This is Where We Pray

Photo courtesy of
Lillian Robles' familyA large brown hawk wheeled over the circle of 70 people standing in the San Mateo Campground parking lot, listening to a middle-aged spiritual leader. Was it just coincidence? At each of the next five stops on this cross-county pilgrimage to the county's sacred Indian sites, a hawk or an eagle would circle above the same human circle.

That observation sparked this one: when a large bird flies overhead, Native Americans look up while everyone else stares straight ahead. But when a plane flies overhead, everyone else looks up while Native Americans stare straight ahead. It's as if we're tuned to different radio stations.

“This is not a protest—it's a prayerful vigil,” said the spiritual leader, whose straight black hair is losing its battle against gray. As he spoke, a Native American woman “cleansed” the participants, spreading white smoke from a burning bundle of coastal sage over each, head to toe, front and back.

“My name is Jimi Castillo,” said the spiritual leader, leaning on a large stick adorned with skins and feathers and topped with the head of a formerly living brown eagle. “I am Tongva, and I am Acjachemem.”

The Tongva people inhabited much of Los Angeles and Orange counties down to Aliso Creek before the Spanish arrived and renamed them Gabrielenos after Mission San Gabriel. The Acjachemem lived from south of Aliso to northern San Diego County. They were renamed Juanenos after Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Many in the circle had arrived in cars and pickups with bumper stickers touting Indian causes. One Buick sedan had a large sign in the back window with the American flag and the words “United We Stand.” A hand-painted “Save All of Bolsa Chica” sign stood upright in the front window of an old VW van. Several in the circle wore T-shirts bearing Native American images. Some women wore traditional Indian dress, their long, colorful skirts reaching incongruously to the tops of their Nikes.

The Harbor Cove tract in Newport
Beach may have been built on the
oldest and largest cemetary in the U.S.
Photo by Keith May

“Grandma Lillian Robles started this five years ago,” Castillo told the circle. “She passed away in April. Members of her family are here. I was in sweat lodge last night. Grandma Lillian came there. I invited her to come with us today.”

Robles, who died of cancer at age 84, was an elder in the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. Her direct descendents were already here when Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 and the city of Los Angeles was settled five years later. Her obituary ran in newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Seattle Times. Robles had earned a national reputation for battling developers to preserve ancient Indian sites. “This land speaks to me,” she used to say.

Robles conceived the pilgrimage five years ago to remind people that there is sacred Native American land all over Orange County and that Native Americans and others here intend to make sure no one builds over those sites.

“People have the mistaken belief that the Indians are all gone,” Castillo said. “This is to show that we're still here. Our people have been here for 25,000 years.”

Grandma Lillian is gone, but her struggle continues. Every plot of land that was prayed over on Oct. 6 is earmarked for development. The proposed route for the extension of a toll road would carve through an ancient burial ground south of San Clemente. Luxury homes have already been built over sacred spots in Newport Beach and on the Bolsa Chica mesa near Huntington Beach. More homes have been approved for Bolsa Chica, while a golf course and other developments threaten a Native American burial ground at Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach. The holiest Native American land in the area is on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, where over the years preservation battles have ended with both stunning victories and defeats.

“There are supposed to be laws to protect sacred land,” said Piit Secna Nosuun, whose given name is Kathy Sandoval. “This is where we pray. This is where we come to honor our ancestors. This is where we come together as a community. We must honor this place as much as we can. We will not let anyone build anything here because this is sacred land.”

Even among Native Americans, there's disagreement about the proper handling of sacred land. While some Indians believe sacred sites should be left alone, others are paid by developers to handle the excavation and removal of bone fragments and chipped pots to storage facilities, museums or final resting places.

Bolsa Chica mesa is among
the stops on the pilgrimage
to sacred Indian land started
by Lillian Robles.
Photo by Keith May


Such divisions leave developers free to work with the tribal leader likely to put up the least resistance. Consider the Juanenos, for example. Though a recent court decision recognizes Jean Frietze as the Juaneno leader, the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest land developer, recognizes the authority—and pays for the advice—of David Belardes. When the city of San Juan Capistrano wanted to ban an Indian casino proposed for that city, they recognized Belardes; when it came time to rent space in the city's old fire station to Juaneno leaders, they recognized Frietze. There's even a third leader for them to choose from: Sonia Johnston of Huntington Beach.

