Finding a resting place for the
By Kristin S. Agostoni, Daily Breeze,
FEBRUARY 09, 2008
Robert Dorame walked away from the neat
rows of condominiums and town houses and followed the
edge of a soccer field toward the Westchester Bluffs.
As an archeologist guided him along
the base of the hillside, Dorame paused and looked out
over the plants lining a drainage channel.
It was in this spot roughly four years
ago that archeologists began unearthing hundreds of
remains and burial artifacts from his Gabrieleno-Tongva
As the master-planned community of Playa
Vista took shape between Westchester and Marina del
Rey, the remains and other artifacts were carefully
uncovered, stowed away and cataloged for a future reburial
- over the objections of Dorame and other American Indians.
This spring, however, they will finally
see their ancestors put in a secure resting place close
to where they were discovered.
Playa Vista and its archeological firm,
working under a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
and a pact with the Corps and the state Office of Historic
Preservation among others, have planned a reburial in
June, at least two years sooner than anticipated.
At a meeting last month before the California
Native American Heritage Commission, where Dorame and
others had turned out to complain that delaying the
reburial was undignified, Playa Vista attorney George
Mihlsten announced the process could begin within the
next several months.
In a statement issued later, Playa Vista
officials said "we appreciate the desire of the
Native American community to have the human remains
and associated items reinterred as promptly as possible"
and that "we were pleased the Army Corps supports
reinterrment in the June 2008 time frame."
For Dorame - who had enlisted support from Los Angeles
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, local environmental
groups and the commission - it took too long to get
to this point.
"It is not part of our spirit to
keep Indian remains out of the ground that long,"
said Dorame, who is a member of the Gabrieleno-Tongva
Indians of California, one of several tribes that traces
its lineage back to the Los Angeles Basin's original
The discovery several years ago devolved
into a "horrible ordeal" as the remains were
unearthed and placed in a secure site in another part
of the development," he said.
It led to struggles with Playa Vista,
the archeological firm and other Gabrieleno-Tongva descendants.
But as the state-appointed Most Likely
Descendent - a title that gives him a role in where
the remains will be put to rest - the 59-year-old Bellflower
man said his "sole object" is to see them
reburied close to where they were discovered.
"It's about protecting cultural
resources and making people aware and educating them,"
The Gabrieleno-Tongva people have a
rich history on the land now known as Playa Vista and
throughout the Los Angeles region.
The name Gabrieleno comes from the San
Gabriel Mission, where European settlers put members
of the tribe to work and forcefully tried to convert
them to Christianity. Tongva is the American Indian
name that means "people of the earth."
Long before aerospace mogul Howard Hughes
paved a runway across the land where Playa Vista homes,
offices and retailers are rising - the same land once
used for cattle grazing - the area attracted human settlement
for thousands of years. American Indians were drawn
to what was then Ballona Lagoon, a rich estuarine environment
fed by Ballona and Centinela creeks, Playa Vista historical
A history survey prepared in 1991 indicates
that archeologists expected to find several areas of
cultural significance as work proceeded for the development
- just as Indian remains and artifacts have been uncovered
at sites across Southern California.
But the 2003 Playa Vista discovery stands
out because of its sheer size, archeologists say.
Although American Indian remains and
artifacts have been recovered in other parts of the
community spanning Jefferson Boulevard from Lincoln
Boulevard to Centinela Avenue, officials say the vast
majority of the burial features were uncovered in a
roughly 35-by-35-foot area at the base of the bluffs.
Donn Grenda, president of the archeological
firm Statistical Research Inc., which has been working
at the site for years, said it is believed most of those
remains date to the late 1700s, around the time of Spanish
His firm has identified 386 burial features
in total, Grenda said, and 372 came from the one site.
"There are diseases that came with
Spanish contact," he said, which could explain
why so many American Indians were buried together in
such a small site.
Along with human remains, Grenda said
archeologists also found religious items and other grave
artifacts, which will be reburied in the same manner
in which they were recovered.
"It is a very large cemetery, what
we consider a cemetery," said Wendy Giddens Teeter,
curator of archeology at the Fowler Museum of Cultural
History at UCLA.
"It spans several thousand years,
so obviously it's extremely important not only to the
Tongva community, but to the scientific community,"
Under state law, the county coroner
must be notified if human remains are found. If they
are identified as American Indian, the Native American
Heritage Commission must be contacted, and a Most Likely
Descendent is appointed.
At Playa Vista, a so-called programmatic
agreement was put in place in 1991 with the developers,
the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Army
Corps, the state preservation officer and American Indian
The pact, which was renewed in 2001,
set out procedures that need to be followed before Indian
remains and artifacts could be reburied - which is the
factor officials from Playa Vista and the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers attribute to the delay.
The "detailed research protocol"
mandated by federal law and administered by the corps
"stipulates the comprehensive analysis that must
be conducted before the reburial can occur," the
Playa Vista statement said.
"We have been working hard with
state and federal regulatory agencies to complete the
analytic process, so the Army Corps will permit a respectful
reburial that can begin as soon as possible," it
Greg Fuderer, an Army Corps spokesman,
said part of the protocol was that, even after archeologists
finished an analysis of the artifacts, the remains should
remain available in the preparation of research documents
and reports. However, the archeological firm has since
determined there's a low probability it would need to
physically inspect the burial features.
"The original estimate was that
it would take until 2010 to complete all these requirements,"
Dorame and others were angered by that
"It's been a battle with these
people for quite a few years now," said Anthony
Morales, chief of the Gabrieleno-Tongva San Gabriel
Band of Mission Indians.
Morales is one of several plaintiffs
in a lawsuit challenging the environmental documents
for Playa Vista's second phase, a mixed-use section
called The Village. A state appeals court halted work
there because of a handful of disputed land-use issues,
including archeological effects. (The riparian corridor
was constructed as part of the first phase of homes
and office buildings.)
"It's just pressure mounting on
them finally," Morales said.
"We do believe that these remains
have to be reburied in a dignified fashion," said
Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American
Heritage Commission. "Timely is one (issue), how
you do it is one thing, where you do it is another thing.
"We tried to meet with Playa Vista
and tried to meet with the Army Corps and said, `Let's
speed it up,"' Myers said. "We said, `We can't
let this go on."'
Rosendahl, who visited the site Friday
with Dorame, Grenda and Playa Vista officials, said
he "was not going to rest until the human remains
were put to rest."
The councilman has also challenged the
original reburial time frame and said he was happy to
learn a few days before the commission meeting last
month that the remains would be reinterred this spring.
In addition, Playa Vista plans to memorialize
the history of the Tongva people in an open space area
at the foot of the bluffs, not far from the burial site.
Plans are in motion to build the so-called
Discovery Center next to a flat plot eyed for a new
elementary school. Playa Vista officials said the gathering
place was conceptualized by the architectural firm led
by Edwin Schlossberg, who is married to Caroline Kennedy.
They showed a rendering to Dorame late
last week as he walked the roughly 2-acre dirt lot.
Afterward, he planned to see the storage
space where the remains are housed. Dorame carried sage
for a traditional cleansing ceremony he planned to perform
"I face death a lot because of
the ancestors. It's always the same. It's an emotional
situation," he said. "We're working diligently
so we won't have to take people out of the ground."