3,000 Years Deep


Picturerd above: A mess of broken pieces from a Gabrieleño-Kizh metate. This item, like many found at construction sites, was returned to the tribe shattered. At this particular site, the tribe and the company could not reach a deal for Native monitoring, which is when a member of the tribe is present at the site in case artifacts are found. This practice helps the tribe find and care for more of their historic remnants (Photo by Natasha Brennan)
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Andrew Salas, the tribal chairman for the Gabrieleño-Kizh Band of Mission Indians, looked up from a 6-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep ditch in the middle of the Commercial and Vignes Street intersection in Los Angeles. The sound of traffic from the 101 freeway nearby mixed with the rhythmic beats coming from the Deja Vu strip club. “There’s more burials here,” he said to the construction crew looming over him.

Preserving cultural artifacts and the bones of his ancestors is a full-time job for Salas as more and more construction sites in Los Angeles county are finding remains and artifacts. But California laws are barely starting to catch up, he says.

“A lot of people see a freeway or a building and don’t think there could be burials there.” Salas said.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation was working to install power cables for their new bus facility when a worker noticed a bone fall into a ditch. Construction was halted and LADOT’s archaeologist was notified, who then contacted the county coroner. When the coroner determined the bones were more than 50 years old and the site was not a crime scene, the archaeologist contacted Salas, according to Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering Construction Management Division Engineer Jose Fuentes.

Though the archaeologist wanted to uncover more of the site to catalog findings, Fuentes said, the tribe’s wishes to not further disturb the burials was honored. But this isn’t always the case for Salas and his tribe.

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Salas and his tribe work in many ways to protect their artifacts and ancestors’ burials. Laws overseen by the Native American Heritage Commission (a California entity that preserves American Indian history) require construction sites to report the findings of any Native American remains, which by law guarantee that the tribe can be involved in the site. If burials are found, the NAHC puts the crew in touch with the most likely descendent (or MLD)–a person elected by their tribe to take up the responsibility to care for any discovered ancestral remains. For the Gabrieleño-Kizh tribe, native to Los Angeles and Orange counties, the MLD is Salas.

Brian Elias, chief coroner of investigation for the county, is the one contacted if bones are found at a site. His office then determines if the site is a crime scene or a burial ground. They examine the bones for the telltale signs of ancient Native American remains–like the color and density of the bones, look for shovel-shaped teeth and rule out anything that shows signs of dental work, he said.

Andrew Salas discusses his tribe's history with visitors at the Victorian Fair held at the Homestead Museum.(Photo by Natasha Brennan

In previous years, the coroner's office would be notified of possible Native American remains three to six times a year, according to Elias. But in recent years, they are notified eight to 10 times a year. His office is only notified in the case of sites that were not previously (and officially) identified as burial sites. Because of this, he attributes the rise in findings to constructions sites digging deeper in deeper into the soil and the popularity of underground parking structures.

When the coroner’s office confirms the bones are native, they contact the Native American Heritage Commission to take over, as per the law.

However, the law gets a little tricky when burials have yet to be found. If the tribe believes a construction site, based on the location and depth of the project, is likely to find cultural resources or human remains, they may do a consultation–a meeting between tribal and site leaders to negotiate that the tribe be present. The act of tribal members being present at the site to see if artifacts are found is called Native monitoring. But laws in place do not require the construction crews to report their location or depth to the tribes, leaving the onus on the tribes to find the sites and contact its leadership.

Though Native monitoring is not a new practice, the recent California assembly bill AB-52 now protects tribal interests in a site. Gabrieleño-Kizh Tribal Biologist Matthew Teutimez said this is a relief, as in previous years most large agencies have their own archaeologists, who are only interested in “in situ” artifacts, or an item found in its original place, he said.

“Finding in situ items is hard to do in a construction site where everyone is throwing things and piles are being made of whatever is dug up,” Teutimez said. “It’s important that the tribe does on-site observation of construction activities for the identification of tribal cultural resources that may be present in the soils. We are the experts in our own culture.”

Members of the tribe and LADOT gather at the plaque recognizing the sacred site El Aliso at the corner of Commercial and Vignes Street in Los Angeles in April.(Photo by Natasha Brennan)

It happens very often that a tribal monitor will notice an item before a construction worker simply by the nature of what they are there to do. For example, Salas tells the story of finding a pot that workers thought was PVC pipe or a molcajete workers thought was just another boulder.

Gabrieleño-Kizh Tribal Vice-Chairwoman Nadine Salas shows her father, Chief Ernie Perez Teutimez Salas, the tribe’s new plaque at the recognition ceremony. When Salas was younger, he was once the MLD for his tribe. He was in charge of a large-scale reburial when many sets of human remains were discovered underneath Union Station in the 1990s. (Photo by Natasha Brennan)

Even though Native monitoring has uncovered amazing artifacts and sites, tribes aren’t always welcome and many sites do whatever they can to avoid working with them. At one site, Salas recalls, the agency’s archaeologist claimed that bones found belonged to possum that would hang from the freeway overpass above. But Salas knew that given the depth of the bones, they had to be buried there from before freeways were even a thing. And the bones were most definitely human.

It is thought that the tribes can be overbearing and slow down a site’s progress, but Salas said his goal is always to work with the site swiftly, for everyone’s interest

In the case of the Commercial and Vignes Street site, Fuentes wrote in an email, “I was pleasantly surprised at the tribe’s being reasonable and willingness to work with me. The tribe’s leader Andy Salas and I remained friends.”