These are not polite disagreements. They pit commercial gain and political power against cosmologies. Several local Native Americans, infuriated over land-use decisions made on their behalf—often in secret—have threatened men and women they regard as sellouts or plunderers. Bullets have been sent anonymously over the years to developers, archaeologists and Indian monitors. When Seal Beach Mayor Gwen Forsythe received a bullet in the mail in 1997, she promptly resigned out of fear—and then promptly rescinded her resignation.

“If we were attached to one place, we would be united,” said Mike Aguilar, who during the pilgrimage toted an American flag emblazoned with an Indian on horseback and who is vice chairman of one of the three Juaneno tribes. But the Native Americans are spread out over Southern California and beyond. “The government did not want us to be united,” Aguilar said. “When you're not united, you're weak.”


While walking out of the campground parking lot, Sandoval had taught everyone to chant “Supu'lgna Cha'am Milu'utuwun.” I never did ask what that means, but the repetitive, collective hum of that last syllable—wunnnnn—haunted me as we walked, as slowly and solemnly as a funeral march, to the campground's southern fence, the one facing a grove of thick brush atop Pahne, one of the largest and most sacred Indian burial sites.

As the chanting continued, Castillo blew into a high-pitched whistle, pointed a large hawk feather at the sky, and motioned toward his chest to summon the spirits.

“The toll road is supposed to go from here to the beach,” he said, sweeping his arm from the hills to the ocean. “Even the park rangers don't want it. I don't know why the beach is so glamorous; they always seem to be closing it because of pollution. Our ancestors and artifacts are buried just on the other side of this fence. That's why we're here to pray.”

Grandma Lillian traced her ancestors to this village. Her son, Lewis Robles Jr., assured the circle that their mere presence would cause “people in the campground to ask, 'Oh, there are Indians in California?' No, someone didn't just water the ground, and the missions sprouted up.

“My mom is so happy,” he continued. “We're reminding people of what we lost and of what there is left to save.”

Native Americans have banded together with the park service and the Sierra Club to stop the toll road from cutting through the campground and Pahne, where remains recovered from throughout Orange County have been respectfully reburied, even long before there was a campground, let alone a Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the quasi-public bureau that builds and maintains Orange County's private toll roads.

Asked later how her agency would deal with sacred Indian land, TCA spokeswoman Lisa Telles said that route is just one of six alternatives under consideration “for improving south Orange County traffic flow.” Environmental documents that will have to be filed before any grading can begin will include a chapter on cultural sites. The agency's analysis should be available for public review next summer.

But toll-road builders do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting ancient Indian sites. The TCA was heavily criticized in 1995 for bulldozing a Laguna Canyon cave believed to be an ancient Native American observatory, a kind of modest California Stonehenge.

“We have to start saying they will not put a toll road here,” Sandoval said of Pahne. “We cannot let them do it.”


“Drinking water!” Castillo barked as our group—now 125 strong—walked down Jamboree Road in Newport Beach. I thought the tall, skinny man with flowing white hair who sprinted to the front of the procession was going to whip out a bottle of water for the spiritual leader. Actually, John Drinkingwater had been summoned to lead the next chant.


The sun broke through the clouds as we marched to the outer edge of Harbor Cove; the 149 homes there go for about $500,000 to $1 million each. Rental boats on the sandy banks of Newport Dunes could be seen in the distance.

Before these Irvine Co. homes sprouted in 1997, the entire area was known as ORA-64—the designation for the 64th Orange County archaeological site. The place had always been considered a treasure trove of ancient Indian artifacts—the oldest decorated, fired-clay ceramics in the Western hemisphere were unearthed here in 1971. But it wasn't until development began that the world discovered how special it really was.

“They removed 600 to 900 bodies,” Castillo said of home builders. “They built a housing tract on an ancient burial ground. Our people have been here 9,000 years. It was already an ancient village when the pyramids were built in Egypt.”

Later, Castillo explained he doesn't arrive at the number of bodies bagged up and removed from places like Harbor Cove from information supplied by developers. Instead, when any bones are dug up, the county coroner must be informed. By researching public records of coroner visits, Native Americans have determined how many of their ancestors have been exhumed. Castillo's body count was confirmed years ago by a Cal State Fullerton archaeologist, although the Irvine Co. called the figure “ludicrous,” saying the bones removed from ORA-64 would fit in one suitcase. The company was also quick to point out that all excavation was done in accordance with state law, that they worked through the California Native American Heritage Commission to identify the most likely descendents to handle reburials, that they spent $2 million dealing with the remains, and that, hell, everyone should thank the Irvine Co. for uncovering such an important historical find.

