This is Where We Pray

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

So what is his response to pro-development forces who say Native Americans never claimed the land was sacred until building began?

"We always claimed the land, but we never said anything before because it's only now that it's being taken away," he said. "There used to be nothing on these sites, so there was no need to protect them. We always knew that our ancestors were buried there; that had been passed down from our ancestors. Then, all of a sudden, they're being dug up and no one's told us. That's why we're here now."


It's difficult to see why anyone would get all worked up over the land adjacent to Gum Grove Park in Seal Beach. Rusting oil wells and large tanks rise from colorless weeds. The most glamorous thing to look at is a worn power-generating station.

But a nearby trail leads to mounds of dirt that are actually known burial spots of Native Americans, said Castillo, who claims 900 bags of artifacts and remains have been removed as developers prepare to build a residential community over the now-unsightly landscape.

"This is called Hellman Ranch," Robles told the circle—still about 90 strong at midafternoon. "When it was still a working ranch, it employed a lot of people. One of our elders was born here. She even knew that her grandparents were born here and that their grandparents were born here. Let Seal Beach know what should be here and what should not be here and what should remain here."

That's been a tough sell. In 1996, the Seal Beach City Council fired an archaeologist who had identified 13 sites inhabited by Tongva and Acjachemem 4,000 years ago—seven of the sites within the current Hellman project boundaries. Three months later, a member of the city's archaeological review panel resigned after accusing the council of sabotaging efforts to properly analyze the archaeological sites because it was impeding the development. Oh, and all those remains? They were "lost."

That led to a showdown at a 2000 state Coastal Commission hearing, where Lillian Robles' emotional testimony was credited with getting stricter Indian monitoring at Hellman Ranch.

"We are not anti-development," Bickford told me, "but we believe developers cannot build over historical sites."


A hill visible from Gum Grove Park is what local Native Americans consider their most sacred spot. Puvungna, near Bellflower Boulevard on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, is said to be where their creator, Wiyot, was mourned and where one of their gods, Chinigchinich, was born. Indians insist it must not be disturbed.

"It is the beginning of creation," Castillo said. "It is our Jerusalem. It is where the log giver gave us our instructions on finding food, shade and water. Before that, we were spirits, bumping into one another in the dark, when the creator made us into human form. We were each made a little different, but we were still part of the two-legged nation."

That evening, most who had taken part in the pilgrimage gathered at Puvungna for a moving celebration highlighted by a sacred ceremony performed at nightfall by bear dancers.

"It gets to you deep down in your thoughts about how Native Americans really were religious and believed in a spiritual way of being," Aguilar said after witnessing the ceremony.

Having such a ceremony on that hill would not have been possible were it not for emotional gatherings like the yearly pilgrimage through Orange County. The university wanted to build student housing on the 22-acre site 30 years ago before Native Americans came forward to declare it a sacred spot. That plan fell apart. When the university approved a proposal for a shopping center in 1993, Lillian Robles pitched a tent on the spot for 15 days.

"Seventy-seven people slept on the Cal State grounds where a mini-mall was to be built," Lewis Robles Jr. said. "The ACLU got involved, and the university is now going to return some remains."

The ACLU argued the Indians' freedom to practice their religion would have been infringed if development had proceeded.

"In fairness to the university, they have been working together with us after being adversarial at first," Robles said. "They have saved sacred land in perpetuity."

Perhaps it would be easier for the Juanenos to save all the other sacred land on the Orange County pilgrimage in perpetuity if the tribe was formally recognized by the federal government. For years, the Juanenos have been second on the feds' waiting list, and Aguilar understandably expects further delays given the government's preoccupation with the events of Sept. 11. In the meantime, OC's Native Americans have but one course of action.


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