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Team Fails to Unearth Burial Site : Archeology: The discovery of Indian remains could have put a planned shopping center in limbo. Now the proposed Whittier Station Center faces other stumbling blocks.


WHITTIER — A team of archeologists has failed to unearth any signs of an American Indian burial ground at the site of a proposed shopping center here--a non-discovery that has apparently removed a major stumbling block for the project.

The city authorized tests on the 16-acre triangle of land, just west of the city center, in response to protests from local Indians, who said they thought that the site might contain Indian remains. The presence of remains would probably have thrown the project into limbo until an acceptable agreement had been reached between developers and the Indians.

The cemetery factor had been but one complication endangering the proposed Whittier Station Center, a shopping complex that would include a market, a drugstore and about 20 other stores and restaurants.

Local motorists complained that the project would close a section of Magnolia Avenue, a popular local north-south shortcut between Beverly and Whittier boulevards.

Local preservationists were concerned over the fate of the Southern Pacific Depot, a century-old abandoned train station on the site. The city ultimately paid more than $42,000 to move the depot to an empty trackside lot about a quarter of a mile away.

And since the archeological testing began Oct. 9, another obstacle has emerged. The mall project has stalled over what the city and developer both term potentially minor disagreements. Yet both parties say they are either unable or unwilling to bend.

The Encino-based developer, Urbatec, was supposed to provide an upscale grocery for the center, city officials say. Urbatec officials deny that they are legally obliged to do so.

A disagreement over construction financing also clouds the future of the project for which the developer obtained a $12.8-million loan and for which the city floated $7 million worth of bonds. The $12.8 million was used to purchase the site.

None of these complications stopped the archeological tests. The city intends to build a western gateway to the downtown, even if the Urbatec agreement collapses.

The archeologists concentrated their efforts on the site where the 30-by-140-foot depot had stood because that earth had not been disturbed for about 100 years. Most of the surrounding area has been built on and rebuilt on in the last century, erasing obvious signs of an Indian burial ground, said archeologist Pat Jertberg of LSA Associates Inc., an Irvine firm that specializes in environmental planning.

The depot area has never been included on lists of possible Indian burial grounds or village sites, she added. On the other hand, the area lies next to the San Gabriel River and a historic trail (now Whittier Boulevard) used by Indians and missionaries.

A number of Indian villages and burial sites in this region have never been accounted for, say specialists in local history. In the past, before preservation became an issue, archeological sites were probably built over throughout the Los Angeles Basin, they said.

Jertberg invited Indian activist Jimi Castillo, a Gabrielino Indian and lifelong area resident, to participate in the dig. They were searching for midden soil, a richer-than-normal deposit that forms near sites of human activity. The midden soil develops as organic material buried in the vicinity begins to decompose.

"We didn't find anything which suggests a prehistoric deposit at this point," Jertberg said. "So far we have found a lot of materials relating to the railroad, which is not unexpected. We still have lab testing to do. We'll know more when we finish the lab testing."

The experts found coal, slag and construction debris from the depot building including wood, nails and fragments of glass. There were a few pieces of shells, but nothing that indicated the shells were more prehistoric than an old trainman's dinner. They also unearthed a few fragments of an animal's rib bone.

These were hardly the sort of discoveries that Castillo had expected. "I feel not totally confident that's where the burial site is at, but 99.9% sure," Castillo had said before the digging began. At the depot site, "I felt a spiritual belonging, almost a feeling of being at home," he said.

Jertberg acknowledges that no one has completely proved Castillo wrong yet. She will observe the excavations for the construction of the shopping center, just in case earthmovers uncover evidence the archeologists missed.

If remains are found, the first person with jurisdiction is the county coroner, who would make sure the bones are not from someone who died recently. The coroner would then contact the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento, which would search for what it terms "the most likely descendants." Currently, there are five designated Gabrielino descendants in Los Angeles County. Castillo is not yet on that approved list.

Under current law, it is a felony to willfully destroy Indian remains. Most often, descendants reach a compromise with a developer to relocate the bones, bury them deeper at the site or build around them.

As matters stand between the city and Urbatec, however, it's anyone's guess if construction will get to that point. Preservationists have added their voices to the chorus of uncertainty, suggesting that the depot be returned to its original site and restored.

Meanwhile, American Indian activist Lupe Lopez said the burial ground question hasn't been completely resolved. "We're hoping what we claim is true," she said. "It's up to them to disprove it."

She sees the depot-burial ground issue as symbolic of something more important. Indians, not the Spaniards and Quakers, first settled the Whittier area, she noted.

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