Native American Saga, Part 2: So Many Bones, So Little Time

"Next is another fun item," joked Chairman Bill Mungary as the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) moved on to the controversy surrounding remains unearthed on the mesa above the Bolsa Chica wetlands after a lengthy debate over the treatment of buried remains at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The commission, meeting Friday in the San Juan Capistrano City Council chambers, is empowered by state resources laws to protect Native American remains, gravesites and cultural resources.

Nearly three hours, late into the night, was spent solely on Bolsa Chica, where Brightwater/Hearthside Homes two years ago unearthed hundreds of teeth, jawbones and other bone fragments that are now held in 5,500 bags. Under a coastal development permit, those remains must be reburied near the spots they were taken by Native American monitors "in a timely manner."

The NAHC and California Coastal Commission, which issued the development permit, agree two years and counting is not a timely manner and have told Brightwater officials as much. The NAHC also voted Friday night to send letters to the City of Huntington Beach and the County of Orange expressing concern over past and future handling of remains at Bolsa Chica--and indicated they will explore legal action if their concerns are not addressed.

In his staff report to the NAHC, their program analyst Dave Singleton accused Hearthside officials of displaying a "lack of cooperation" and new Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens of displaying a "lack of communication" as the commission tries to sort out what is going on at Bolsa Chica. The county Coroner's Office, which must be notified when remains are discovered, reports to Hutchens.

"This is an example of cultural catastrophe," said Anthony Rivera, who represents one faction from the Juaneño-Acjachemen group of mission Indians whose ancestors are buried on the mesa. "There are bones and bones and bones."

Rivera said he and other Juaneños have not been informed when remains have been found and reburied, having to rely on newspaper accounts. "The tribe protests tremendously what happened here. ... We want the reports, we want involvement and at the very least we want to be informed." 

His ire was directed not just at developers and public officials but Indians who are paid to monitor development sites as most likely descendants (MLDs) of effected tribes. But the next speaker at the podium was a MLD at the Brightwater site, Anthony Morales of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, who also have ancestors buried on the mesa. Morales looked over at Rivera and said, "I wish he would have called me. I am very surprised he did not know about it."

Larry Myers, executive secretary of the NAHC, noted that Hearthside Vice President Ed Mountford contends that it is disagreement among different MLDs and tribespeople about how to handle remains that is responsible for his company's delay in not turning them over. Morales called that "a bunch of lies," saying he and David Belardes, the longtime MLD for Juaneños at Brightwater and several other contentious Orange County development sites, are in agreement about sorting through the 5,500 bags before re-burying the remains.

The Native Americans want to sort through the remains so attempts can be made to bunch together the bone fragments of individual people before they are reburied. Adrian Morales of the Gabrielino-Tongva contends those bones were together as intended in the ground before the developer's tractors ground them up and spread them all over.

"We need closure," Anthony Morales pleaded to commissioners.

Belardes noted that Mountford, who was not present, has said Hearthside cannot afford the cost of sorting through all the bags and reburials so the Native Americans have to choose one or the other. "Even in a good year, developers cry, 'We don't have any money,'" said Belardes, who has 30 years of experience working with Bolsa Chica developers.

Indeed, some locals accuse Belardes of having sold out his heritage in exchange for paychecks as the MLD for hire among developers. They further criticize him for not informing other members of the tribes when remains are found, of conducting reburials in secret and of keeping artifacts.

"There is a problem within the Indian community itself, a sickness that allows this to happen," said Paul Moreno, who was among the 20 Native Americans who joined the Bolsa Chica Land Trust in the unsuccessful attempt to convince the Coastal Commission last month to yank development permits until the remains issue can be settled. Moreno said local Juaneños had to learn from an internal Hearthside memo that 87 remains had been unearthed during one dig. "I don't know why the MLD did not come to the Juaneño community and say we have something here," said Moreno.

Chris Lobo, who is aligned with Rivera, agreed: "We've got a bad situation in our community." He said his generation of Indians is now trying to "deal with the messes of the past." 

Some commissioners obviously had their suspicions about Belardes as well. After the San Juan Capistrano resident gave a rundown of the dozens and dozens of remains that have been unearthed during different points in development on the mesa, Commissioner Jill Sherman was dumbfounded. "I don't understand [why], when you found the first bone, you didn't stop [development]," she said.

