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The Kizh-Gabrieleño Factor

Despite a centuries-long campaign by Southern Californians to eradicate them, OC's remaining Gabrieleños are making a comeback

"The site was of international significance—it was very unique," says Dave Singleton, program analyst for the California Native American Heritage Commission. He is charged by the state with monitoring sacred sites. "It was very impressive—you're talking about 10,000 artifacts at least, all different varieties."

Despite its cultural significance, Hearthside obliterated the terrain. "They destroyed the site," Singleton says, "and after this destruction, we're seeing how important it was."

The artifacts were photographed and cataloged, and the remains were reburied on a different part of the site, Henry says. "Based on the preliminary information [Hearthside] had, they thought it was a seasonal village, not a place of permanent inhabitance. Had the commission had the correct information, they would have taken different action" and banned Hearthside from further development.

Matt Teutimez: “The purpose of nature is to utilize it, not to look at it”
John Gilhooley
Matt Teutimez: “The purpose of nature is to utilize it, not to look at it”

The Hearthside fiasco highlighted a significant problem for the Gabrieleños and other Southern California tribes: Even in the present day—when California law has been crafted to be more sympathetic to ancient human remains and native concerns—wealthy real-estate investors and property owners with keen interest in preventing Native Americans from claiming any part of their ancestral territory continually win. And it doesn't help the Gabrieleños' plight that their ancestral lands sit on some of the highest-priced real estate in the United States.

"When you deal with densely populated areas, that's where politics really matter," UCI's Polequaptewa says. "They're in some of the most affluent, wealthy and powerful areas of the country, regardless of right or wrong."

State law recommends developers have a Native American monitor on-site during land grading, and developers are supposed to halt construction and contact local law enforcement when remains are found. If the bones are determined to be Indian, authorities contact the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), which then selects from a list of most likely descendants (better known by the acronym MLDs) a group to send to the site to tell the developer how the remains should be treated.

But that doesn't mean much. Developers can hire anyone they want, and the annals of Indian monitors in Southern California development are rife with accusations of sell-outs and charlatans. According to Singleton, MLDs don't even have to be Indian, but can be "representatives" of Indian tribes that magically form when there's money to be made from being native. It dates back to the vagaries of the 1928 California Indian Jurisdictional Act: What was intended to redress broken promises of goods and land to Native Americans with a money settlement instead became a free-for-all in which all that was required to cash in was to self-identify.

"Half the people who applied and got approved in Orange County weren't even Indian," says Lorraine Escobar, a genealogist who specializes in Native American ancestry. Some of those non-Indians with CDIB cards ("certificates of degree of Indian blood," issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) show up at burial sites with developers as paid monitors, while others appear on the NAHC's MLDs list even though they have no Indian blood. And there's no process to kick them off the NAHC's list, even though Salas, Lobo and others have complained repeatedly about certain individuals for years.

"You've got people who are claiming to be Indian, making dispositions of ancestors' bodies, burial goods and artifacts, who are not experts, who are just people willing to sign off and get paid off by land developers to develop a site, whether it's culturally significant or not," Lobo says.

And the most tragic part: Even if the monitor is legitimate, developers ultimately don't need to care. In the most recent Gabrieleño example, work continued for months after remains were discovered in 2010 on the grounds of La Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles during construction of the county's new LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, even though the NAHC demanded a halt. That same year, the California Coastal Commission fined a family trust that owned land near Bolsa Chica and wanted to turn it into homes worth $430,000 each and ordered it to rebury artifacts and restore areas disturbed after it unearthed artifacts.

"Sometimes it's cheaper to pay a fine than it is to stop a development," Polequaptewa says.

The Gabrieleños' hand would be significantly strengthened in defending against such desecrations if they were federally recognized, but the American government has refused to do so, ironically claiming there aren't enough "real" Gabrieleños to justify such a move. Out of continuous frustration over this issue, and after learning hard lessons from the casino disaster, Salas has enlisted the help of Escobar (herself a California Indian of Esselen and Rumsen lineage) to track down the ancestry of people claiming Gabrieleño descent but who don't have it and publicly call them out.

Salas says such a step is necessary for self-preservation of the tribe. "They're desecrating our sacred villages and interfering in Indian affairs," he explains.

These incidents have led to serious bad blood. Every year, a Native American powwow is held on the grounds of Long Beach State University. In the 1990s, the university and developers planned to build a strip mall over the site of a sacred natural spring that once burbled where the western edge of the university grounds lie, in what was the Gabrieleño village of Puvunga. But Native Americans and professors campaigned successfully to save it. Ernie Salas was one of the activists who helped to save it from development.

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