But academics across the country were not sending thank-you notes. They noted that the bones weren't carbon-dated before they were reburied. The Irvine Co. said it was abiding by tribal leaders' wishes that the bones not be further disturbed. The wishes of the developer's paid Indian monitor certainly helped speed construction: initial tests on a small bone fragment suggested it was between 4,000 and 9,500 years old, a finding that might have slowed home building.

“We kept walking around saying, 'Where is the Smithsonian? Where is National Geographic?'” one archaeological worker, who requested anonymity, reportedly told the Los Angeles Timesin 1997. “It was a fantastic, amazing story. Sad situation. Sad story. I guess money talks.”

Another worker told The Orange County Register that backhoes were used to quickly dig up remains even though state law dictates they be removed by hand, a much slower process.

The massive number of bones at Harbor Cove suggested that ORA-64 may have been the oldest and largest cemetery in the United States. Whether the Harbor Cove residents were informed of that before they bought their homes is debatable. The Irvine Co. says they were, but some homeowners told the daily papers otherwise.

Not that it matters much now. As Castillo peered over at Harbor Cove, he told the crowd, “Here, the damage is already done. We don't know where those remains went. This is just one small village throughout the county that's been taken down through development.”

As we left Harbor Cove, I asked him about those Native American monitors hired by developers.

“They are usually paid $200 to $500 per day. There's a lot of this,” Castillo said rubbing his fingers together in the internationally recognized sign for “gobs of money.”

Those monitors know they'd better sign off on the project if they want to get hired for the next one. Many times, the monitors are not even members of the local tribes whose people are being unearthed, and the local tribes are not informed about the reburials.

Looking back at the long line of walkers leaving Harbor Cove, Dr. Laura Williams shook her head and said with bemusement, “And people say there are no Indians in Orange County.” A Juaneno, she used to head the Native American health department at UC Irvine, where she was the first woman from a California tribe on a UC faculty. She now runs a health program through Native Voices for Change that serves 19 San Diego-area tribes.

While the most recent U.S. census says that 2,000 Native Americans reside in Orange County, there are actually many more who are misidentified as Hispanics because in 1784, Spanish priests at Mission San Juan Capistrano stripped many Indians of their names and gave them Hispanic names instead. This historic misidentification has led to the perception that the Native American population is dwindling here. A diminished identity, intertribal politics and rampant development have combined to make it nearly impossible to preserve sacred Indian sites, Williams said.


“It wasn't until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, that we could even do this,” she said with rising incredulity. “If we met together as one large group, we would have been arrested—for this! Before, this was seen as anti-United States even though the Americans' ancestors first came here to escape religious persecution. By not being able to meet, we lost a lot of our traditions and songs and culture.”


As 135 pilgrimage participants followed a narrow trail above the trash-strewn banks of Outer Bolsa Bay near Huntington Beach, a thin but muscular white man with a crew cut and day pack strapped to his back darted past our slow foot traffic.

“Someone's getting ready for Afghanistan,” one member of the group observed.

The next day, the first American bombs began raining down on that country.

It was noonish, the sun was blazing, and if you looked up the coast, downtown Long Beach seemed close enough to touch. Besides the Army man, several other people were out enjoying the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. Some walked their dogs, some took leisurely strolls, and some snapped photos of herons lurching alongside the wetlands.

If Hearthside Homes gets its way, those photographers will no longer be shooting glistening water, migrating birds or wildflowers, but mounds of glass and stucco every bit as nondescript as any other retail/residential complex in Orange County.

“They say they want to take the royalties from these developments and restore the wetlands,” Castillo told the circle, chuckling. “I don't understand how you can restore what was created.”

He placed his hand at his waist.

“Grandma Lillian was this tall,” he said, “and she'd get in front of these city officials and shake her finger at them and say, 'You are not going to build over this.'”

A plaque in a staked-off area a few feet from where he spoke states, “The Bolsa Chica Stewards Memorial Native Garden honors Ridgely Keeley and Lillian Robles.”

