Indian Affairs Panel to Seek Tighter Tribal Control of Relics

Times Staff Writer

The state’s advisory panel for Indian affairs, citing lessons learned from a controversial archeological excavation in Encino, voted Saturday to seek legislation that would give Native Americans more control over the possessions of their ancestors.

The vote was prompted by a controversy over whether the state or the developer should pay the remaining cost of maintaining and storing about 2 million artifacts recovered from the “Lost Village of Encino.”

Members of the Native American Heritage Commission, concluding a two-day meeting at Santa Barbara Community College, said the state has insufficient resources to display Indian artifacts it already has and should not finance the Encino project.


Artifacts from other excavations stored in state warehouses cannot be returned to local Indian tribes because of pending litigation by archeologists. Scientists maintain that the items should remain in the public domain for research use, officials said.

Artifacts Subject to Lawsuits

If the developer of the Encino site were to donate the artifacts to the state, as he has indicated he would, those items also would be subject to lawsuits and might never be returned to the village descendants, who are the rightful owners, commissioners asserted.

“We have no say-so on private land. The developer can do whatever he wishes,” Commissioner Priscilla Hunter complained. “We need to take a look at existing legislation and find a way to give Native Americans more control over the possessions of their ancestors.”

Commission Chairman Paul Gary Beck said Native Americans and archeologists have conflicting agendas.

“To archeologists, preservation means to dig things up, analyze and study them and put them on display so that the public can learn from them,” Beck said. “To Indians, preservation means putting it back in the ground where it belongs.”

The commission on Friday voted unanimously to oppose a bill that would provide $975,000 in state money to pay the balance of the cost to preserve the Encino artifacts.


Commissioners said the panel’s policy dictates that artifacts and burial remains should be unearthed only as a last resort. By supporting the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), the panel would have signaled approval of excavations at sacred sites, commissioners said.

Archeologists at the Encino site unearthed the remains of at least six people. The remains were reburied at a nearby state park.

‘Our People Can’t Rest’

“For years our Indian people have been chased all over . . . taken from here to there . . . relocated,” Hunter said. “They were attacked and their land was taken from them.

“My feeling is, developers took the top of the land, and now they’re taking the bottom, and our people can’t rest,” said Hunter, who, like the rest of the nine-member commission, is Native American. “They died, they’re buried, but they’re being relocated again because of ‘progress.’ ”

Hunter acknowledged that the unearthing and reburial of the Encino grave sites was done with the approval of Gabrieleno tribe representatives and a staff member of the heritage commission, who has since left the panel. Two other tribes, the Fernandenos and the Chumash, claimed that their ancestors also lived at the Lost Village and complained because they were not consulted.

The developer, First Financial Group Inc. of Encino, has spent $1.7 million for the excavation, more than required by a formula in the state environmental code, state officials confirmed. The archeologist, Nancy A. Whitney Desautels, said she has spent $350,000, for which she expects to be reimbursed, and will need another $500,000 to complete the work.

Items Could Disintegrate

If the items are not properly treated, they will disintegrate, Desautels said.

Beck, who acknowledged that development of sacred sites cannot be stopped, said the panel should re-examine state assessment formulas to determine how to prevent relics from falling into funding limbo. If the Robbins bill is approved, he said, other developers would go running to the state for bail-out money.

“Suppose next week a developer uncovers another large site. Should we spend another $1 million?” he asked. “Where would it stop?

“It’s unrealistic to have the taxpayers of California subsidize development. It would reflect badly on Native Americans. It would result in a backlash that I wouldn’t want to take place.”

Gabrielenos Support Bill

A spokesman for the Gabrielenos told the commission Friday that the tribe supports the Robbins bill, although representatives of the other groups expressed disapproval. The bill has passed the Senate and will be considered by an Assembly subcommittee Monday.

Hunter said the commission will try to ensure that in the future all Indian groups involved are brought together to work out a mutually acceptable position.

“We’ve learned a lesson from that,” Hunter said.