This is Where We Pray

As earthmovers move in, local Indians move to save their sacred land

These are not polite disagreements. They pit commercial gain and political power against cosmologies. Several local Native Americans, infuriated over land-use decisions made on their behalf—often in secret—have threatened men and women they regard as sellouts or plunderers. Bullets have been sent anonymously over the years to developers, archaeologists and Indian monitors. When Seal Beach Mayor Gwen Forsythe received a bullet in the mail in 1997, she promptly resigned out of fear—and then promptly rescinded her resignation.

"If we were attached to one place, we would be united," said Mike Aguilar, who during the pilgrimage toted an American flag emblazoned with an Indian on horseback and who is vice chairman of one of the three Juaneno tribes. But the Native Americans are spread out over Southern California and beyond. "The government did not want us to be united," Aguilar said. "When you're not united, you're weak."


While walking out of the campground parking lot, Sandoval had taught everyone to chant "Supu'lgna Cha'am Milu'utuwun." I never did ask what that means, but the repetitive, collective hum of that last syllable—wunnnnn—haunted me as we walked, as slowly and solemnly as a funeral march, to the campground's southern fence, the one facing a grove of thick brush atop Pahne, one of the largest and most sacred Indian burial sites.

As the chanting continued, Castillo blew into a high-pitched whistle, pointed a large hawk feather at the sky, and motioned toward his chest to summon the spirits.

"The toll road is supposed to go from here to the beach," he said, sweeping his arm from the hills to the ocean. "Even the park rangers don't want it. I don't know why the beach is so glamorous; they always seem to be closing it because of pollution. Our ancestors and artifacts are buried just on the other side of this fence. That's why we're here to pray."

Grandma Lillian traced her ancestors to this village. Her son, Lewis Robles Jr., assured the circle that their mere presence would cause "people in the campground to ask, 'Oh, there are Indians in California?' No, someone didn't just water the ground, and the missions sprouted up.

"My mom is so happy," he continued. "We're reminding people of what we lost and of what there is left to save."

Native Americans have banded together with the park service and the Sierra Club to stop the toll road from cutting through the campground and Pahne, where remains recovered from throughout Orange County have been respectfully reburied, even long before there was a campground, let alone a Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the quasi-public bureau that builds and maintains Orange County's private toll roads.

Asked later how her agency would deal with sacred Indian land, TCA spokeswoman Lisa Telles said that route is just one of six alternatives under consideration "for improving south Orange County traffic flow." Environmental documents that will have to be filed before any grading can begin will include a chapter on cultural sites. The agency's analysis should be available for public review next summer.

But toll-road builders do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting ancient Indian sites. The TCA was heavily criticized in 1995 for bulldozing a Laguna Canyon cave believed to be an ancient Native American observatory, a kind of modest California Stonehenge.

"We have to start saying they will not put a toll road here," Sandoval said of Pahne. "We cannot let them do it."


"Drinking water!" Castillo barked as our group—now 125 strong—walked down Jamboree Road in Newport Beach. I thought the tall, skinny man with flowing white hair who sprinted to the front of the procession was going to whip out a bottle of water for the spiritual leader. Actually, John Drinkingwater had been summoned to lead the next chant.

The sun broke through the clouds as we marched to the outer edge of Harbor Cove; the 149 homes there go for about $500,000 to $1 million each. Rental boats on the sandy banks of Newport Dunes could be seen in the distance.

Before these Irvine Co. homes sprouted in 1997, the entire area was known as ORA-64—the designation for the 64th Orange County archaeological site. The place had always been considered a treasure trove of ancient Indian artifacts—the oldest decorated, fired-clay ceramics in the Western hemisphere were unearthed here in 1971. But it wasn't until development began that the world discovered how special it really was.

"They removed 600 to 900 bodies," Castillo said of home builders. "They built a housing tract on an ancient burial ground. Our people have been here 9,000 years. It was already an ancient village when the pyramids were built in Egypt."

Later, Castillo explained he doesn't arrive at the number of bodies bagged up and removed from places like Harbor Cove from information supplied by developers. Instead, when any bones are dug up, the county coroner must be informed. By researching public records of coroner visits, Native Americans have determined how many of their ancestors have been exhumed. Castillo's body count was confirmed years ago by a Cal State Fullerton archaeologist, although the Irvine Co. called the figure "ludicrous," saying the bones removed from ORA-64 would fit in one suitcase. The company was also quick to point out that all excavation was done in accordance with state law, that they worked through the California Native American Heritage Commission to identify the most likely descendents to handle reburials, that they spent $2 million dealing with the remains, and that, hell, everyone should thank the Irvine Co. for uncovering such an important historical find.

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