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Native American burial site believed to be found amid a freeway construction project

405 Freeway construction
Traffic crawls along the northbound 405 Freeway during rush hour in Westwood.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A road widening project has been indefinitely halted after a Native American burial site was believed discovered in a construction zone for the 405 Freeway.

Construction workers who were excavating as part of the I-405 Improvement Project spotted the remains, including bones, on Sept. 25 at an undisclosed location. According to Eric Carpenter of the Orange County Transit Authority, agency officials are prohibited by law from providing a location or description of a grave or sacred places.

After consulting with the Orange County Coroner’s office, the case was passed to the California Native American Heritage Commission, which will try to find out which tribe the remains might be linked to.

“OCTA and its partners recognize the cultural sensitivity of the issue and will work with all parties involved to ensure appropriate and respectful procedures are followed,” Carpenter said. “It’s unclear at this point what effect, if any, it will have on the construction schedule or cost.”

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State and federal laws are in place to ensure that Native American remains and grave markers are properly handled with respect to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes. The California Native American Heritage Commission was not available to provide details about the remains, or whether an affiliated tribe has been identified.

Walter Ahhaitty, operations manager at the nonprofit Southern California Indian Center, said a ritualistic ceremony typically takes place when the remains of a Native American are discovered. There are no federally recognized tribes in Orange County or Los Angeles County, so Ahhaitty said it’s possible that representatives of other tribes would be called to take part in such a practice.

“With my own tribal people, we don’t mess with those type of things. But in mainstream society, we have to make sure we move forward with projects in place,” said Ahhaitty, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. “It’s heartbreaking to know that this person or persons are being disturbed. But society moves forward.”

In 2007, 164 Native American remains were found at a Huntington Beach construction site. Stones and human fragments believed to be as old as 8,500 years confirmed that the site was a major burial ground.

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Ahhaitty compares removal of Native American remains to the emotional anguish felt at the sight of a destroyed grave or an upended coffin. Though the grave of the Native American was unmarked, the person who was buried was real.

“They are somebody that was here once upon a time.”


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