Native Americans Seeking to Protect Ancestors Buried at Bolsa Chica Get No Relief . . . Yet

Morales: "This action is an attack on our culture"
Russ Roca

Boned Again
Native Americans seeking to protect ancestors buried at Bolsa Chica get no relief .
. . yet


Kids who dream of growing up to become California Coastal Commissioners should keep in mind that the appointed positions do not solely involve such glamorous perks as reviewing site plans, staying in different hotels every month and becoming intimate with the daises of various city-council chambers. No, every so often, you also get to be dressed down in public by a 92-year-old woman who’d need to be dripping wet and have rocks in her pockets to weigh a buck even.

“Are they going to build a house over the tombs of these Indians?” a frail Eileen Murphy asked incredulously, voice cracking, tears streaming, to stone-faced commissioners beating a hasty retreat to a break room adjacent to the Long Beach City Council chambers the afternoon of Nov. 13. As Murphy spoke, the nine commissioners were simultaneously showered with heartier screams of “Ghouls!” “Shameful!” and “Haven’t changed a bit!” from younger lungs.

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The commission earned the emotional response for voting unanimously against revoking the coastal-development permit they granted in June 2006 for the Brightwater Hearthside Homes project on the mesa above the ecologically sensitive Bolsa Chica Wetlands Preserve near Huntington Beach. The California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, 20 American Indians from various tribal groups and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust—which includes Murphy as its director emeritus—sought the revocation because they say artifacts and human remains from people who lived on the land as much as 8,500 years ago are being mishandled by the developer.

The steady pressure applied by activists over the years has led developers to sponsor Native American-monitored archaeological digs, where artifacts and human and animal “bone concentrations” have been unearthed and turned over for reburial ceremonies on undisclosed portions of the Brightwater project area. Those seeking permit revocation contend that a bait-and-switch—or, as Murphy put it, “playing hide and seek with bodies they have found there”—has been going on whereby soil is dug up and stored until permission to build is granted by various regulatory agencies, at which time the county coroner and Native American monitors are informed human remains have been suddenly discovered.

It makes no sense to the protesters that of 174 ancient American Indian remains discovered in the past 30 years residential development has been debated, started and stopped at Bolsa Chica, half were unearthed in the past 27 months at what one speaker labeled “the most morally and financially misguided housing project in Orange County.”

“This action is an attack on our culture and considered a hate crime,” said Anthony Morales, of the Gabrielino-Tongva Mission Indian group.

Members of the Gabrielino-Tongva and Juaneño-Acjachemen tribes say Bolsa Chica has always been known in their families as an ancient village complete with burial grounds and is therefore sacred. Rebecca Robles, the daughter of Lillian Robles, a tireless Bolsa Chica preservation activist and Juaneño who died in 2001 and is memorialized with a marker at the preserve, told the commission once again that local Indians never felt a need to protect the land until developers took an interest in building homes there in the 1970s. “We are going to keep coming back until someone listens,” she said, fighting back tears.

Jan Vandersloot, a Newport Beach dermatologist and Bolsa Chica Land Trust member, asked commissioners, “If you’d known about bone concentrations, would you have voted the way you did?” But that was not the question before them. The commission can’t revoke a permit simply because they were supplied inaccurate, erroneous or incomplete information at the time of their original decision. They must find they were “intentionally” misled, a narrow distinction no commissioner said had been proven.

Hearthside Homes vice president Ed Mountford, who contended his project is “one of the most regulated in California,” told commissioners that remains unearthed recently were discovered when old roads, pipelines and other structures were removed, often outside the approved building zones. He went on to show, on a slide projected overhead, all the hearings over the years at which activists have tried to stop the project, the concessions that were made to appease the concerns of Indian groups and the ultimate votes of approval by various panels, including the commission.

Morales did receive one concession earlier in the hearing, during the public-comments section in the morning, when it was revealed that 6,000 bags of soil samples have been stored in trailers at Bolsa Chica and in Temecula for two years despite the original coastal-development permit indicating items must be processed “in a timely manner.”

“Mr. Mountford is holding our ancestors hostage,” Morales said.

Called to face the panel, Mountford explained items in those bags still need to be documented before they can be turned over for reburial. He agreed to step up the work after commission chairman Patrick Kruer said he’d rather have Mountford show up every month to give a progress report on the bags instead of Morales.

It is long, tedious and expensive work. Hearthside’s hired archaeologist, Nancy Wiley, famously pegged the cost of the sifting operations at $15 million. As Patricia Martz, a Cal State Los Angeles anthropology professor, told the commission, it would have been cheaper for Hearthside to build a park over the remains and keep them buried.

Still stunned by the commission’s revocation decision as he exited the chambers, Morales said the last hope “for dignity” is in the hands of California’s Native American Heritage Commission, which is scheduled to hear the Bolsa Chica matter Dec. 12 in San Juan Capistrano. Asked if that panel has the teeth to stop the project until his concerns are met, Morales said, “I think they do. I hope so.”

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