Three Ventura County Indian groups are fighting a legal battle over the bones of their ancestors discovered in a flood control channel, with one side accusing the other of compromising ancient religious beliefs in exchange for a potentially lucrative county contract.
A federal judge is expected to decide today whether to suspend a controversial plan to remove Chumash Indian remains from the flood control channel near Point Mugu and rebury them several miles away in a Thousand Oaks park.
The Southern Council of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation has filed a $50-million lawsuit charging county, state and federal agencies, as well as two other local Indian groups, with violating several constitutional guarantees, including freedom of religion. The council objects to the plan, recently approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, to remove and rebury the remains of at least 20 Chumash Indians found at the site since July.
A hearing on the Coastal Band's request for a temporary halt to the plan is expected to conclude today before U. S. District Court Judge Pamela A. Rymer.
Protection of Bones
The question of how best to protect the bones already found, and other remains that might be buried at the site, is at the center of the dispute among three Indian groups that all claim to represent the Chumash Indians in the area.
Mediators from the community relations service of the U. S. Department of Justice, called in by Coastal Band representatives in September, were unsuccessful in bringing together the battling Chumash groups, said Julian Klugman, regional director of the service.
The Coastal Band maintains that the Chumash religion opposes human disturbance of their ancestors' graves.
"Only a very small minority of the Chumash say it is okay to move the remains," said Charles Cook, a Newbury Park man who identifies himself as "a hereditary chief" of the local Chumash.
"Most want to leave them intact . . . because to have our burials moved disturbs the souls there."
But an attorney for the Candelaria American Indian Council and the Ventureno band of the Chumash, the two Indian groups being sued by the Coastal Band, say that the reburial plan is the best way to save the remains from being washed out to sea by runoff from a large rainstorm.
Also named in the suit are the county flood control district and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the flood control channel and which helped draft the reburial plan.
Conflict of Interest Charged
Members of the Coastal Band charge that the two other Indian groups agreed to the county plan because they hope the county will give them a long-term contract to manage a 427-acre county park that will eventually include an Indian cultural center. The potentially lucrative concession at Oakbrook Park in Thousand Oaks has created a conflict of interest for the Candelaria and Ventureno groups, according to the lawsuit filed by the Coastal Band.
"The Candelaria group is using the relocation issue as a hammer on the county," said Sidney Flores, an attorney representing the Coastal Band. "But the government of Ventura County is totally out of line in giving jurisdiction of a known cultural preserve to a group that does not represent the Chumash tribe."
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted last week to begin negotiations with the Candelaria and Ventureno groups for the management contract for Oakbrook Park, where Chumash artifacts and cave paintings have been found.
Ventura County administrative analyst Clinton Tatum said the county for several years has planned to create a Chumash cultural center and has received a $240,000 grant for it from the state. The Candelaria and Ventureno groups are the only Chumash representatives the county recognizes, he said.
The discussions with the two Indian groups began in September, two months after the discovery of the remains.
But, Tatum said, the county did not make the concession offer as a means of quieting controversy over the reburial plan, which the Candelaria group also originally opposed. "Our plans and their interest just seemed to come together," Tatum said.
Tom Malley, an attorney representing the Candelaria and Ventureno group, said those groups are legitimate representatives of the Chumash.
The county's offer to enter negotiations for management of Oakbrook Park was an "inducement" to the group to drop its initial opposition to the plan because it would put the Indians in a position to watch over the reburied remains, Malley said.
Malley said the court has not been asked to decide which group legitimately represents the Chumash. Instead, Malley said, the groups named as defendants in the lawsuit must show only that they acted in good faith to secure Chumash participation in the agreement.