If you’re a hiker out for an afternoon stroll along the hilly areas of Santa Clarita and Lancaster, or you’re relaxing on one of Malibu’s beaches, or working at one of L.A.’s freshly dug construction sites, there’s a surprisingly good chance you’ll stumble across Native American remains — although you’d probably never realize it. Coroner investigator Elissa Fleak knows, better than almost anyone, the subtle signs and tiny clues missed by millions of other Californians. “We know most of the gravesites in Los Angeles County,” she says. “Indians roved everywhere back in the day.” For instance, she notes, “Chumash elders would walk toward the water and die peacefully by the beach.”
The pint-sized dark-haired Nancy Drew of ancient bones is a Mono Indian, as well as the coroner’s tribal liaison for Native American remains, and its representative under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It’s her job to determine the ancestry of remains and return the bones to their tribes for proper burial. The L.A. County Coroner at least twice a month identifies Native American remains, mostly belonging to the Gabrielino/Tongva or the Chumash.
Sometimes, those discoveries are closer to “home.” Six months ago, 31-year-old Fleak — whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was a medicine man — was asked to determine the ancestry of a skull brought to the coroner’s office by a high school teacher who’d kept it on display in her classroom for the last 20 years. (A student who’d found it on a relatives’ farm in Northern California had given the skull to her.) With the help of an anthropologist, Fleak determined that it was the skull of a Yurok Indian woman who died 300 years ago.
When she isn’t returning Native American remains to their ancestral burial grounds, Fleak has another highly specialized, if darker, skill: She unravels the mysteries of how children die, from infants snuffed out at night by their own parents’ bodies thanks to co-sleeping to teens who cut off their own breath with ropes and belts to get a buzz, but instead become the latest victims of the “choking game.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon