Bone Bungling at Old Cemetery 

Native Americans get short shrift as LA Plaza downtown opens under a cloud

Thursday, Apr 14 2011

The law — California Health and Safety Code 7050.5.b — is clear. When human remains are found during a project excavation "in any location other than a dedicated cemetery," all work must stop. But what if the discovery occurs in an old Catholic cemetery in downtown L.A. that supposedly had been emptied of all human remains? And what if many skeletons were Native Americans who converted to Christianity?

These are among the issues pitting the Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians and other tribal groups against LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a new center honoring Mexican Americans. The heavy historic focus on Mexican Americans is yet another point of contention among tribal leaders, who note that Native Americans first settled the area.

The $24 million project, championed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and to be run by a private, nonprofit foundation, opens April 16 — and protests are expected.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Desiree Martinez: Questions persist about remains of 118 people now stored in buckets.
  • Desiree Martinez: Questions persist about remains of 118 people now stored in buckets.

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Problems erupted Oct. 28, when workers found a small piece of bone, part of a jaw and a small triangle of skull as they dug a trench for a fountain near La Placita Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, the site of L.A.'s first Catholic cemetery, which is often called "Old Cemetery."

The church was built in 1822 on the former site of a Gabrieleno/Tongva Indian village. Since late October, workers have unearthed the remains of 118 people — leaving everyone involved unpleasantly stunned.

A 2003 Environmental Impact Report (EIR) filed by Sapphos Environmental Inc. had assured that before 1844, "all human remains previously on-site were relocated" away from Old Cemetery.

Gabrieleno tribal chairman Andy Salas says remains were indeed removed in 1844, but not from Old Cemetery. According to Salas, the EIR was incorrectly describing events that unfolded 166 years ago at an entirely different cemetery two miles from downtown, near Elysian Park. That cemetery is known by two names — "Campo Santo" and "Old Calvary Cemetery."

"This is what confuses the issue," Salas says. "They took the bodies — most, not all of them — out of the cemetery by Elysian Park, called Old Calvary, not out of the one at LA Plaza" downtown, known as Old Cemetery.

Among the many confused bureaucrats in charge is Miguel Corzo, LA Plaza president-CEO, who has erroneously called the downtown cemetery "Campo Santo," Salas says.

Another erring bureaucrat is Anthony T. Hernandez, director of the county coroner's department, who declared the site was formerly a Catholic cemetery. According to Corzo, Hernandez then ruled, "These were not Native Americans."

But tribal members say Hernandez was unaware of Native Americans' conversion to Catholicism — and their frequent burial in Christian graveyards. Many Indians were "mission-ized," often against their will.

Corzo says that before Hernandez ruled the bones were not Native American, "the protocol for excavating suspected human remains came into play: Stop everything." But after the coroner's pronouncement, since only Native American burials are protected by law, the digging by contractor Sanberg Associates was allowed to proceed.

An archaeological technician working for Sanberg says the company was too quick to press on. At about Thanksgiving, "I finally had the last straw when I saw a burial that had a really good possibility of being an actual Native American," says the technician, who requested anonymity. "But Sanberg just tried to keep it in-house."

On Dec. 29, the technician walked off the site and alerted David Singleton at the Native American Heritage Commission. Tensions soon broke out between that commission, tribal members, the coroner, Corzo's LA Plaza Foundation and Molina's office.

More than two weeks later, on Jan. 14, the LA Plaza Foundation belatedly halted work.

Some involved challenged even that claim. Desiree Martinez, an archaeologist with Gabrieleno-Tongva roots, says, "They told us that work stopped in the area where the remains are," but photos taken by a group of Gabrielenos showed "digging in the area where the remains are." She termed the methods "horrendous ... ethically wrong, methodologically inaccurate" and "mishandled from beginning to end."

Salas, whose ancestors were buried in Old Cemetery, alleges that the EIR intentionally misstated history. "They knew what they were doing," he claims.

Sapphos did not respond to L.A. Weekly's request for comment. Corzo insists his nonprofit foundation merely "relied on the EIR."

Yet Singleton notes that Sapphos, Corzo, Hernandez and the various other confused officials easily could have learned the truth by consulting the Huntington Library's Early California Population Project, which, he says, shows that 399 of the 696 burials downtown were of Native Americans.

There's no question Sapphos blew the facts. In W.W. Robinson's 1959 book, Los Angeles From the Days of the Pueblo, published by the California Historical Society, a map places "Campo Santo" cemetery not downtown but near Elysian Park.

Elizabeth Miller, a local osteologist brought in by Sanberg, slams the EIR as "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 adds: "I'm completely at a loss."

More bitterness has emerged because, Martinez says, the center "seems to be recontextualizing and then silencing the native population and their history — I think it does the history of L.A., and how it developed, a disservice."

Gary Stickel, the Gabrielenos' volunteer archaeologist, says Sapphos made the egregious error of denying that Gabrielenos even exist: "Under page 3.3-11 ... it's the height of insensitivity to claim that the very people you'd be dealing with are extinct. The presumption is if they're extinct, why should we worry about their burials?"

LA Plaza spokeswoman Katie Dunham tries to deflect the anger, saying the parties involved are trying "to reach a consensus on respectful plans for the remains as we move forward. Mr. Stickel, it seems, chooses to look backward and make allegations."

But Molina admits: "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."

On March 15, Sapphos requested a Sacred Lands File search and a Native American contact list from the Native American Heritage Commission — something Singleton says should have happened in 2008. He also says ground-penetrating radar was not used until March 31.

On April 9, the Gabrielenos led a protest at an opening gala.

Today, thousands of bones from 118 people are being stored in bags and buckets at the Natural History Museum. The Gabrielenos want them back in their original resting place, with a "prayer park" to mark it.

But first, they want L.A. County to fire Sapphos Environmental.

"What's so outrageous to me and the Native Americans is not only did Sapphos write this nonsense that contributed to what happened," Stickel says, "but who does the county hire to restore the cemetery with sensitivity? The same outfit. This is just completely unacceptable."

Reach the writer at abcooper@cox.net.

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