The state’s Native American Heritage Commission is asking developers at Playa Vista to stop excavating land near Centinela Creek, where workers uncovered a 200-year-old Indian cemetery containing the remains of at least 160 people.
Playa Vista officials have refused to stop work, saying an agreement with tribal representatives allows the removal of the bodies and provides guidelines on handling of the remains.
Workers discovered the burial ground of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe in October while removing dirt to create a waterway -- Playa Vista calls it a “stream,” critics call it a “drainage ditch” -- to catch water runoff from Playa Vista and neighboring housing developments near Marina del Rey.
The state commission, responsible for identifying Native American cultural resources, has sent Playa Vista officials six letters since December, asking them to stop removing the remains, which workers continue to find almost every day.
In a Feb. 19 letter, Larry Myers, the board’s executive secretary, wrote: “It is vexing that these activities can continue in what can be interpreted as an ethnocentric disregard of Native American cultural concerns.”
Playa Vista officials say that they had expected to find Indian remains, and that excavations were permitted under an agreement crafted by state and local regulators 13 years ago and signed by Playa Vista and three representatives of the Gabrielino-Tongva. The pact included detailed procedures for handling cultural artifacts or bodies found during construction. The agreement was extended in 2001 for 10 years.
“We are doing a comprehensive and respectful job here in accordance with a long-standing agreement with Native American stakeholders,” said Steve Soboroff, president of Playa Vista, the giant residential and commercial complex near Marina del Rey. The agreement was “signed by Native American parties and they included instructions for dealing with issues exactly like this. Nothing new has come up,” he said.
But the Native American Heritage Commission says the agreement needs revision, given the significant number of remains uncovered.
“We didn’t know they would find a cemetery,” said Rob Wood, the board’s Southern California program manager. “Neither the agreement, nor the environmental documents, anticipated such a big find. They should consult with the Native American community and look at alternatives.”
Playa Vista officials say the documents still apply, regardless of the number of remains found.
The state board has no law enforcement powers. It can ask, but not compel, Playa Vista to stop work. It is looking at possible legal action, Wood said. A commission representative visited the site for the first time March 4.
“We’ll keep writing letters, trying to get the developer to stop and look at preservation,” Wood said.
Among those opposing the excavation is Robert Dorame, a Bellflower resident who has been designated by the Native American Heritage Commission as the “most likely descendant” of the Indians buried at the site. That designation gives Dorame authority to recommend how the remains should be handled. Though his comments carry weight, they are just recommendations and may be ignored by the developer.
Dorame has asked that the remains be left where they were found. On a visit to the construction site, he clutched a stack of more than 100 letters from the Indian community expressing concerns about the treatment of human remains at Playa Vista.
One major concern is that moving the remains will damage them.
“There’s human remains in buckets that they’re going to shake through sifters,” said Jordan David, who works on the site as a Native American monitor. “Even using a brush breaks the bone. There’s no way to remove these burials without causing destruction.”
Archeologists overseeing the excavation say all of the work is done by hand. Bones and burial objects, such as beads and baskets, are drawn and mapped so they can be reinterred as they were found. Dorame himself approved these detailed procedures for handling remains and identifying funerary objects.
“He requested maps; we created maps,” said Donn Grenda, director of Statistical Research Inc.'s California office, which was hired to remove the remains. “The human remains, the funerary objects, the soil -- all that goes back into the ground. We’re trying to comply and put people back with the right stuff; that’s the goal of doing this.”
But Dorame says those procedures were not meant to apply to a large burial ground.
“If there’s two or three remains ... yes, you may follow those recommendations,” he said. “But we’re talking about a cemetery. Every Indian knows it’s a cemetery. The protocols can change.”
Archeologists have known the site contained Native American remains since the mid-1940s, when artifacts were unearthed for the Southwest Museum.
So far, the remains are confined to an area approximately 100 feet by 65 feet. To excavate and catalog all of the remains, Playa Vista has hired more than 45 archeologists from Statistical Research, a well-known firm that has done work throughout the western United States.
California law requires that the remains be reinterred somewhere on the property, and Dorame will recommend a new burial site.
Groups protesting the development say Playa Vista should look at alternative plans, such as redesigning the waterway to avoid the cemetery.
Playa Vista also plans to build a cultural center near the stream that will celebrate the history and traditions of Native Americans -- in particular the Gabrielino-Tongva. Developers have been working alongside the Gabrielino-Tongva to develop those exhibits.
Environmentalists have long tried to block construction of the Playa Vista project. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up a legal dispute over a federal permit for creating the waterway, letting stand a lower court ruling favoring the development.
“The people who are making the ruckus here are long-standing opponents of Playa Vista who have always done the same thing: to say and do anything to hurt the project,” Soboroff said.
Among the Gabrielino-Tongva, divisions have emerged, with some supporting Playa Vista and others denouncing it. Each side has gone out of its way to criticize the other.
Dorame said he represents the viewpoints of most tribe members.
Not so, said Martin Alcala, a member of the Santa Monica branch of Gabrielino-Tongva, who has been monitoring the excavation. He believes the remains are being treated with respect.
“In a perfect world, I would love for my ancestors to just stay there,” Alcala said. “But it’s not a perfect world; they have to move in this case.”