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Restoring harmony with reburial

Abdollah and Song are Times staff writers

More than 15 years of acrimony came to an end Saturday when about 1,000 Native American remains that had been exhumed during construction were laid to rest and covered with white seashells during a sacred burial ceremony near the Westchester bluffs.

For Robert Dorame, a Bellflower resident designated by the state Native American Heritage Commission as the “most likely descendant” of the American Indians buried at the site, the day represented a peaceful conclusion to a painstaking project in which he supervised the blessing and bundling of the remains.

“The ancestors have been sitting in cardboard boxes in shelves on a trailer for a lot of years,” Dorame said. “So you know, it’s a great -- we use the word in our language awesko -- a rejoice. . . . We’re happy it’s finally come to an end.”

Most of the remains were discovered after construction began on the Playa Vista luxury housing development, prompting negotiations and bitter fights among tribal representatives, developers and various local and state officials.

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On Saturday, the remains were interred in a freshly dug grave as elders paid their final respects in a private ceremony. In the afternoon, the area was opened to visitors who scattered pieces of seashells over the site, which will soon be covered by native plant species including cactus.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area, referenced the bitter past and peaceful ending when addressing the crowd of about 300.

“There was a combination of anger . . . and a feeling of joy and happiness,” he said.

The remains and artifacts were interred in a 4,100-square-foot patch of land adjacent to their original burial site.

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The land, sandwiched between the posh high-rise buildings of Playa Vista and a newly formed waterway to channel runoff from nearby neighborhoods, was once home to the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe. From 3500 BC through the 1820s, the tribe fished, hunted and lived throughout much of the area that today is called the Ballona wetlands and Westchester bluffs. It is here that the village of Guashna was located, as well as a burial site for nearly 400 American Indians.

When Playa Vista developers in the early 1990s proposed their two-phase project of nearly 6,000 luxury housing units, more than 3.2 million square feet of office space and 180,000 square feet of retail space, they knew that Native American remains could be a concern. Artifacts and bones had been found periodically throughout the area.

But reaching an agreement on how to handle the remains proved difficult for several reasons.

Federal laws designed to protect Native American remains from being removed did not apply in this case because the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe has never been federally recognized. A private agreement was crafted in 1991 by state and local regulators, Playa Vista and three representatives of the Gabrielino-Tongva. The agreement detailed procedures for handling bodies or cultural artifacts found during construction. Archaeologists from Statistical Research Inc. were hired by Playa Vista to dig, catalog and box the remains and artifacts that were found. But the tribe was fractured over the agreement, and many leaders said they had not been informed about what was happening.

As the project lagged, the agreement was extended in 2001 for another 10 years.

In 2003, when workers began digging out soil to create a waterway for drainage from neighborhood homes and storm water treatment, they discovered a burial site dating back at least 200 years and hundreds of Native American remains. The number of remains surprised all sides and inflamed tensions again.

The Native American Heritage Commission sent strongly worded letters to Playa Vista officials saying their sacred lands had been violated, and environmentalists filed lawsuits over the waterway that were appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But after Saturday’s reburial, the fight is over.

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“It’s closure on an issue that’s been challenging and difficult,” said Steve Sugerman, a spokesman for Playa Vista. “We’ve handled it in the most respectful way we knew how to follow. . . and we hope this brings focus to their history and their culture and celebrates it, as well as moving forward.”

As part of that focus, Playa Vista plans to complete a museum dubbed the Discov- ery Center to educate people about the Ballona wetlands and the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe. It is expected to be completed at the end of next year.

“Here’s the recognition of who we are in Los Angeles,” Dorame said. “This is the native land and the prime places that have been overrun . . . and here we are giving new generations the opportunity to understand us and to know we’re still here. We take care of the land; we take care of our ancestors.”

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com


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