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He Straddles 2 Worlds to Rebury Ancestors

Reinterring bones exposed by bulldozers is vital, tribal official says. He only smooths way for developers, critics insist.

January 27, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

David Belardes is an undertaker of a different sort.

Over two decades, he has quietly reburied the bones of hundreds of Native Americans unearthed by bulldozers clearing the way for Orange County housing developments, strip malls and highways.

He quickly relocates the remains to secluded corners of public parks or deep under the construction sites, earning several hundred dollars per body, or a couple of thousand dollars as a flat fee for a larger project. When he is done, the bulldozers roll on.

"The thing to do is get the ancestors moved so they won't be disturbed again," he said.

Belardes personifies the way California deals with its ancient burial grounds and caches of archeological remains tucked a few feet below the Earth's surface. Human bones receive minimal protection, other artifacts receive none under current law.

That could change, thanks to the emerging political clout of casino-enriched tribes statewide, which are donating millions of dollars to election campaigns.

"They haven't had a place at the table. Now they do," said Mary Shallenberger, an aide to state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who sponsored S.B. 1828 last session in an attempt to give Native Americans additional scrutiny over development projects.

Spurred by a Canadian company's plan to mine for gold on the site of an ancient, sacred petroglyph in Northern California, tribal leaders lobbied hard and won passage of the bill.

Faced with the equally powerful wrath and deep pockets of mining, homebuilding and logging companies that said the bill could lead to multimillion-dollar delays on projects across the state, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it. But he promised that his staff would come up with a new version this legislative session.

Belardes said he supports toughening protection of Native American sites, but he'll believe it when he sees it. In the meantime, he'll keep doing it the old way.

"You think Gray Davis is really gonna give us our land when he's got all these developers' funds behind him?" he said. "In my mind, knowing the history of everything that's happened to Native Americans and their land, I don't see it happening.... The most important thing is to rebury the ancestors. The developers know I know my stuff."

But critics in his own tribe say that Belardes' close relationship with developers is one of the reasons the law needs to change. They cite a litany of concerns, including assertions that he is not even Native American; that earning money for what he does amounts to sacrilege, selling out or both; and that state law does not allow for removal of anyone from the program set up to handle ancient sites.

"I don't think anyone should take any money for taking care of our ancestors," said Sonia Johnston, who succeeded Belardes after a bitter 1994 election as tribal chair of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemem Nation. When Mission San Juan Capistrano was built in the 1700s, the Acjachemem were christened the Juanenos. "That's part of our duty, of what we've been put here to do. These are like our grandparents. We don't get paid for doing a ceremony to bury our grandparents."

Johnston, like Belardes, is pessimistic about the chances of any real change in state law. But she says that is no excuse for caving in to developers. Johnston also said that an independent genealogist could find no evidence that Belardes has Native American ancestry.

Proud of His Work

But Belardes, who now leads a different faction that he says is the real tribe, said he is proud of his work mediating between huge developers and weak state law. He dismisses Johnston and other critics bluntly as "crazy New Age Indians ... I know who the real Indians are."

A self-described seventh-generation San Juan Capistrano resident and "bull-headed, stubborn" man, Belardes, 55, says his great-grandmother on his father's side was a Juaneno. For nearly 20 years, Belardes has been one of 250 state-designated "most likely descendants," or MLDs, called in when human remains are unearthed on a construction site.

Under current law, if human bones are found, the bulldozers must pause while the county coroner determines if they are ancient, not the result of modern-day foul play. If they are, the state Native American Heritage Commission is notified, which in turn selects a most likely descendant to go to the site and negotiate with the landowner about what should be done with the bones. There is no state protection of cog stones, pottery or other signs of village life.

Estimates of the number of Native Americans in California before 1769, when Gaspar de Portola arrived, range from 300,000 to 1 million, meaning there are thousands of sites scattered statewide.

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