after securing the one-acre Altadena parcel. Some of the media outlets covering that feel-good story included Bloomberg, PBS Newshour, LAist and the Los Angeles Times. In addition to the land back narrative, Samantha Morales-Johnson was prominently featured in an episode of PBS SoCal’s Lost LA discussing how her ancestors cultivated local plants.
But, wouldn’t ya know, there’s trouble in Tovaangar.
“People are using variations of our tribal name, misleading logos and some group photos shot with my late father, Ernie Salas, to try to prove their heritage as Gabrieleños,” said Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, Kizh Nation Chairman Andrew Salas.
“That’s fraudulent. They needed to use that name to connect them with a historical tribe of Los Angeles for validity, but they are not lineal descendants from the villages within the LA Basin. That’s the true definition of the aboriginal people of Los Angeles” said Salas.
Salas states that the 400-member Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, Kizh Nation requires genealogical proof of lineal descendency from the Greater Los Angeles Basin for members to be included on its tribal roll. In addition to the Kizh, the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians also requires that all tribal members provide proof they are descended from local ancestors. Several other indigenous tribes with members in the Los Angeles Basin, including the Gabrieleno-Tongva Band of Mission Indians and the Gabrielino / Tongva Nation do not. The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, according to Chief of Staff Kimia Fatehi, requires the submission of genealogical documents that “trace back to the historic base rolls…in line with (the) FTBMI constitution and laws.”1
“The Gabrieleños are the Los Angeles Basin tribal members recognized by the California legislature since 1994,” said Salas. “Most of those that use the term Tongva today have not proven their lineage. But for decades they’ve been claiming to be family to us.”
“Anthony Morales (former Chief of the Gabrieleno-Tongva) is Kimberly Morales-Johnson’s uncle,” said Salas. Morales-Johnson is the co-founder of TTPC.
“Their family may have indigenous ancestors, but not from here,” said Salas.
For the record, the Gabrieleno / Tongva Nation is yet a third organization, and this is the one attempting to bring Indian casino gaming into Los Angeles County through H.R. 6859. That’s the Kamlager-Dove bill referencing both the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and proposing that up to 300 acres of land be acquired and taken into trust by the Department of the Interior.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s Communications Director, Helen Chavez, confirmed that the Gabrielino / Tongva Nation was not the group that reached out to the County about transferring property in the 5th District. Regarding the 300 acres of land referenced in H.R. 6859, Chavez offered, “I wasn’t aware of that. But they have not approached this office.”
“My understanding, just from some of the dialog with TTPC, is that the nonprofit supports the Gabrielino-Tongva Band of San Gabriel Mission Indians’ efforts for overall federal recognition. That tells me that there is definitely some common ground,” said Chavez.
Anthony Morales and a Gabrieleno-Tongva attorney were quoted 20 years ago by the Los Angeles Times regarding their interest in also developing a Los Angeles-area casino. “We are open to entertain any economic opportunities to help our people,” Morales said.
“The tribe is legally allowed to receive recognition through Congress, which would allow it to have a reservation in the Los Angeles County area and to eventually negotiate … for a casino,” said Gabrieleno-Tongva attorney Jack Schwartz. “My impression is that a casino in Los Angeles County would probably be the most lucrative in the world by virtue of its location.”
Regarding the potential transfer of Henninger Flats, Local News Pasadena received e-mailed messages from both Wallace Cleaves and Kimberly Morales-Johnson.
“As the co-founder and president of the TTPC, I can definitely say that the organization had nothing to do with H.R. 6859 and we were not contacted or consulted about it,” wrote Cleaves. “There simply is no connection.”
Regarding the strong objections made by the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians about the potential transfer of Henninger Flats to the conservancy, Cleaves wrote, “The TTPC is not affiliated with (any) one group in order to avoid these kinds of issues.”
“Our board and staff members have long-standing ties and membership with the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians,” wrote Morales-Johnson. “Supervisor Barger has worked with Chief Anthony Morales for many years as has Hilda Solis.”
Samantha Morales-Johnson concluded a separate response about potentially acquiring the Henninger Flats site with a laugh line, “We’re more likely to build a casino on the moon.”
But when Local News Pasadena offered Kimberly Morales-Johnson the opportunity to respond to a 2015 genealogy report provided by the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians documenting her family’s indigenous ancestral lineage from outside the Los Angeles Basin, the tone dramatically changed.
