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Proposed Museum Site May Be Chumash Burial Ground : Thousand Oaks: Bones were found in 1990. Native Americans question why they weren't notified sooner.

August 26, 1994|MATTHEW MOSK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To the shock of local Native Americans, a Thousand Oaks parcel where they had hoped to build a native peoples museum may be the site of a Chumash burial ground.

At a Wednesday night meeting, city officials told backers of the Native Peoples Museum that human remains were discovered in 1990 at the proposed eight-acre site at Lang Ranch.

Several bones and part of a human skull were found during a routine archeological survey of the land, which is part of a major development area. Shortly after the bones were found, they were reburied under six feet of dirt, city officials said.

Native Americans at the meeting said they were appalled that they had not been informed at the time of the discovery.

"I can't believe that if we hadn't specifically asked about this site we may never have been notified," said Beverly Folkes, a board member of Oakbrook Park Chumash Corp., a group that represents local Native Americans. "We had no idea we would open up this whole can of worms."

The revelation creates a host of new challenges for backers of the Native Peoples Museum.

A committee of Thousand Oaks residents and representatives from several Native American groups have been planning the museum since last year, after an effort to bring the Los Angeles-based Southwest Museum to Thousand Oaks failed. The major hurdle has been the lack of a suitable site.

The committee's main planner, museum designer Al Fiori, said organizers had finally settled on the site at Lang Ranch Parkway near Avenida de los Arboles. The land was ideal, Fiori said, because it is adjacent to the Chumash Interpretive Center.

But as the committee sat down Wednesday to vote on the site, Greg Smith, a Thousand Oaks city planner, disclosed the 4-year-old discovery. He said he was investigating whether the city had notified Ventura County coroner's officials when the bones were discovered. The law requires that the coroner be notified when human remains are found.

As a result of Smith's announcement, committee members requested that there be no development at the eight-acre parcel until they know more about the remains.

Smith said the bones that were unearthed appeared to have been burned, which he said suggests they were not Chumash because the Chumash people did not cremate their dead.

Under Chumash custom, the dead are buried in the fetal position facing west, said Paul Varela, who heads the Interpretive Center.

Committee members said until there is more information about the find, even initial plans to put a park on the land should be delayed.

"We don't want anything to happen until we can find out if this is a Chumash burial ground," said Leo Valenzuela, director of the Oakbrook Park Chumash Corp. "If it is a burial ground, we want it left in peace."

The committee had hoped to persuade the Conejo Recreation and Park District to devote the land to the museum. At the meeting, however, park officials indicated they would not give up precious parkland because of buried bones.

Park district General Manager Tex Ward said he would not support a plan that would force the district to forfeit the land. He said without a park there, the children of about 5,000 residents living nearby would have no place to play.

"Those remains were capped and the earth was left in its natural state," Ward said. "There is no reason we shouldn't move forward with our park."

That left the museum's supporters fuming.

"Would you want people to have a barbecue on your parents' grave?" Fiori asked Ward. "I think if this is a burial site, it needs to be preserved."

At meeting's end, the group asked the city to provide more information on the find and agreed to discuss alternate museum sites at its next monthly meeting.

"I'm not sure where we'll turn next," said Councilman Frank Schillo, who has chaired the drive for a museum. "We're out of sites. This was supposed to be the one."

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