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Rest in Peace: Ancestors Finally Return to El Pueblo

After improperly excavating the remains of more than 100 people who were buried at the first cemetery in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, next to La Placita Catholic Church, downtown, the County of Los Angeles finally returned the remains to their eternal resting place in April. County officials acted in response to the outrage of Native Americans and descendants of the Pobladores -- the original 44 settlers of Los Angeles -- whose Ancestors are buried at the site, a media outcry, and federal pressure to follow the law. The remains traveled a trail of tears from the burial site, to offices in Whittier, to Cal State L.A., to the County Museum of Natural History at Exposition Park, to the Pomona Fairgrounds Fairplex, and finally back to their burial site. We bear witness to the truth of what happened, out of respect for the Ancestors, to commemorate the pain of their descendants, to preserve history - and to hold public officials accountable so this never happens again. Public records and witness accounts depict what happened.

The excavations were appalling and horrific. The county excavated 27 "almost complete adult skeletons," 4 "almost complete burials," 74 other sets of "human remains," including skulls that could not be pieced together into complete skeletons or burials, and 82 sets of "associated funerary objects" such as pieces of coffins, crucifixes and beads, according to the county's own draft inventory obtained under a public records request. The remains were carted around the county in over 315 bags, 16 buckets, 7 boxes and 2 jackets.

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The county dug up all these dead people and their artifacts in 11 weeks between October 28, 2010, and January 14, 2011, in a small space said to be the size of a basketball court. That's a skeleton or burial every other weekday, plus more than one other set of human remains every weekday, plus more than one set of associated funerary objects every weekday, on average. The sheer magnitude of what the county dug up belies any claim that the excavations were accidental.

An archeological field worker who had recently graduated from UCLA blew the whistle on December 28, 2010. He is a hero here. According to an email that day, "He quit the project today when they uncovered a burial with a partial biface and some beads that appear likely to be Native. The supervisors were planning on doing nothing about it, saying the 'coroner' had already checked off on the removal of the bodies a few weeks ago (well before most had been uncovered) and that there was no legal obligation to notify potentially affiliated tribes. [The worker] was pretty upset about the whole thing . . ." The email continues, "According to [the worker], there was no provenience system until he arrived about 40 burials into the project. The original plan had been to remove bones as they came up in the backhoe digging trenches to install a fountain in the garden. I think they started finding so many burials very quickly that plans changed. . . The whole thing sounds like a company that is completely overwhelmed by the scale of what they're doing and that whatever agency is responsible for oversight is completely asleep at the wheel."

The worker contacted the Native American Heritage Commission that day. Action by commission staff, Native Americans, the Catholic Church, public interest attorneys, the media and the community forced the county to stop excavations at the burial site belatedly on January 14, 2011.

Brian McMahon, the Director of the Cemeteries Department for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles wrote to project officials on January 11, 2011: "Frankly, I was surprised and disappointed to learn through a story in yesterdays' Los Angeles Times that a substantial number of remains had been discovered and unearthed at your construction site. In your only communication with me about the discovery of the remains last November, the impression I received was that a few bone fragments were all that had been found, and that a few more might be found during the course of the project." Again, "our original impression was that there would be relatively few fragmentary remains." Mr. McMahon emphasized: "That you have possibly discovered substantial remains, including full burials, obviously goes way beyond the scope of my Nov. 17 letter to you, and raises for us a number of new ethical and legal questions concerning the current activity at your construction site."

El Pueblo Plaza Church Cemetery Excavation January 7, 2011 | Courtesy of The City Project


Why didn't they just stop?

Why didn't the county stop until January 14? County Supervisor Gloria Molina did not want any publicity that would delay the April 9, 2011, grand opening of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, whose mission is to celebrate Mexican and Mexican American culture. (The center is an official project of the county and the county CEO is the official project manager, although the project has nominal non-profit status.) An investigator for the county coroner recorded in her case notes when remains were first excavated on October 28, 2011: "Today, approximately 15 small fragmented human bones and teeth were unearthed by a back hoe, after it began digging below undisturbed top soil." The executive director for the project, Miguel Angel Corzo, told the investigator that "Molina is out of town for a few days but does not want media attention drawn to this project until its opening."