She responded, in part, by writing, “I am at a conference but feel the need to respond to your asinine question.”
“I assume from your tone…that you are of white European descendancy and feel the need to question my heritage and identity,” wrote Morales-Johnson. “Let me assure you, it is NOT your place, it comes from a position of superiority, place of privilege and white supremacy.”
“You are entering into an age old argument that can never be settled and continues to play into the colonizers narrative and I do not owe you or anyone else a comment or explanation, as the Federal Government, Mission documents and other records let me know exactly who I am,” continued Morales-Johnson. “Which makes me question, who are you as a privileged straight white male to question me?”
“I will be sure to let the public and academics know how Pasadena continues its completely racist history with ‘reporters’ such as yourself,” wrote Morales-Johnson.
Wallace Cleaves took a more multifaceted approach with his response. Rather than addressing the validity of the source documentation, he assailed the reputation of the genealogist and the motivations of the Kizh Nation.
Cleaves wrote, in part, “Escobar has been widely discredited as a genealogist, as even the most cursory research will show. She regularly cornflakes (sic) two individuals with similar names and dates to obscure actual records and has been caught ding (sic) so. Even cursorily looking at this report the number of suppositions and jumps to judgement, and even admissions that dates don’t match should be telling to someone versed in genealogical research. She is being sued by multiple individuals for libel and has been reported to have declared bankruptcy due to these suits.”
“It is unfortunate to have to say this of relations, but even the most basic research will also bring up significant issues with the Kizh and how they have operated. I do thank you for documenting that that organization has sent you this libelous material as it confirms and helps build a case against their practices,” Cleaves writes.
Cleaves goes on, “The individuals you have now insulted, and it is painfully insulting the way you phrased this, have federal and state documentation that has legal force. I urge you and your paper to seek legal counsel before you go any further than you already have, and to actually do your research.”
“Likewise, to forestall other disparagements, I’ll inform you that my family has Federal Degree of Indian Blood certification and appears on the 1920 California Indian rolls, the two critical forms of documentation for California Indians,” claims Cleaves. “Beyond that, my 3 times great grandmother is one of the most documented Tongva individuals.”
“Not all members of our community are as fortunate, which is a condemnation of colonialism, not of them. I’m fortunate enough to have documentation and to be resourced and able to pursue cases of slander,” Cleaves writes.
Helen Chavez addressed the need for a transparent process regarding any transfer of land by saying, “Part of this process and of the planning is going to be a validation of sorts.”
“I’m going to call it that for now because I don’t have a better word, but a process where there is transparency to make sure that in this transference of land, that all those steps are carefully safeguarded and there isn’t wrongful transferring of ownership to an entity,” said Chavez.
She continued, “And as more information comes to light there will be more facts behind that process. The Supervisor wants to keep that part very transparent. I think there’s going to be a big learning experience in terms of taking what is a good intention and really diving into the details. There are a lot of players here. It can be confusing.”
For Indigenous Tribes, Ancestry Matters
“Several of these groups have made extensive efforts to defraud both the state and federal government on many levels,” says Kara Grant, an attorney specializing in Native American law who is advising the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians.
“The problem is nobody locally other than the Gabrieleños (and the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians) require ancestral due diligence to ensure they are who they claim they are,” she said.
Grant is referring to the genealogy research requirement used by federally acknowledged indigenous tribes like the Navajo and California tribes like the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation in San Juan Capistrano to verify tribal ancestry.
“This lack of due diligence goes so far as to impact the due process of my client’s property rights and interests,” said Grant, “as well as their identity, character, culture and history. The damage is extensive and severe.”
Tribal genealogical verification is a formal process performed by professional researchers with access to primary source documentation. And it’s been a must for federal acknowledgement.
For example, the San Juan Capistrano-based tribe implemented genealogical lineage verification after receiving a negative Federal Recognition Proposed Finding (PF) in 2007 due to having non-Indian and non-Acjachemen members on the tribal roll.
“That is not just a requirement of the tribe but a requirement set by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment,” said tribal Chairperson Heidi Lucero. “It is one of the requirements of 25 CFR Part 83 (e) Procedures for Federal Acknowledgment, which is the membership criteria for federal recognition.”
“Our Tribal Constitution and subsequent resolutions and ordinances require that every member be a documented lineal descendant using genealogy and genealogical proof standards,” said Lucero. “In 2008, the tribe passed an ordinance to remove all non-lineal descendants from the tribal roll and gave them one year to try and find a genealogical connection.”
