David Belardes is an undertaker of a different sort.
Over two decades, he has quietly reburied the bones of hundreds of Native Americans unearthed by bulldozers clearing the way for Orange County housing developments, strip malls and highways.
He quickly relocates the remains to secluded corners of public parks or deep under the construction sites, earning several hundred dollars per body, or a couple of thousand dollars as a flat fee for a larger project. When he is done, the bulldozers roll on.
"The thing to do is get the ancestors moved so they won't be disturbed again," he said.
Belardes personifies the way California deals with its ancient burial grounds and caches of archeological remains tucked a few feet below the Earth's surface. Human bones receive minimal protection, other artifacts receive none under current law.
That could change, thanks to the emerging political clout of casino-enriched tribes statewide, which are donating millions of dollars to election campaigns.
"They haven't had a place at the table. Now they do," said Mary Shallenberger, an aide to state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who sponsored S.B. 1828 last session in an attempt to give Native Americans additional scrutiny over development projects.
Spurred by a Canadian company's plan to mine for gold on the site of an ancient, sacred petroglyph in Northern California, tribal leaders lobbied hard and won passage of the bill.
Faced with the equally powerful wrath and deep pockets of mining, homebuilding and logging companies that said the bill could lead to multimillion-dollar delays on projects across the state, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it. But he promised that his staff would come up with a new version this legislative session.
Belardes said he supports toughening protection of Native American sites, but he'll believe it when he sees it. In the meantime, he'll keep doing it the old way.
"You think Gray Davis is really gonna give us our land when he's got all these developers' funds behind him?" he said. "In my mind, knowing the history of everything that's happened to Native Americans and their land, I don't see it happening.... The most important thing is to rebury the ancestors. The developers know I know my stuff."
But critics in his own tribe say that Belardes' close relationship with developers is one of the reasons the law needs to change. They cite a litany of concerns, including assertions that he is not even Native American; that earning money for what he does amounts to sacrilege, selling out or both; and that state law does not allow for removal of anyone from the program set up to handle ancient sites.
"I don't think anyone should take any money for taking care of our ancestors," said Sonia Johnston, who succeeded Belardes after a bitter 1994 election as tribal chair of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemem Nation. When Mission San Juan Capistrano was built in the 1700s, the Acjachemem were christened the Juanenos. "That's part of our duty, of what we've been put here to do. These are like our grandparents. We don't get paid for doing a ceremony to bury our grandparents."
Johnston, like Belardes, is pessimistic about the chances of any real change in state law. But she says that is no excuse for caving in to developers. Johnston also said that an independent genealogist could find no evidence that Belardes has Native American ancestry.
Proud of His Work
But Belardes, who now leads a different faction that he says is the real tribe, said he is proud of his work mediating between huge developers and weak state law. He dismisses Johnston and other critics bluntly as "crazy New Age Indians ... I know who the real Indians are."
A self-described seventh-generation San Juan Capistrano resident and "bull-headed, stubborn" man, Belardes, 55, says his great-grandmother on his father's side was a Juaneno. For nearly 20 years, Belardes has been one of 250 state-designated "most likely descendants," or MLDs, called in when human remains are unearthed on a construction site.
Under current law, if human bones are found, the bulldozers must pause while the county coroner determines if they are ancient, not the result of modern-day foul play. If they are, the state Native American Heritage Commission is notified, which in turn selects a most likely descendant to go to the site and negotiate with the landowner about what should be done with the bones. There is no state protection of cog stones, pottery or other signs of village life.
Estimates of the number of Native Americans in California before 1769, when Gaspar de Portola arrived, range from 300,000 to 1 million, meaning there are thousands of sites scattered statewide.
Belardes is a plain-spoken man, but when necessary he can rattle off the bureaucratese that makes up the law governing native sites: They are not sacred burial grounds, they're "cultural resources" included as part of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Graves aren't protected, they're "mitigated."
"Under CEQA, it's all mitigation -- you can move a wetland, and you can move a Native American burial ground," he said. "I've done reburials from Camp Pendleton to the toll roads to Portola Hills. Rancho Mission Viejo Co., the Irvine Co., I've done them all."
In 1994, when 600 sets of 9,000-year-old human bones and a staggering quantity of artifacts were found on a bluff near Newport Beach where the Irvine Co. was ready to build luxury homes, the few archeologists who heard about it urged owner Donald Bren not to destroy the site. Belardes and another MLD were called in; the remains were moved to undisclosed trenches and the other items were removed or destroyed.
"It was a total mitigation," said Belardes, adding that the site was "the most amazing" he has ever seen because of its extreme age and quality.
Destruction of the ancient village site outraged tribal elders and others who held prayer vigils and demonstrations outside the upscale gated community. Attempts to prove that Belardes was not a most likely descendant and to have his designation stripped went nowhere, however.
Rob Wood, who oversees Southern California for the state heritage commission, said that while all applicants to the most likely descendant program in the last five years have been required to submit certified reports by independent genealogists, those already on the list were "grandfathered" in. He said the commission has no policy for removing anyone, because the state attorney general had issued an opinion saying it couldn't be done.
Calls Are Rotated
Wood added that a second Juaneno connected to tribal chair Johnston had been designated a most likely descendant and that calls now are rotated between the two. Johnston said Belardes is still the one who gets called to the larger, more controversial sites.
Belardes, for his part, says the newer Juaneno factions have no clue how difficult it is to negotiate with wealthy private landowners long accustomed to getting their way. He said he has worked hard to negotiate for scraps of land on the sites, in the Cleveland National Forest or in county parks.
"The developers think there's no history in Orange County; they just want to build," he said, gesturing to the gentle coastal hills of northern San Juan Capistrano. Such hills were favorite burial spots for Native Americans, who were often laid to rest facing the setting sun.
Belardes, also a groundskeeper for the Capistrano Unified School District, said that it is emotionally exhausting to exhume and reinter human bones, even with the help of an archeologist, and that there is no provision for it in traditional tribal ceremonies. People assumed they would be laid to rest for good.
"The ancestors fight me hard, my sons have to drag me out by my arms sometimes," he said. He said that he sings a traditional mourning song, recites a prayer or a blessing based on what he could glean of the person's life, wraps the remains in a shroud and covers them again.
The latest controversial project Belardes has handled is in his hometown of San Juan Capistrano. Tucked in the shadow of an elevated portion of Interstate 5, Oso and Trabuco creeks join behind two strip malls. Across the street, leaves from a 400-year-old-plus sycamore blow up against a chain-link fence enclosing a grassy field.
"Future Site of Junipero Serra High School," reads a shiny sign on the fence.
Human Bones Below
Underneath the field are cooking shells, fish vertebrae and human bones -- remnants of a village called Putiidhem that existed 300 years ago.
For Johnston and others, to have the same Roman Catholic church that originally destroyed tribal culture do it once again, and name the school after the leading Spanish missionary, "is horribly ironic
Belardes is impatient with such talk. He says he was educated in Roman Catholic schools in town, and prays as both a Catholic and a Native American.
"I live in both worlds," he said.
Unbeknown to his critics, he said, he has already held ceremonies to reinter the graves deeper into the earth.
"They were not invited, I don't need any craziness," he said of those he acknowledged might be genealogically closer to those buried there. "I didn't want to move the ancestors, but they were only three to four feet down, and I wanted them out of the way of the electric lines, the sewer lines, the foundations.... The law says mitigate, the property owner has the right to develop."
Whatever happens with state law, whatever his critics say, Belardes says he knows his place.
"I've got generations in this town, I've got my culture and my heritage, and I know these hills and these valleys better than anybody.... And my sons will know it too."