Skeletons in Playa Vista’s Closet

J. William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and author of "Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America." Archeologist Chester King advises the National Park Service on Native American cultural resources.

Since last fall, archeologists employed by Playa Vista, the huge luxury housing development near Marina del Rey, have excavated more than 300 skeletons of Gabrielino-Tongva Indians, the indigenous people of Los Angeles, from the southwest corner of the Ballona Wetlands. Burial artifacts, mostly beads and other jewelry, were found with the bones. In addition, remnants of a village -- tools, arrowheads and eating utensils -- have been unearthed.

The site is among the largest known Tongva cemeteries, and it’s a breathtaking discovery, a window to the origins of our city. But Playa Vista developers want the skeletons removed because they are in the path of a proposed drainage corridor for thousands of planned homes and condominiums. According to the plan, the bones would be reburied elsewhere on the property, a center on Native American culture built to guide tourists, and the artifacts sent to UCLA.

For a metropolis that touts its multicultural and diversity credentials, this approach to the culture of the area’s first inhabitants is cavalier and indecent. There is a better way.


The discovery of a major cemetery near Ballona Wetlands was not entirely unexpected by local archeologists. Records from the San Gabriel Mission mention recruitment of Tongva from a group of settlements named Washna (also referred to in some historical and scholarly sources as Saa’angna) near the mouth of Ballona Creek. Before the Spanish conquest, Washna was probably the most important Native American center for trade between the mainland and Catalina Island. For some 3,000 years, the Tongva lived in the area encompassing the Ballona Creek flood plain and the Westchester Bluffs.

Local burial grounds were scattered among homes and ceremonial places. Burial of family members near one another was common, much as it was in colonial New England church cemeteries. According to Jordan David, one of the first Tongva monitors on site (the California Environmental Quality Act requires developers to hire indigenous monitors), older bones appear to have been removed, marked with red ochre in ceremonies and then returned to the sides of the graves to make room for the more recently deceased. If the Playa Vista developers continue to dig eastward at the base of the bluffs to build the drainage ditch, several hundred more graves might be found among other settlements.

The grave excavations raise disturbing questions. In 1991, leaders of several Tongva bands signed an agreement with Playa Vista developers to allow the reburial of any unearthed skeletons elsewhere on the site. The Native American representatives were not professional archeologists. They had no detailed knowledge of Ballona. They thought a few skeletons would be found, not hundreds. Anthony Morales, chief and chairperson of the Gabrieleno-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, now says the discovery of the burial grounds was “not anticipated” by the 1991 agreement.

But when that agreement expired in 2001, the original Tongva signatories were not consulted by the Army Corps of Engineers and Playa Vista developers when they extended it to 2011, claims Robert F. Dorame, council chairman of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California. “I never remember sitting at the table,” he said.

Of the four bands of Gabrielino-Tongva active in Los Angeles, only one supports removing the human skeletons and reburying them elsewhere. To the others involved, the cemeteries are sacred lands being desecrated. “It’s an atrocity,” said Dorame.

David, the Tongva monitor who first complained about the excavations, says Playa Vista’s hired archeologists now avoid him. As a result, his ability to monitor their work -- how skeletal remains and artifacts are handled -- was seriously undermined, and he subsequently left the project.


Meanwhile, the excavations at Playa Vista continue, in violation of the professional ethical codes of both archeologists and anthropologists that require the consent of the people being studied. Many Tongva have recommended a solution: Move the proposed drainage corridor 200 to 300 feet north of the bluff, away from the 18th century Washna village. The developers claim that rerouting the channel would require new permits from the Corps of Engineers. But this hasn’t been a problem in the past. For more thhan 10 years, the corps has granted Playa Vista developers virtually everything they have asked for. There is no reason to think that it would suddenly change this practice, especially when the change would benefit the public good.

Tongva culture says that as a buried body decays and mixes with the soil, the tribe’s relationship with the Earth is renewed. Tongva literally means “people of the Earth.” Removal of skeletal remains breaks this key connection.

The Tongva bones should be reburied in situ, and the continued excavation of Washna village should be monitored by all local groups. Washna merits serious archeological exploration, not a tourist center. The entire area under the Westchester Bluffs could be mapped and studied. To destroy a cemetery to dig a ditch, just because it’s easier and cheaper for the developer, is no way to honor our history.