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City Is Losing a Part of Its Soul in Playa Vista

June 07, 2004|Peter Nabokov

Over the last few months, one of the largest American Indian burial grounds ever found in California -- or the nation -- has been rising out of the earth in West Los Angeles, more than 275 bodies at last count. You can see the site from Lincoln Boulevard -- those big green tents on land that developers mean to turn into an Edenic stream, open space for the 13,000 people who will populate the master-planned Playa Vista community.

Each day more resting places of Los Angeles' original inhabitants, those we know as the Gabrielino-Tongva, are being exposed and their bones brushed clean. Rib cages and skulls, basketry remnants and personal goods are sifted from the dirt. Some of the remains are 4,000 years old; some date from the days of the Spanish missions. Each is laid in a cardboard banker's box -- stacks of them fill metal shipping containers -- to be reinterred someplace else.

It is all being done as competently, rapidly, legally and as quietly as possible. By the time most of us get around to realizing what has happened, Los Angeles will have lost its last, best chance to suitably memorialize these people, and to redress, in even a small way, a criminal chapter in our history -- the eviction and decimation of California's native peoples.

None of this is underhanded.

The brigade of reputable archeologists hired by Playa Vista is apparently doing a professional job, energized by an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the past.

The Indian monitors on the site -- mournfully walking from grave to grave, making sure that no bones are photographed and that each bead and arrowhead is handled properly -- are exercising to the letter of the law a host of Indian grave-protection statutes passed since the 1980s. The multiple Indian groups still in contention over the site have every democratic right to debate how to handle the situation -- whether to protest the grave removals or make pacts with the powerful Playa Vista lawyers.

Even environmentalists, who have resisted development at Playa Vista and the associated West Bluffs for nearly two decades, are understandably grateful for a little more wetland, and grow silent when it comes to fighting on behalf of the Indians' cultural claims.

And the Playa Vista developers? They too are acting on the letter of the law, protected by the powerlessness of the Gabrielinos, who like so many native California peoples never won federal recognition as a tribe. They are free to boast about the picture-perfect "riparian corridor" they will create out of a neglected ditch, to explain how disinterring and reinterring bones adds up to respect for Indian tradition.

It's all so "correct." Yet it's all so wrong.

Other graveyards get automatic respect. Who would touch Westwood's national cemetery? A graveyard in Ventura is piously characterized as a "pioneer" cemetery and left as a park where visitors can meditate on those who came before. Whenever African American slave graveyards turn up, they are likewise accorded sacred handling and pride of place. And in Victoria, British Columbia, politically adept Chinatown associations combined with civic pride to save a Chinese cemetery on a prime piece of waterfront.

Shouldn't that happen here? Shouldn't the discovery of a sacred zone of such magnitude as this burial ground have caused everyone to halt work and take stock -- and then to find imaginative ways to redeem the past? Shouldn't a Gabrielino park or museum memorialize this place, anchored by the solemn right of these dead to remain there, with their possessions, forever?

Not at Playa Vista. In years past, Hughes Aircraft and other landowners bulldozed away other graves here. And just this year, on nearby West Bluffs, a village site was destroyed to clear the way for a 114-home luxury neighborhood. Now this last remaining bit of what we know as Saa'angva, the Gabrielino communities of Ballona Creek, is getting its cosmetic surgery.

After we complete the eviction of the Indian bodies, spirits and histories at Playa Vista and make what's left into a picture-perfect creek, we will gradually forget who first humanized this landscape and settled our city.

Everyone is just doing his or her job. Everything about this is wrong.


UCLA anthropologist Peter Nabokov's forthcoming co-authored book is "Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park" (University of Oklahoma Press, fall 2004).

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