State Panel Backs Native Americans Battling Bolsa Chica Project

After local Native Americans and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust lost their bid before the California Coastal Commission last month to halt Brightwater/Hearthside Homes construction on the Bolsa Chica mesa until they could be satisfied Indian bones were being handled properly, Anthony Morales said the last hope “for dignity” rested with the California Native American Heritage Commission.

Late Friday night, the commission voted unanimously to give the tribal leader of the Gabrielino-Tongva Mission Indian group that dignity.

More specifically, the six commissioners huddled in San Juan Capistrano City Council chambers voted unanimously to help strengthen the Coastal Commission's efforts to force Hearthside to speed up the Native American-monitored sorting of 5,500 bags of remains–crushed bones, teeth, artifacts and soil that Morales says contain “the DNA of our ancestors”–so they can quickly be reburied.  

The Coastal Commission first ordered Hearthside to deal with the remains there “in a timely manner” two years ago, and made that plea again at their meetings in November and again this week.

“This is egregious,” said Native American Heritage Commissioner Laura Miranda.


That summed up the feelings of the 70 people in the room. Representatives for the developer were no shows.

The commission will also send letters to the City of Huntington Beach and the County of Orange expressing concern over the handling of remains at Bolsa Chica in the past and–as it concerns a six-acre parcel adjacent to the Brightwater project that the city is annexing from the county–the future. 

Now that the six-acre property is on the commission's radar, Commissioner James Ramos said, “we're going to keep our eyes and ears on it” so the same chain of events that happened with the Brightwater project does not happen again. 

Commissioners seemed dumbfounded how something like what has been happening at Bolsa Chica could be possible since most likely descendents (MLDs) of the Gabrielino-Tongva and Juaneño-Acjachemen tribes supposedly monitor grading, excavations and reburials at the Brightwater project site. These MLDs have the power to shut down construction until their concerns are dealt with.

This seemed to get to the heart of the problem at Bolsa Chica: a schism between different groups from the two tribes, each of which has its own idea who the rightful MLD is. Juaneños have at least four MLDs, and Hearthside–in the long tradition of other Orange County developers–has been able to achieve its building goals by using tribal disagreements to its advantage. For instance, Hearthside's vice president Ed Mountford just told the Coastal Commission his company has not turned over remains for reburial because different MLDs cannot agree on whether to quickly rebury remains or first sort through them. 

His company's MLD of choice, San Juan Capistrano-based Juaneño leader David Belardes, received many hisses from other Native Americans in the crowd and dismissive tones from at least two commissioners. Belardes said he has served as the MLD at the site for nearly 30 years.

Ancestors of the Gabrielino-Tongva and Juaneño-Acjachemen groups lived on the Bolsa Chica mesa as long as 8,500 years ago, and many older members of those bands say they have always been told there was a village and cemetery there, long before white settlers arrived.

More juicy stuff to come in a later post.

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