Los Angeles County officials were justifiably criticized for the rushed and, at least initially, haphazard manner in which they excavated the historic remains discovered when construction crews working on La Plaza de Cultura y Artes accidentally struck the vestiges of a 19th century cemetery. The earth under the courtyard of the new downtown museum, dedicated to Mexican and Mexican American heritage, yielded the bones and artifacts of more than 100 people.
They were most likely a mix of Mexican, Spanish, European, African and Indian settlers who had been buried in a Catholic cemetery. Historical records indicate that the cemetery and its graves were moved in 1844 to another location. Apparently, not all the remains went along. The inventory of what was dug up is stunning and horrifying at the same time: almost complete skeletons, skulls, jaws and teeth, fragments of coffins, metal crucifixes, rosary beads.
County officials made a number of mistakes at the outset, the biggest of which was that they didn't immediately stop the excavation work when they struck the cemetery to consult with historians and descendants of the dead about how to proceed. In the aftermath of their initial blunders, however, they have been more meticulous about the process of reassembly and reburial. They notified likely descendants by reaching out to numerous cultural groups, including dozens of Native American tribes, and consulting with many of them. As required by U.S. law when dealing with Indian remains, they found a federally recognized tribe, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, to assist officially.
Still, the process has been fraught. One of the tribes that has been watching the county's actions fears that the initial excavation was so careless that consultants hired to do the reassembly couldn't possibly avoid commingling remains. "We feel like you might as well make a mass burial in a large hole," Christina Swindall, secretary of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, wrote to county officials.
No DNA testing of the remains was performed, at the request of descendants who wanted to avoid further disturbance of the bones, according to county officials. Because the cultural heritage — let alone individual identities — of the remains could not be positively determined without DNA tests, theU.S. Department of the Interior ruled that the county was not subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But no one involved in this predicament doubts that the remains included some Native Americans. The county has hewed to California statutes governing Native American reburials.
Reassembly of the remains was carried out at the Pomona Fairplex under the watch of representatives of descendants and a monitor chosen by the Soboba Band. Each set of remains and associated goods was put in a cotton bag, then placed in a custom-made birchwood box. Between April 16 and April 20, the boxes were interred.
It is not clear how successful workers were at keeping individuals' remains separate, or how carefully workers and archaeologists at the site documented their original locations. Some eyewitness accounts of the excavation make us skeptical that county officials can be sure they have reburied the sets of remains in the spots from which they were extracted, as the groups consulted wanted them to be.
What was most important for history and for the peace of mind of descendants is that the remains be reburied under the grounds of
La Plaza and memorialized with the dignity and deliberation they were not accorded when they were initially unearthed. And the county appears to be doing that as best it can. Any descendants who wanted to witness the reinterment were allowed. A fence around the site obstructed viewing by curious passers-by. "There will always be questions," said Rose Ramirez of Los Pobladores 200, a group that traces its ancestry to the settlers of Los Angeles. "But we're getting what we wanted right now — reburial."
Los Pobladores will hold a memorial Mass, probably in May. County officials have pledged to allow all groups claiming ancestors to hold ceremonies at the site.
We expect them to follow through on that, even if it means 100 ceremonies over 100 days.