The sifting through exposed bone fragments and materials at the site took altogether about four months. It was an incredible find, as the bones were approximated to be 3,000 to 5,000 years old and belonged to a family–man, woman, and infant–who were high born nobles. This was determined by the expensive ceremonial beads buried with them, Salas and Fuentes said.

Salas likened the site to Arlington Cemetery and said it was a place for royalty to be buried. At the location, now commemorated by a plaque in recognition of the tribe, was a sacred tree known as El Aliso. It was a place of worship, ceremonies and where people of importance were buried. After the bones were collected, Salas did a reburial–placing the bones and the beads found with them in cotton bags (it is important the bag be made of earth-material) and returning them. Sage was burned to bless the spot and the burials were covered with steel plates marked “burial below” in case the spot is ever disturbed again. In April, members of LADOT, the city, the construction crew and the tribe gathered to install the plaque, bless it and share the story of the ancient tree.

Gabrieleño-Kizh Tribal Vice-Chairwoman Nadine Salas cries as she is filled with emotion at the plaque recognition ceremony. (Photo by Natasha Brennan)

Another reason why burials are being found more often is the expansion of streets and freeways. Many of California’s modern freeways were once trade routes, carved out by the feet of Native people.

“We like to say that our tribe used to use the 210, two feet and ten toes,” Salas joked to representatives from the California State Coastal Conservancy at a Nov. 13 consultation.

Accidents would happen on these trails, and Gabrieleño would often bury their members where they died, believing that their soul was attached to the place. The site would often be adorned in beads and offerings, much like how now-days, loved ones of people killed on the road will leave crosses, candles and flowers at the site of a crash, Salas explained to the representatives.

Coastal Project Development Specialist and Santa Ana River Conservancy Program Manager Greg Gauthier along with Executive Officer Sam Schuchat met with the tribe for a consultation regarding a project in Hermosa Beach.

The city hopes to turn two dilapidated parking lots near the ocean into a green space, one with a cistern to collect rainwater. To fund the project, the city applied for a $500,000 grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy. After being contacted by the tribe, Gauthier and Schuchat came out for the consultation where Teutimez and Salas explained why they believe artifacts or burials could be found at the site and asked to set up Native monitoring.

Teutimez explained to the pair that although the parking lots were previously dug upon when they were created, the tribe has learned over the years that these sites were often not monitored correctly and artifacts could still be buried beneath.

“Now that we’re going in to previously disturbed areas, we’re finding more resources and remains,” Teutimez told the pair. “They’re not resources, they’re gifts from our creator to us and all our brothers and sisters.”

At the end of the meeting, the representatives agreed that there is a strong likelihood of finding items at the spot. They told the tribe that they will recommend that the conservancy put a condition on the funding to the city’s project, requiring them to have the tribe present for monitoring.

It was a big win for the tribe and exactly what they hoped for.

“We just want to be able to tell people like them, ‘Hey, here’s what we know. Here’s what our elders teach us and we think could be found.’ And they allow us to be there. That’s all we want–is to be there. Just in case,” Teutimez said.

Interesting Gabrieleño items found

Many artifacts are discovered beneath the ground in LA and Orange Counties. Here are a few and their cultural significance. (Photos by Natasha Brennan)

Beneath the 405

Gabrieleño-Kizh Tribal Biologist Matthew Teutimez talks to a boy at la Fiesta de Rancho San Jose about his tribe’s history. The tribe’s booth displays many artifacts found at sites or discovered through Native monitoring. (Photo by Natasha Brennan)

On Sept. 25, bones were found by construction workers excavating the area as part of the I-405 expansion project. The project archaeologist and county coroner were contacted, who identified the bones of possible Native American descent. Construction was immediately halted and remains to be as the agency in charge of the project, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), and the tribe negotiate on further action, according to OCTA authorities. However, the project is still projected to meet its completion by 2023.

Salas, who is an MLD for the area, said that halting construction would not be his goal and coverage of the event by news outlets make it seem like it is the fault of Native tribes. He worries that this perceived bad press will scare other agencies, not wanting their projects to be stalled, to not allow his tribe in for Native monitoring or contact other, more lax tribes, to be the MLD, he said.

According to OCTA authorities, the Native American Heritage Commission has yet to name an MLD. But according to Salas, he has already been to the site and likely be there again later in December.

Leaders of the Kizh tribe give a prayer at the first annual Toibingna Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration in October held at Ganesha Park in Pomona.(Photo by Natasha Brennan)

Salas and his tribe say that the freeway sits on what was a trading route. It is in his tribe’s tradition to bury fallen travelers where they died, as their soul is attached to the earth there. He expects that more burials will be found in the project.

Though providing information regarding the location or description of a grave, cemetery, objects, or sacred places is prohibited (Government Code Sections 6254(r) and 6254.10 and Public Resources Code Section 21082.3), word still got to the Orange County Register, who broke the story, and later the LA Times.

The $1.9 billion project spans 16 miles, from Costa Mesa to the county line. The project aims to expand the 405 by a lane on each side and a second lane in the median of the freeway to be combined with an existing carpool lane to form the 405 Express Lanes.

“OCTA and its partners recognize the cultural sensitivity of the issue and is working with all parties involved to ensure appropriate and respectful procedures are followed,” OCTA Media Relations Specialist Eric Carpenter wrote in an email.

Where have artifacts and burials been found?

Cultural resources and human remains are being found often and everywhere. LA County Chief Coroner of Investigations credits the increase in discoveries to the popularity of underground parking structures being built and other construction projects that go deeper into the earth.