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Some 405 Freeway construction halted after workers discover human remains believed to be Native American

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Constructions crews recently completed the new Slater Avenue bridge over the 405 Freeway in Fountain Valley, but work has been halted elsewhere following the discovery of human remains believed to be Native American.
(File Photo)

The 405 Freeway widening project hit a snag recently when human remains believed to be of Native American descent were found during excavations, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Construction workers found the bones Sept. 25, said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter. The location was not disclosed because OCTA officials are prohibited by law from providing a location or description of a grave or sacred places, Carpenter said. Agency officials also are concerned that revealing where the remains were found might encourage some people to go exploring for more.

After the bones were found, construction was halted immediately and officials consulted with an archaeologist and the county coroner’s office, Carpenter said. Officials suspect the bones are human and of Native American descent, he said.

“Work remains stopped in the area while all established procedures are followed,” he wrote in an email Thursday.

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OCTA is consulting with the California Native American Heritage Commission on how to proceed, Carpenter said.

“The commission determines a most likely descendant from a local Native American tribe,” Carpenter said. “OCTA and its partners recognize the cultural sensitivity of the issue and will work with all the parties involved to ensure appropriate and respectful procedures are followed.”

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 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.

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“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.

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,” Ahhaitty said.

It isn’t clear whether the discovery will affect the larger freeway project’s construction schedule or cost, Carpenter said. Officials have said the $1.9-billion expansion is expected to be complete in early 2023.

The overall project entails adding an additional general-purpose lane and a new “express” toll lane to both directions on a 16-mile stretch of the 405 between the 73 Freeway in Costa Mesa and the 605 Freeway near Rossmoor.

Eighteen freeway bridges will be built, replaced or reconfigured as part of the project. That work has affected the bridges at Harbor Boulevard and Fairview Road in Costa Mesa, McFadden Avenue in Huntington Beach and Westminster, and Bushard Street and Talbert and Slater avenues in Fountain Valley.

For more information about the project, visit octa.net/405improvement.

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Colleen Shalby is a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Daily Pilot staff contributed to this report.

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Updates:
5:17 PM, Oct. 10, 2019: This article was originally published at 10:59 a.m. and has been updated with additional information.

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