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Museum Excavation Continues as American Indians Call for Work to Stop

Excavation work at LA Plaza De Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles

Skeletal remains found at the construction site of a downtown Los Angeles museum have been a focal point for American Indians in Southern California this week. Despite requests to stop archaeological excavation from a state commission, work continues, museum officials said today.

LA Plaza De Cultura y Artes, which is scheduled to open in April, sits on County of Los Angeles land once owned by the Los Angeles Archdiocese in the city's historical El Pueblo area, where the Indian village of Yanga was once located. Records indicate the church had a cemetery there until it was moved in 1844.

When construction and excavation began last year, however, on-site archaeologists found numerous artifacts such as pre-prohibition beer bottles, license plates and ceramics, which were followed by a few fragments of what appeared to be skeletal remains on October 28th, prompting museum officials to contact the coroner for confirmation and the archdiocese with a plan for removal and reburial.

Work continued per the coroner and more substantial remains were found. The museum's executive director Miguel Corzo said they continued to inform La Placita--the neighboring working parish, not the official administrative wing of the Archdiocese--of the findings. A museum spokesperson said a meeting took place on November 3rd.

But in a letter written this week, obtained by KCET, Archdiocese administrative officials appear to be caught off guard. "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," wrote Brian McMahon, the Director of the Cemeteries Department, in a letter on Tuesday. "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. Indeed, we believed that the site was no longer a cemetery, since our records indicated that the people buried there had been removed and reburied elsewhere in the 1840s."

McMahon continued: "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."

The recent media coverage beget after an archaeologist contacted the California Native American Heritage Commission on December 29th with information about skeletal remains and what appeared to him as "Native American associated grave goods," according to a January 4th letter from the commission to the Los Angeles County Coroner, which has the power to halt excavation when Native American remains are discovered.

Two days later, as concern mounted from the Native American community, the commission sent another letter. "Given the strong concerns expressed by the Native Americans of the Los Angeles basin, the Native American Heritage Commission, respectfully requests that the Los Angeles Department of Coroner stop the project," it read.

But the coroner's office Monday said they had no jurisdiction over the issue because no Native American artifacts had been found. A museum spokesperson said the item was found in a disturbed area away from where remains were discovered and was determined not to be in context of a Native American site.

"We're still concerned," explained Dave Singleton of the commission over the phone. "We would like to see the Native Americans and the county work together... We wanted the project to stop because of conflicting reports and great outcry from Native Americans. It touched a deep racial, ethic, political nerve."

Those feelings were expressed Tuesday night on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles on "American Indian Airwaves." The topic's given name was "American Genocide, Los Angeles style: La Placita."

Participants pointed out the irony of the situation--the museum is dedicated to the Mexican and Mexican-American experience while graves are possibly being desecrated--and that even though all the remains may have Catholic roots, that some may be Native Americans who converted, forcibly or not. "I don't get it, it seems very simple there's a violation here," said Cindi Alvitre, the Director of the Ti'at Society.

This complicated and thorny issue, which is highlighting the complex nature of Los Angeles' history, continues with a couple of meetings between the museum and representatives from the Native American community later this week.

Previously on KCET's SoCal Focus: American Indian Board Wants L.A. Museum Project Stopped

The photo used on this post is by flickr user The City Project, which has also written about the issue here. The image was used under a Creative Commons License.

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