Putting to rest tribal remains
Hundreds of human fragments unearthed
at a Gabrielino-Tongva burial site in Playa Vista will
By Francisco Vara-Orta, Los Angeles
Times, MARCH 11, 2008
It was a five-year tug-of-war that sparked
a legal, political and cultural showdown between some
of the oldest and newest residents of the Los Angeles
On one side: descendants of the Gabrielino-Tongva
tribe, natives of the Ballona Wetlands thousands of
years ago, outraged that a burial site of almost 400
human remains was being exhumed to clear the path for
a waterway in a multibillion-dollar project.
On the other: Playa Vista developers
trying to complete that two-phase project -- about 6,000
luxury housing units and more than 3.2 million square
feet of office space -- on the city's largest remaining
The burial site was discovered in 2003,
prompting strongly-worded letters and lawsuits, but
archaeologists hired by Playa Vista kept digging, storing
the remains and other artifacts in containers left in
a nearby trailer as the courts weighed in.
"It's been a very disheartening
and difficult process," said Robert Dorame, a Bellflower
resident and tribal chairman of the Gabrielino-Tongva
Indians of California. "They say history repeats
itself, and once again we were displaced."
This summer, however, all 396 human
remains and hundreds of artifacts found on Playa Vista
grounds will return to the earth, thanks to an agreement
reached at a meeting in January where tribal representatives,
developers and various local and state officials met
for the first time.
"They should have never removed
them," Dorame said. "But now that they have,
my goal is to get them back in the ground as close [as
possible] to where they were taken from."
The Gabrielino-Tongva tribe inhabited
Playa Vista as far back as 6,500 years ago and stayed
through the late 1800s, said Donn Grenda, president
of Statistical Research Inc., the archaeological company
hired to remove and catalog the remains.
Today, the Ballona Wetlands area that
the Gabrielino-Tongva once called their spiritual resting
place is dotted with bulldozers, traffic, sprawling
apartment buildings, and a sports park.
Just a few feet from the park is the
waterway, referred to as a riparian corridor by the
developers but resembling a drainage ditch. Its construction,
to help drain water from the development, led to the
unearthing of the burial grounds -- considered by archaeologists
to be one of the largest Native American burial sites
in the western United States.
Peter Nabokov, a UCLA professor who
has taught Native American studies for almost 40 years,
said that, in most cases, the exhuming of an entire
historical burial site would cause a public outcry.
"What people fail to understand
is that this is not just history, but there are people
still alive whose ancestors are those remains,"
The discovery of Native American remains
is nothing new in Southern California, but Playa Vista's
situation was distinguished by controversy over how
the remains were handled, Nabokov said.
Playa Vista officials said the excavations
were permitted under an agreement approved by the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers that was crafted in 1991 and
signed by developers and three representatives of the
Gabrielino-Tongva tribe. Federal laws designed to protect
Native American remains from being removed didn't apply
in Playa Vista's case because the Gabrielino-Tongva
tribe has never been federally recognized.
The agreement was extended in 2001 for
10 years, but Dorame and other tribal leaders contend
that they were never notified of the extension. Letters
were sent to five tribal leaders, but only one, Martin
Alcala, responded in favor of extending the agreement,
said Playa Vista spokesman Steve Sugerman.
Dorame viewed his ancestors' remains
for the first time last month, allowing him to perform
a purification ceremony with sage.
Accompanied by Los Angeles City Councilman
Bill Rosendahl, Sugerman and an archaeologist, Dorame
toured the Playa Vista property, checking out four potential
reburial sites, some of which were just a few hundred
yards from where the burial site was located.
Sugerman said Playa Vista has promised
to not build on the area where the remains will be reinterred,
and will construct a memorial called the Discovery Center,
a "museum without walls," with exhibits on
the history of the Ballona Wetlands and the Gabrielino-Tongva
Reburial could happen as soon as late
June, depending on how soon Dorame determines a site,
"I'm cautiously optimistic until
all those remains are back in the ground," Rosendahl
said. "But I think we're finally all in agreement
on this one."