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Internal Native American Disputes Stall Koll Project : Archeology: Developers say they did everything right in plan to build 4,286 homes near Bolsa Chica wetlands.

March 21, 1994|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The Koll Real Estate Group thought it had done everything right.

Almost from the beginning of its effort to construct 4,286 homes near the Bolsa Chica wetlands, the company had followed state recommendations by employing a Native American to monitor the site in case workers stumbled on an ancient burial ground or uncovered artifacts.

Later, about the time that Native American bone fragments were discovered, Koll contacted leaders of the two Orange County bands--the Juanenos and the Gabrielinos--to make sure that each group could participate in preserving its heritage by designating separate monitors for the project.

And recently company officials organized a gathering of the six people designated by the California Native Heritage Commission as the "most likely descendants" of the individuals whose remains had been found. The purpose: to hear their recommendations regarding the bones' disposition.

Yet, despite its stated good intentions, Koll today is embroiled in a controversy that has stalled the project. So far there have been two Native American demonstrations protesting the work. And the Huntington Beach City Council recently voted to ask the Orange County Grand Jury to investigate whether the handling of the bones was legal.

Frustrated, Koll officials are trying to figure out what went askew. They deny any wrongdoing. Yet they have been caught in the middle of a slew of age-old conflicts among Native Americans involving territory, tribal status and fierce competition for monitoring jobs that pay $200 to $300 a day. Central to the dispute is the location of Bolsa Chica, to which two bands of Native Americans lay claim.

To be sure, there are serious questions regarding the handling of the bones. A report compiled by Councilman Ralph Bauer contains, among other things, eyewitness accounts suggesting that human remains may have been found at the site much earlier than Koll has admitted. Further, Bauer has records indicating that the find may not have been reported to the coroner's office quickly enough to satisfy the law.

Company officials have steadfastly denied any error.

Among those clamoring for the investigation, however, were Native Americans angry at the developer for a different reason altogether: They said the company had left them out of the loop by dealing with the wrong Native Americans.

"This is war," said Jim Velasques, chief of a group called the coastal Gabrielinos. "There'll be no more messing around."

Said archeologist Patricia Martz of the Bolsa Chica controversy: "It's a pretty typical situation." Martz, an archeologist on the faculty of Cal State Los Angeles and head of the state historical resources commission, said she had seen similar situations up and down the state.

"It's only human nature," she said. Native Americans "are not getting their share of the American dream and they were the first Americans. It's sad, really," she said. Protecting their heritage "is the only empowerment they have right now."

Velasques put it into economic terms.

"Archeology is a gold mine," he said. "Native Americans can make money hand over fist."

It isn't the first time such issues have been thrust under the noses of Orange County developers.

Five years ago, Velasques himself was being paid $35 an hour--$10 of it for a leased pickup truck and cellular phone--to act as a full time monitor for the Irvine Co. on its Newport Coast construction project. A group calling itself the Native American Coalition of Southern California threatened to stage a demonstration protesting the alleged mishandling of human remains. One of its major concerns, said the coalition--whose members included David Belardes, a Juaneno, and Vera Rocha, founder of a separate Gabrielino group--was the selection of Velasques to represent the Gabrielinos.

"I think what we had was a difference of opinion among different people who represented themselves as Gabrielinos," recalls Bernard Maniscalco, who oversaw the project for the Irvine Co.

After weeks of negotiations, the company hit on a solution: hire the opposition as well. Members of both the Belardes and Rocha families were given full-time jobs as archeological field assistants on the project, working with Velasques. And almost immediately, the problem disappeared.

"It was miscommunication," Maniscalco says now. "Hiring representatives of both families helped to provide for better communication all around."

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