Christina Swindall-Martinez, secretary for the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians whose Ancestors are buried at the site, told the Associated Press that tribe members pleaded with museum and county officials to delay the opening until an agreement could be reached on reburial of the remains and restoration of the cemetery. "She said members felt particularly affronted by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has long championed the project, serves on its board and was scheduled to be honored at the gala."

Prof. Paul Langenwalter testified before the Native American Heritage Commission in March 2011 that human remains were removed piecemeal; legs, skulls, and beads were separated; accepted archeological practices were not followed; and the supervisor's office put undue pressure to keep going despite the unearthing of the remains. Prof. Langenwalter testified that there was reason to believe the remains and artifacts included Native American remains and artifacts. He pulled his archeology students from the site after a few days rather than associate them and Biola University with the devastation. Click here to read Prof. Langenwalter's testimony.

Archeologist Monica Strauss testified at the same hearing that she was "flabbergasted" by the way human remains were unearthed because conventional archeological practices were not followed. Click here to read Ms. Strauss's testimony.

Elizabeth Miller, an anthropologist and osteologist at Cal State L.A., told the L.A. Weekly that the environmental impact report prepared for the county by the Saphos Environmental Inc., which should have provided enough information to guard against the excavations, was "incredibly poorly done. I do not see how you can do a legitimate assessment of a site where you know there was supposed to be a cemetery at one time, and not find any trace of the over 100 individuals that ended up being excavated." She added: "I'm completely at a loss."

But Miller's own actions raise an eyebrow. Miller worked with the Sanberg Group to move the remains, seek funding and study them. After Sanberg apparently moved the remains from the burial site to their own offices in Whittier, Miller moved the remains to Cal State L.A. and sought over $220,000 in funding to do research on them. When the university president found out, he directed that they be removed because having the remains on campus was against university policy, according to public records obtained from Cal State L.A. The remains were then moved again to the County Museum of Natural History in bags, buckets and boxes on January 25 and February 3, 2011.

The planned research disturbed the Catholic Church, according to its January 11 letter. "We were disturbed to learn that an NPR radio report suggested that archeologists were preserving recovered remains and might be contemplating use in academic study. That was not part of our understanding of what would happen to these remains."

Gloria Molina told a hearing by the Native American Heritage Commission in March 2011, "it truly pains me that this . . . has unfolded in this manner and in this way. And I'm truly sorry for it," according to the L.A. Times. "We took their word," referring to Sapphos, which prepared the environmental impact report. "Had they done better work, we wouldn't be in this situation." According to L.A. Weekly, Molina admitted: "There's probably gonna be plenty of blame to go around on all of it. For us, we probably didn't have as thorough an EIR as we probably should have had."

The county continued to retain Sapphos to handle the repatriation process despite the fact that their flawed EIR created an apparent conflict of interest. A Los Angeles Times editorial called on the county to retain a professional mediator, but the county refused. The county refused to allow Native Americans to visit the excavated burial site to honor their ancestors unless they signed agreements to work for Sapphos. The county refused to allow descendants to visit the remains at the Natural History Museum unless they waived all claims arising from the excavations.

To its credit, the National Park Service (NPS) has worked to protect the remains and the descendants. NPS notified the county by email on February 15, 2011, that NPS had just learned about the uncovering of the cemetery and was withholding federal grant funds until the issue was resolved. NPS followed up with a letter on March 24, 2011, directing the county to consult with all concerned parties to ensure historic properties were protected under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. NPS withheld $104,209.64 from a $197,058 grant to the county issued, ironically, to "Save America's Treasures" program. The project instead has devastated Americas' treasures at El Pueblo. Los Angeles Plaza Historical District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Soil that surrounded remains, in bags for reburial at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Campo Santo April 2012 | Courtesy of The City Project
The federal process nevertheless has not been a model of democratic engagement based on full and fair information. The process has been confusing, inconsistent, and incomplete. The real consultations, decision making and work takes place with federal staff. Indeed, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repartriation Act) staff told the review committee on November 8: "staff functions . . . nationally [are] where all of the real consultation and decision making is done . . . between museums and Federal agencies and the tribes, where the actual NAGPRA work comes." The investigation, reassembly and reburial process here has involved federal staff working closely with county and project representatives. The federal staff generally has not consulted with the Native Americans and descendants of the Pobladores themselves.

