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Ancient history underground

Controversy surrounds the new Orange County housing site, where thousands of American Indian remains and artifacts have been uncovered.

A marsh at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. More than 5,000 Native American artifacts have been found on the mesa adjacent to a controversial Hearthside Homes development site.

A marsh at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. More than 5,000 Native American artifacts have been found on the mesa adjacent to a controversial Hearthside Homes development site.

Cynthia Romanowski

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A housing project’s excavation near the Bolsa Chica Wetlands next to Huntington Beach has uncovered ancient human remains, creating an air of controversy in the site’s development.

Before the development on the site, which was already known archaeological ground, 87 sets of human remains were found. Since the project’s inception in June 2006, 87 additional sets have been found for a total of 174.

Also found at the site were more than 400 cogged stones – stone artifacts that resemble modern-day gears – and at least 5,000 other artifacts including tools, mortars and pestles, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article.

While the ancient use for the cogged stones is unclear, it is believed that they were used as ceremonious objects. All of these found cultural resources date back to more than 8,000 years.

“If they hit bones, if they hit human remains, they’re supposed to stop. They’re supposed to contact the Most Likely Descendant [MLD],” said Cindi Alvitre, a part-time lecturer for the Cal State Long Beach American Indian Studies Department. Alvitre is a descendant and leader in the Gabrieleno-Tongva Nation, and has been recognized by the California Native American Heritage Commission as an MLD since the commission’s inception in the 1980s.

The Tongva Nation is one of the two American Indian groups that have claimed the site. The other is the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, also known as the Acjachemen Nation.

“When you hit a cemetery, it’s another story,” Alvitre said. “In my opinion, when we encounter cemeteries we shouldn’t be negotiating. We should tell them no.”

She said that land developers commonly hire MLDs, who are then supposed to provide recommendations on the handling of any cultural resources such as remains and artifacts. Instead, MLDs are being used to “mitigate,” or cover up any findings, which turns the findings into a “salvage operation,” according to Alvitre.

“Unfortunately, there have been a large percentage of native people … who have entered into this type of business,” Alvitre said. “Look at the development. It’s not like mom and pop businesses … these are huge, huge multi-million dollar corporations who are using the laws to benefit them.”

Alvitre is not alone in recognizing this conflict.

“It’s a major, major problem,” said Flossie Horgan, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. “The MLDs get hired by the developer and get paid by the developer basically to make things go away.”

On Feb. 11 – five days after Horgan learned of the 174 uncovered remains – she contacted the coroner, who reported that there had only been six cases of human remains found in the Bolsa Chica Mesa area since 1990.

“Why is it that certain developers do not have to follow the law?” Horgan said. “The answer is very simple: profits.”

She said the developer emphasis was clearly on financial gain rather than cultural heritage, artifacts or historical values.

The developer, Irvine-based Hearthside Homes, did not return the three calls for comment regarding the project.

According to Alvitre, Los Angeles County has the largest American Indian population in the country. In an interview last week, Student Life & Development Adviser Anna Nazarian-Peters said there are approximately 240 self-identified American Indian students currently on campus.

CSULB associate professor of anthropology Carl Lipo said that the artifacts found “reflect that there was an interesting, diverse and substantial” ancient population who resided on the site.

He also added that the cogged stones found at the Hearthstone Homes site are considered an “enigmatic artifact” distinctive to the historic Southern California landscape. When added to the other findings at the Bolsa Chica Mesa, the number of cogged stones adds up to more than 1,000.

According to Horgan, these findings “are second largest concentration of cogged stones in the world behind findings in Chile.”

At CSULB’s 38th Annual Pow Wow last weekend, Rebecca Robles, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Sacred Sites task force and a board member on the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, staffed an information booth during the festivities that sought to create awareness for this and other related issues concerning the local American Indian population.

In an interview with the Daily Forty-Niner, Robles said she feels not all the land should be developed.

She said 90 percent of these types of sites throughout California have been destroyed.

“The law doesn’t favor preservation of these sites,” Robles said.

Laurie Payne, the Community Relations Officer for the city of Huntington Beach, said that this issue concerns the Orange County government, not the city. After the completion of the project, the homes will have a Huntington Beach address and zip code, she said.

However, she said currently there is no existing affiliation between the Hearthside developers and the city, and that the city is not responsible for approving the building permits because the area is unincorporated county land.

Alvitre said that one of the best actions for the developer to take would be to build around the burial site, or at least cap it with “green space.”

Robles’ solution was for the city to view the land as more of an eco-tourism opportunity, rather than a chance for a general tourism attraction.

On the academic side, Lipo said that he would like a more standardized system for recording these types of findings that would include easy-to-navigate public access to information regarding the archeological aspects.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the newly found 87 remains are being kept in a trailer in Temecula, Calif. Plans for reburial are in progress.

“We are in constant mourning because we are always having to rebury our dead,” Alvitre said. “It’s constant. Ninety-five percent of our energy goes into this type of work.”

In June 2005, the California Coastal Commission approved the Hearthside development plans, which included construction of 350 homes across 68 acres on the Bolsa Chica Mesa.

Currently, Horgan and the rest of the executive board for the Bolsa Chica Land Trust are reviewing their next action to take on this issue, which may or may not include pushing the California Coastal Commission to revisit the case.

Horgan said that although she’s not of American Indian descent, she is sympathetic toward to their cause because she, too, is “a human being… it’s all of our heritage.”

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