Lucero continued, “After that one year, those pending affiliates were permanently removed from the roll. We were told by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment that CDIB’s (Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood) were not evidence of lineal descent and that we needed genealogical proof that every individual on the roll connected to a historic ancestor from Mission San Juan Capistrano.”
Donna Smith Yocum, Chairperson of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, wrote, “The San Fernando Band of Mission Indians requires certified birth certificates, baptismal records, genealogy and records to show their lineal descent from one or more of our main progenitors. This is also required through our constitution.”
“We do not accept a person who has been adopted by a tribal member if they are not from our lineage or who does not have ancestry to the San Fernando Mission,” she continued. “We have removed people from our enrollment in the past when we found out that their birth certificate had been altered. Altering documents is nothing new, and it takes a good eye to pay attention to every single line on a birth certificate.”
In other words, a DNA test, a book written by a historian and family photos may be starting points but are far from sufficient proof that an individual’s ancestors actually originated from one particular tribe. This is true for all tribes meeting the federal acknowledgement standard set by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
At issue is not only whether individuals have any California indigenous ancestry, it also means that without conclusive documentation of ancestry specifically from the greater Los Angeles Basin indigenous people can’t form or join a federally acknowledged Native American tribe here. And even for California tribes currently following all the BIA rules regarding their membership’s local ancestry, the acknowledgement review process takes years, and frequently decades.
“I’m concerned that LA County is considering transferring public land to the descendants of Spanish settlers who subjugated authentic local Indians.”James Henninger Aguirre
And there’s another ancestry aspect of the potential transfer of Henninger Flats to TTPC that troubles local resident James Henninger Aguirre, an author and the great, great, great-grandson of William Kimber Henninger and Teresa Henninger.
“I’m concerned,” said Aguirre, “that LA County is considering transferring public land to the descendants of Spanish settlers who subjugated authentic local Indians. These are imposters who cannot trace their ancestral lineage to this area.”
“Some of these people claim I’m related to them through Teresa Henninger (Aguirre’s great, great, great-grandmother),” said Aguirre. “When they do, they’re admitting they are not Gabrieleño Indians.”
“If TTPC gets their hands on Henninger Flats, the first thing they’ll do is change the name,” said Aguirre, “because the last thing non-local Indians want to be reminded of is that Teresa was born in Baja California. She and her descendants, including me, are not what people are now calling Tongvas.”
“It’s hard to believe,” says Aguirre. “It sounds like a mystery novel. It sounds like people made this up. But it’s real, and it’s nothing new.”
The Tongva: An Alternative History Since the 1990s?
In researching this article, several names, organizations, events and locations continued to feature prominently in the recent history of what is known as the Tongva. And by recent, we mean since the 1990s.
Various academics, tribal leaders of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, the Gabrieleno-Tongva Band of Mission Indians, the co-founders of TTPC and others traded alternative histories and accusations of defamatory statements in the letters section of the Claremont Courier during 2021. One of the points at issue was whether “the Tongva” was an actual tribe or a timely, potentially useful modern academic creation.
We suggest you read the exchange to get a sense for yourself what happens when educated individuals can’t cordially agree about what constitutes a tribe, history or conclusive documentation.
The bottom line is the BIA has determined what it will accept for the purposes of federal tribal acknowledgement and that’s not open to interpretation, as many tribes have discovered.
Now it’s Local News Pasadena’s turn to be on the receiving end of some incredible ad hominem attacks. There are assumptions about our motivations in researching this story and flat-out embarrassing assertions charging us with, among other things, Pasadena-flavored racism, white supremacy and general idiocy (well, they probably got us on that last point).
We decided to post, verbatim, the screeds we received when we offered TTPC leaders the opportunity to comment about lineal ancestor documentation, and we also included comments about The Reservation Next Door that arrived prior to publishing this article. You may read them below, in their entirety.
Local News Pasadena contacted the Governor’s Office of Tribal Affairs and Congressperson Sydney Kamlager-Dove‘s Los Angeles field office for information related to this article. None was received from those sources.
- The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians reports that hired staff working in the tribe’s Office of Tribal Citizenship performs genealogical tracing. When asked about professional certifications or other qualifications of the staff to perform genealogical research and which tribal laws guided the review of documentation, the tribe declined to respond. ↩︎
Photo: (top) Gabrieleño pictographs at the San Gabriel River. Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library