This is Where We Pray

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

But academics across the country were not sending thank-you notes. They noted that the bones weren't carbon-dated before they were reburied. The Irvine Co. said it was abiding by tribal leaders' wishes that the bones not be further disturbed. The wishes of the developer's paid Indian monitor certainly helped speed construction: initial tests on a small bone fragment suggested it was between 4,000 and 9,500 years old, a finding that might have slowed home building.

"We kept walking around saying, 'Where is the Smithsonian? Where is National Geographic?'" one archaeological worker, who requested anonymity, reportedly told the Los Angeles Timesin 1997. "It was a fantastic, amazing story. Sad situation. Sad story. I guess money talks."

Another worker told The Orange County Register that backhoes were used to quickly dig up remains even though state law dictates they be removed by hand, a much slower process.

The massive number of bones at Harbor Cove suggested that ORA-64 may have been the oldest and largest cemetery in the United States. Whether the Harbor Cove residents were informed of that before they bought their homes is debatable. The Irvine Co. says they were, but some homeowners told the daily papers otherwise.

Not that it matters much now. As Castillo peered over at Harbor Cove, he told the crowd, "Here, the damage is already done. We don't know where those remains went. This is just one small village throughout the county that's been taken down through development."

As we left Harbor Cove, I asked him about those Native American monitors hired by developers.

"They are usually paid $200 to $500 per day. There's a lot of this," Castillo said rubbing his fingers together in the internationally recognized sign for "gobs of money."

Those monitors know they'd better sign off on the project if they want to get hired for the next one. Many times, the monitors are not even members of the local tribes whose people are being unearthed, and the local tribes are not informed about the reburials.

Looking back at the long line of walkers leaving Harbor Cove, Dr. Laura Williams shook her head and said with bemusement, "And people say there are no Indians in Orange County." A Juaneno, she used to head the Native American health department at UC Irvine, where she was the first woman from a California tribe on a UC faculty. She now runs a health program through Native Voices for Change that serves 19 San Diego-area tribes.

While the most recent U.S. census says that 2,000 Native Americans reside in Orange County, there are actually many more who are misidentified as Hispanics because in 1784, Spanish priests at Mission San Juan Capistrano stripped many Indians of their names and gave them Hispanic names instead. This historic misidentification has led to the perception that the Native American population is dwindling here. A diminished identity, intertribal politics and rampant development have combined to make it nearly impossible to preserve sacred Indian sites, Williams said.

"It wasn't until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, that we could even do this," she said with rising incredulity. "If we met together as one large group, we would have been arrested—for this! Before, this was seen as anti-United States even though the Americans' ancestors first came here to escape religious persecution. By not being able to meet, we lost a lot of our traditions and songs and culture."

BOLSA CHICA: 'WHEN YOU'RE NOT UNITED, YOU'RE WEAK'

As 135 pilgrimage participants followed a narrow trail above the trash-strewn banks of Outer Bolsa Bay near Huntington Beach, a thin but muscular white man with a crew cut and day pack strapped to his back darted past our slow foot traffic.

"Someone's getting ready for Afghanistan," one member of the group observed.

The next day, the first American bombs began raining down on that country.

It was noonish, the sun was blazing, and if you looked up the coast, downtown Long Beach seemed close enough to touch. Besides the Army man, several other people were out enjoying the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. Some walked their dogs, some took leisurely strolls, and some snapped photos of herons lurching alongside the wetlands.

If Hearthside Homes gets its way, those photographers will no longer be shooting glistening water, migrating birds or wildflowers, but mounds of glass and stucco every bit as nondescript as any other retail/residential complex in Orange County.

"They say they want to take the royalties from these developments and restore the wetlands," Castillo told the circle, chuckling. "I don't understand how you can restore what was created."

He placed his hand at his waist.

"Grandma Lillian was this tall," he said, "and she'd get in front of these city officials and shake her finger at them and say, 'You are not going to build over this.'"

A plaque in a staked-off area a few feet from where he spoke states, "The Bolsa Chica Stewards Memorial Native Garden honors Ridgely Keeley and Lillian Robles."

"I feel my mama walking with us right now," Lewis Robles Jr. said. "She's so happy. So many artifacts have been dug up. We do know there were people here. After seeing what has happened to the last site in Newport Beach, to be here makes us realize how special it is."

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