Thus federal staff worked closely with the county for months, advising the county on section 106 consultations and the NAGPRA. For example, federal staff urged the county to act quickly to prepare an inventory of excavated remains and artifacts, in time for the NAGPRA review committee meeting in November 2011, so the public would know what the county dug up. The county concluded that the human remains included at least four Native Americans, although which four specifically was hard to tell. "So the number of Native Americans in this assemblage is unknowable, but it's likely far more than four," according to an expert who testified for the county before the committee.

The committee nevertheless voted as follows on November 8: "In this instance, as the same treatment and disposition is agreeable to all Native and non Native parties concerned [sic], . . . the Review Committee conclude[s] that it cannot make a determination whether the remains are Native American or not; second, that we believe that Los Angeles County may therefore proceed under other law; and third, that we request that the Secretary's letter reflect this view." NPS sent a follow up letter to the county on December 9, 2012.

In apparent conflict with earlier staff recommendations for an inventory, and the review committee's decision that it had no jurisdiction, the Department of the Interior sent another NAGPRA letter to the county on January 3, 2012, stating that the county had two years to prepare an inventory, that "repatriation of human remains and associated funerary objects cannot occur until after a Notice of Inventory Completion has been published in the Federal Register, and the notice cannot be published until the inventory has been prepared." But the remains and objects have been repatriated without an inventory or published notice.

Sound confusing? It is. The California Native American Heritage Commission itself wrote to the Department of Interior that "NAHC is confused" by the federal actions.


What remains to be done?

The excavations of the human remains was a travesty. The consultation process was haphazard. The county has not yet released other records that would demonstrate whether the reassembly and reburials were any better. Record requests are pending. The county's description of what it claims happened is a paragon of banal bureaucratic prose that masks the truth of what really happened.

To date, no one has been held responsible and accountable for the excavations to deter others. U.S. Air Force officials were recently disciplined for losing the body parts of two service members, according to the New York Times. Although the loss of the two body parts "equates to an aggregate success rate slightly greater than 99.9 percent" based on thousands of remains and body parts at the mortuary, "the success rate for families of the deceased in the two individual cases is zero percent." The investigation termed this "mission failure."

The Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians continue to question the county's actions.

A Los Angeles Times editorial recently called on county officials to follow through on a pledge to allow all groups claiming Ancestors to hold ceremonies at the site, "even if it means 100 ceremonies over 100 days."

The county should abide by the statement of principles and goals that diverse allies presented after the excavations were disclosed:

  • Engage in respectful consultations with Native Americans and descendants of the Ancestors buried at the site

  • Provide an appropriate memorial at the site to preserve and celebrate the remains, Sacred Site and burial ground

  • Provide interpretive elements about the Native Americans and Pobladores buried at the site

  • Provide a transparent process, records and information to address theses questions about the excavations: what did they know, when did they know it, what did they do about it, when did they do it, and why didn't they just stop.

  • Unite people around these principles and goals and bridge differences

  • Follow best practice examples from the African American Burial Ground in New York City and the original site of Jamestown

    Native Americans and descendants of the Pobladores are watching. The Ancestors are watching. The whole world is watching.

    Ramya Sivasubramanian, a Staff Attorney with The City Project, contributed research and analysis to this column.

    The City Project has worked with diverse allies to monitor the excavations and reburials and will continue to do so. See www.saveancestors.org.


    More references:

  • Letter: Maria Carmen Ramirez to county 9/28/11
  • Letter: Pobladores to county 9/27/11
  • Click here for updated public records as they become available.

    Top: Human remains excavated at El Pueblo Campo Santo, Jan. 10, 2011 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • About the Author

    I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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