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The Region

Developer, Native Americans Are at Odds Over Burial Site

January 19, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

One was buried in a fetal position, facing the sunset. Another was buried with a badger serving as a spiritual guide to the next world.

To Southern California Gabrielino-Tongva tribal members, the 196-acre Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach that sits near the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties is sacred ground.

But the discovery last summer of graves on the land has left members of the tribe and a Newport Beach-based builder at odds on how the parcel should be developed and where the remains should be reburied.

John Laing Homes is seeking to resume grading on 18 acres of its property, work that was halted by the state Coastal Commission after the company allegedly failed to stop voluntarily once the remains were unearthed in July.

The company -- which has fought a different battle in the Santa Clarita Valley involving a centuries-old oak and tree sitter John Quigley -- submitted mitigation plans to the commission last week to "give us a starting point and allow us to move forward with the project," said company spokesman Steve Kabel.

However, Gabrielino-Tongva spokesman Anthony Morales Jr. said he is not satisfied with some of the choices the company has proposed, including moving the ancestral remains to a nearby park in Seal Beach.

"Our main goal is to keep an area where most of the remains were found intact for study and then have a ceremony and reinter the remains within the boundary where they were found," Morales said.

In short, Native Americans want to carve out a section in the developer's Heron Pointe subdivision, where 70 homes are planned. No one knows for certain how many homes would be affected if the suggestion was approved, though some estimates are as many as seven.

"They will lose some homes for sure and at more than a quarter of a million dollars per home, no wonder [John Laing] wants to throw us out of the boundary and put us in the public park," Morales said.

By law, developers are required to stop work when human remains are unearthed and contact the state's Native American Heritage Commission and local coroner, who determines if the remains are Native American.

In this case, the Coastal Commission issued a stop order after the developer allegedly refused to halt its bulldozers, though the company strongly disagrees and says it had stopped work two days before the order was issued. The order was extended by commissioners last month.

According to Kabel, the preliminary mitigation plan includes four choices for reburial and how to proceed if more remains are found.

The plan was given to the Coastal Commission, state Native American Heritage Commission and Morales, who is recognized as the most likely descendant of those who once lived on the land.

Although the developer said it believes that the commission's request for a new mitigation plan was unnecessary, "the company has consistently made every effort to follow the letter, as well as the spirit, of the regulations that govern how to handle the discovery of artifacts and remains and will continue to do so now," according to a company statement.

Lately, John Laing Homes has had its share of image problems. During the holidays, throngs rallied on behalf of the oak known as Old Glory in the Santa Clarita Valley. Quigley sat in the tree in protest from Nov. 1 until his court-ordered eviction about a week ago.

It is now up to the commission staff to review Laing's plans and arrange meetings with the developer, Native Americans and others to determine an appropriate solution, said Karl Schwing of the commission's Long Beach office.

Although the Indians may not like Laing's proposals, the tribal members can offer only recommendations, which the developer is not obliged to accept, said Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission. "If the developer rejects the recommendation, then the law calls for the remains to be buried back on the property," Myers said.

Native Americans are hoping that an accommodation can be made, perhaps a burial site with a garden of indigenous plants. Otherwise, Heron Pointe will become a housing tract on top of a Native American cemetery, something Laing may find hard to market, Indians said.

Laing's proposals range from resuming grading -- as long as it is halted if more burial sites are unearthed -- to plans for reburial of the remains, including reinterment at nearby Gum Grove Park.

Seal Beach Mayor John Larson was not aware of plans to have the park serve as a potential burial site.

"I haven't heard anything about it, and I don't know if it's possible," Larson said. "We're pretty well at the mercy of the Coastal Commission on this, however."

It is not the first time Native American concerns have halted building plans in the area. In 1993, Cal State Long Beach was blocked by the courts from developing a 22-acre site it owned into faculty housing and shops. The area was once inhabited by the Gabrielinos and is revered as the birthplace of their deity.

Gabrielino Indians, unlike the Navajo and Apache, were a loose-knit culture with many clans, each having its own chief. Their villages reached from San Nicolas Island to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and from Topanga Canyon to Laguna Beach.

The former Hellman estate and nearby areas were once the site of a thriving and powerful tribal village, according to the Gabrielinos' Web site. The mesa was part of a large religious and cultural center, and contains "many ancient graves of ancestors overlooking and protecting the wetlands at the delta of the San Gabriel River."

The burial grounds, it says, were typically on slopes facing the setting sun.

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