It was not like the finds would have surprised local Native Americans, who've always known from stories passed down in their families that the mesa was a village and cemetery for their ancient ancestors.

However, Belardes blamed the heat he's received locally on elders such as himself clashing with "new Indians" or "new kids on the block," complaining, "The new Indians don't give you the respect."

Later, as Lobo walked by, Belardes offered his own version of respect: "What are you? One of these 1/16ths or 1/32nds?"--referring to the percentage of Native American blood that runs through Lobo's veins.

Moreno said the time has come to look beyond internal disagreements. "It's about honoring the ancestors. That's it." He called the commission "the hope for a lot of us. I don't think this is a joking matter. This is serious stuff."

Mungary, saying he was heartened to hear that from a young person, informed the crowd of 70 people gathered in the chambers that the NAHC had voted earlier in the meeting to take a hard look at how MLDs are chosen.

Paul Arms, president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, gave the NAHC more to think about, asking for help on behalf of his 5,000 members. The nonprofit group was formed in 1992 specifically to preserve the Bolsa Chica wetlands, which an earlier incarnation of Hearthside Homes wanted to turn into a marina surrounded by more than 3,000 homes. The Land Trust and state Parks Department eventually bought the nature preserve for $85 million from the developer but has continued to fight development of the mesa above the wetlands.

Arms apologized for not having fought more vigorously for that final 300 acres of land, which is incrementally being developed into exclusive neighborhoods. Noting that the Land Trust hosts thousands of schoolchildren at the nature preserve every school year, Arms said, "We don't want to tell kids the Native American culture got paved over but a mallard duck was saved."  

Arms also scoffed at the notion that Hearthside is too poor to sort, pointing to the $85 million paid for the wetlands and estimated $200 million taxpayers have dedicated to the area since this development was first proposed there. "The level of criminality going on at Bolsa Chica for years is astounding," he told commissioners. "I look at the toll road, I look at San Juan Capistrano, I look at Bolsa Chica, and I see the same people. I see the same people fighting the developers, and I see the same people siding with the developers. I'd like to see us write a new history for Bolsa Chica."

As part of that new history, he offered the possibility of suing once again to stop development, something he said could be successful if the commission joined the effort. "Help fix this ongoing crime," he said.

Believe it or not, the commission agreed to look into that.

The most emotional testimony of the night was given by Ruben Aguirre, a Gabrielino-Tongva who moved to Southern California from Missouri. "What I can't understand is why Native American people are always treated as secondary people, especially when it deals with reburials."

He often had to fight back tears while speaking.

"To let this developer do as they please, these people do not have a heart. I can say that they are not spiritual people. It's all about greed and money. They do not care about our sacred lands ... remains, artifacts, in burials that are dug up. It's like native people are not here anymore. We're gone. We're extinct.

"The government did a good job on us. So when they find one of us, we're an artifact. They'll send us to a museum. . . . All I know is there are more dead Native Americans in universities than live ones, that I can say."

Aguirre wondered how developers, university officials and museum directors would like it if their ancestors were dug up and displayed as artifacts.

"From east to west to north and south we fight, but it happens to all of us, all Native Americans when it comes to burials. It's nothing to them. . . . Or I'm the monitor and I get paid. What's wrong with you? You are no different than the developer. Our ancestors are in bags, waiting and waiting for us. . . . It breaks my heart. I cry and cry and I pray."

Mungary, clearly moved, said this country needs people like Aguirre to speak like that to lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., so laws can be strengthened on behalf of the NAHC.

Patricia Martz, an anthropology professor and California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance advocate who has worked with local Juaneños for years to preserve the mesa, told the commission about a six-acre parcel adjacent to the disputed Brightwater site that the city of Huntington Beach is annexing while 23 future homes are planned there. Surmising there must be remains buried on that site as well, Martz predicted "we'll be back again next year, crying over the same thing."

Commissioners later voted to investigate that six-acre plot for possible protection.

As for the entire Hearthside site, Commissioner Laura Miranda could not believe it was not brought to her agency's attention earlier. "There is a bigger issue here: The commission in 2006 should have tried to stop this project from being built," she said.

Not that they would have remembered.

"Didn't we talk about this very issue at UCLA?" Sherman asked.

"That was Playa Vista," answered Commissioner James Ramos.

So many bones, so little time.


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