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CSULB May Release Bone Collection for Indian Burial : Archeology: One last inspection is planned to determine the scientific value of the 3,000-year-old artifacts. They had been stored and almost forgotten for nearly two decades.

February 16, 1992|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — A collection of ancient American Indian skeletal remains, which languished virtually unnoticed for nearly two decades in storage rooms at Cal State Long Beach, may soon be returned to Indians to be reburied in Central California.

"They have to be cleansed, purified, resanctified and put back into the earth," said Little Crow, a university American Indian Studies professor who has advocated that the bones and other artifacts be returned.

"Our oral traditions speak to us about how these things should be buried and, once buried, left alone," he said. "Removing them and warehousing them was not only disrespectful, it was sacrilegious."

The collection--consisting of 3,000-year-old artifacts and bones of the Miwok and Yukot tribes of Central California--was gathered during a series of archeological expeditions to the San Joaquin Valley. The skeletal remains of about 60 prehistoric Indians are included.

The expeditions were led by CSULB anthropology professor Franklin Fenenga, who had been hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to excavate the sites of dozens of prehistoric Indian villages along the Madera River where the corps was constructing Hensley Dam. About 400 of Fenenga's students at CSULB participated in the expeditions from 1971 to 1976.

Although the corps officially owned the bones, it had no real interest in them. So for two decades the collection languished unnoticed and uncatalogued in two university storerooms on campus while Fenenga pursued other interests.

The collection was discovered several months ago when university officials decided to clear out the storage rooms for other purposes. The discovery--and extraordinary precautions taken by university officials in moving the collection--generated publicity that set in motion the lobbying by Indian groups.

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to send an archeologist to Long Beach within a few weeks to inspect the collection to determine its condition and scientific value, said Patti Johnson, an archeologist assigned to the agency's Sacramento district. After that, she said, the corps will work with the Native American Heritage Commission--a state agency set up for just such purposes--to contact representatives of the Central California Indian community to discuss the ultimate disposition of the material.

"This is all we're ever going to know about these archeological sites and the people who lived there," Johnson said. "The rest of it is now under water."

Although in some cases compromises can be worked out with the Indians to allow further research, the law clearly gives the Indians the right to dispose of the bones as they wish, said Larry Meyers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission.

"It's not a question of scientific value, but of religious rights," Meyers said. "It's important to get archeologists out of the graveyards of Indians."

Fenenga, who has retired, said the university should try to retain the collection for further study to shed light on an indigenous population about which little is known. "(To lose the collection) would be a great tragedy," the archeology professor said. "It would be a loss to science."

Before removing the collection from storage last year, university employees took the unusual step of sealing off the rooms and donning protective suits attached to an outside air supply. They treated the material with chemicals, placed it in heavy plastic bags and sealed it in a shipping container, which was moved to a relatively unused corner of the campus until officials decided the fate of the collection.

In researching the history of the bones and sample soils, the officials came across an unsettling discovery: The collection had been associated with an outbreak of valley fever, a rare disease that had claimed the life of one of the students involved in the original excavation in 1971.

Caused by a fungus that exists in certain types of soil, medical experts say, the disease is borne by spores that, when stirred up in dust, are often inhaled by construction workers, agricultural workers and archeologists. Once inhaled, the mold takes root in the lungs, where it can begin to wreak havoc ranging from mild flu-like symptoms to death in rare cases.

In 1971, 28 of the students involved in the CSULB dig came down with the disease.

University officials decided last year not to take any chances in moving the collection, although Fenenga said he thought officials were being overly cautious.

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