This is Where We Pray

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

For decades, Hearthside—formerly Koll Real Estate Group—has wanted to build over the nature preserve. First, it was tens of thousands of homes, a shopping mall and a marina. Amid growing public opposition—fueled by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust environmental group that counted Lillian Robles as a member—plans have been scaled back dramatically. Heading into this year, the wetlands were off the table (they were sold to the state), and Hearthside instead wanted just 1,200 homes on the 208-acre Bolsa Chica mesa. The state Coastal Commission stepped in earlier this year and cut the buildable acreage to 73 and the number of homes to 387. Hearthside has appealed the decision.

Like the Irvine Co., Hearthside or Koll—whatever it has been called over the years—has always maintained it has done everything by the book. Indeed, Koll and the Irvine Co. share the same Indian monitor—which is part of the problem, the Juanenos at the pilgrimage said.

The archaeologist who confirmed the Harbor Cove body count says the Bolsa Chica mesa was definitely an ancient Indian burial site. For that reason, Robles says, he will not rest until the number of homes and buildable acres has been scaled back to zero.

"If it's just the Bolsa Chica Land Trust or it's just the Juanenos or it's just some residents, they can say hardly anyone opposes them here," he said. "But if it's all of us together, we can make sure they hear us and that there is no way there is any building here."


When the circle re-formed on the other side of a wall from the Sandover tract—16 homes selling for more than half a million dollars built on the end of the Bolsa Chica mesa farthest from the wetlands—our numbers had dwindled to 90. Castillo called the place where we stood "the log area" even though "the logs are no longer here." They were replaced by those 16 homes.

Last year, the pilgrimage was greeted by several Huntington Beach residents and city officials who said those 16 homes would never be built on a site the National Registry of Historical Places is considering recognizing for its cultural significance. They didn't make it out this year. But Virginia Bickford did. She's a Los Alamitos resident who did something many others with a master's in archaeology did with their degrees: she went to work in a field that had nothing to do with archaeology. After 20 years with Boeing's aircraft division, she has returned to her first love, volunteering for the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to protect historical sites from development.

When she heard rumors three months ago that excavations were secretly going on near Sandover, she came by one morning and found a large hole surrounded by a fence. "It was definitely an excavation site," she said.

No one was around that hole, but as she walked back to her car, she noticed a lot of activity at a larger fenced-in site in the field to the south. When Bickford returned the next day with a camera to document the activity, the holes and fences were gone. She called the Coastal Commission and was told their staff members had been out that same morning and saw no signs of excavation.

"It's all been covered up," Bickford said.

No tribe was officially notified of any excavation at the site, but Castillo said an examination of coroner records proves 25 bags of artifacts and remains were removed from Sandover.

"We know there were ancestors found here," Robles said. "They put up fences so we can't see what they are doing, but we know what they are doing."

The developer recently blamed this hush-hush digging on lawsuits by environmentalists. In other words, because of pending litigation, they couldn't talk about the fact that they were churning up dead Indians.

It's enough to piss you off royally. But Castillo, pointing to Aguilar in his Old Glory hat and waving his large American flag with the Native American on horseback in the middle, said, "Someone asked me if I have a problem with him flying the flag. I have no problem with it. Like I said, this is a time of prayer, not protest. Flying the flag is not going to take away from my prayer. If I was protesting, I'd probably have this guy fly the flag upside-down."

It still seemed strange, considering everything men carrying the Stars and Stripes have done to Native Americans over the centuries. As the circle broke up, I asked Aguilar, "I don't mean to offend, but wasn't that flag carried by men who killed your ancestors years ago?"

"Native Americans carried this flag when they killed other Native Americans?" he said, puzzled. "Uh, I don't know anything about that."

"No," I corrected. "I was thinking more along the lines of white men who . . ."

"Oh, you mean like the cavalry?" Aguilar said. "Yes, that was a long time ago. Today I see this symbol as a reminder that there is a Native American in each state, so that when we come together like this, no matter how many of us there are, we are representing all Native Americans and all of America. I've been carrying this flag since we started this five years ago with Lillian Robles. Even now, I am more proud of the work she has done to preserve the wetlands—to say that this land is not just for the wealthy. Why not leave the wetlands alone?"

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