Irvine Co. officials assured a group of local Indians on Friday that they will have a new role in monitoring future archeological digs at the Newport Coast development between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.
But company officials refused a request to change their policy of digging up ancestral Indian remains and burying them in areas that are earmarked for open space.
"We are doing everything according to state law," said project director Bernard A. Maniscalco.
Leaders of the Gabrieleno Indian tribe, whose territory once stretched from the coast to the San Gabriel Mountains, have accused the Irvine Co. of desecrating the burial grounds of their ancestors and destroying ancient artifacts during construction work.
"It's terrible," said tribal chairwoman Vera Rocha, who spent Friday morning inspecting a variety of archeological digs in the sage-covered hill country. "They have no respect for our people."
Rocha and others had planned to picket the Irvine Co. headquarters on Friday to press company officials for access to the dig sites. They wanted to check out a complaint that bones unearthed by a backhoe had been carelessly tossed aside.
But the picketing was not necessary. After a last-minute round of negotiations, Irvine Co. officials agreed to escort the Indians to various digs, where they watched teams of archeologists and field workers catalogue shells and animal bones and inspect hillside caves for signs of human habitation.
The handful of Gabrielenos who went on the tour were accompanied by David Belardes, chief of the San Juan Capistrano-based Juaneno Indian tribe, and several local environmentalists, who criticized the company for building on land considered sacred by the Indian tribes.
After the tour, the Irvine Co. agreed to allow Rocha or her representative to monitor future digs. They also agreed to consider turning over some of the artifacts to Rocha. Currently, they are given to the Natural History and Science Foundation of Orange County, which plans to open a museum in Laguna Niguel.
Rocha said that the company has violated the state Historic Sites Preservation Act of 1966 by failing to notify her or other members of her tribe of the various finds.
According to the law, companies that unearth artifacts or human remains must notify a tribal member. The human remains must either be turned over to a descendant or reburied within the project site.
Maniscalco said that the company has contracted with Jim Velasques to monitor archeological activity. Velasques is a registered Gabrieleno with the state Native American Heritage Commission and the U.S. Interior Department.
Rocha has long refused to recognize Velasques as a member of the tribe. She also questioned whether there is a conflict of interest because Velasques is on the Irvine Co. payroll.
Maniscalco said the tour "went as good as you can expect." He agreed to investigate the charges that a backhoe operator mishandled human remains.
Rocha said she will continue to demand that human bones be left undisturbed.
"I know they won't go to Greece and tear up their dead," Rocha said. "They should have the same respect for our culture, our heritage."