“I feel my mama walking with us right now,” Lewis Robles Jr. said. “She's so happy. So many artifacts have been dug up. We do know there were people here. After seeing what has happened to the last site in Newport Beach, to be here makes us realize how special it is.”

For decades, Hearthside—formerly Koll Real Estate Group—has wanted to build over the nature preserve. First, it was tens of thousands of homes, a shopping mall and a marina. Amid growing public opposition—fueled by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust environmental group that counted Lillian Robles as a member—plans have been scaled back dramatically. Heading into this year, the wetlands were off the table (they were sold to the state), and Hearthside instead wanted just 1,200 homes on the 208-acre Bolsa Chica mesa. The state Coastal Commission stepped in earlier this year and cut the buildable acreage to 73 and the number of homes to 387. Hearthside has appealed the decision.

Like the Irvine Co., Hearthside or Koll—whatever it has been called over the years—has always maintained it has done everything by the book. Indeed, Koll and the Irvine Co. share the same Indian monitor—which is part of the problem, the Juanenos at the pilgrimage said.

The archaeologist who confirmed the Harbor Cove body count says the Bolsa Chica mesa was definitely an ancient Indian burial site. For that reason, Robles says, he will not rest until the number of homes and buildable acres has been scaled back to zero.

“If it's just the Bolsa Chica Land Trust or it's just the Juanenos or it's just some residents, they can say hardly anyone opposes them here,” he said. “But if it's all of us together, we can make sure they hear us and that there is no way there is any building here.”


When the circle re-formed on the other side of a wall from the Sandover tract—16 homes selling for more than half a million dollars built on the end of the Bolsa Chica mesa farthest from the wetlands—our numbers had dwindled to 90. Castillo called the place where we stood “the log area” even though “the logs are no longer here.” They were replaced by those 16 homes.


Last year, the pilgrimage was greeted by several Huntington Beach residents and city officials who said those 16 homes would never be built on a site the National Registry of Historical Places is considering recognizing for its cultural significance. They didn't make it out this year. But Virginia Bickford did. She's a Los Alamitos resident who did something many others with a master's in archaeology did with their degrees: she went to work in a field that had nothing to do with archaeology. After 20 years with Boeing's aircraft division, she has returned to her first love, volunteering for the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to protect historical sites from development.

When she heard rumors three months ago that excavations were secretly going on near Sandover, she came by one morning and found a large hole surrounded by a fence. “It was definitely an excavation site,” she said.

No one was around that hole, but as she walked back to her car, she noticed a lot of activity at a larger fenced-in site in the field to the south. When Bickford returned the next day with a camera to document the activity, the holes and fences were gone. She called the Coastal Commission and was told their staff members had been out that same morning and saw no signs of excavation.

“It's all been covered up,” Bickford said.

No tribe was officially notified of any excavation at the site, but Castillo said an examination of coroner records proves 25 bags of artifacts and remains were removed from Sandover.

“We know there were ancestors found here,” Robles said. “They put up fences so we can't see what they are doing, but we know what they are doing.”

The developer recently blamed this hush-hush digging on lawsuits by environmentalists. In other words, because of pending litigation, they couldn't talk about the fact that they were churning up dead Indians.

It's enough to piss you off royally. But Castillo, pointing to Aguilar in his Old Glory hat and waving his large American flag with the Native American on horseback in the middle, said, “Someone asked me if I have a problem with him flying the flag. I have no problem with it. Like I said, this is a time of prayer, not protest. Flying the flag is not going to take away from my prayer. If I was protesting, I'd probably have this guy fly the flag upside-down.”

It still seemed strange, considering everything men carrying the Stars and Stripes have done to Native Americans over the centuries. As the circle broke up, I asked Aguilar, “I don't mean to offend, but wasn't that flag carried by men who killed your ancestors years ago?”

“Native Americans carried this flag when they killed other Native Americans?” he said, puzzled. “Uh, I don't know anything about that.”

“No,” I corrected. “I was thinking more along the lines of white men who . . .”

“Oh, you mean like the cavalry?” Aguilar said. “Yes, that was a long time ago. Today I see this symbol as a reminder that there is a Native American in each state, so that when we come together like this, no matter how many of us there are, we are representing all Native Americans and all of America. I've been carrying this flag since we started this five years ago with Lillian Robles. Even now, I am more proud of the work she has done to preserve the wetlands—to say that this land is not just for the wealthy. Why not leave the wetlands alone?”

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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