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Tribe's buildings on list of endangered historic sites

The National Trust seeks to preserve the Kashia band's spiritual and cultural centers, victims of inadequate federal funding.

June 14, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

CAZADERO, CALIF. — Kneeling in a remote stretch of Sonoma County forest, Reno Franklin used his fingers and an archeologist's trowel to sift through the rich, brown soil where he believes an ancient Indian village once stood.

He was looking for clues to the laborious life his ancestors had once carved out of this land, and he dusted off a tiny obsidian arrowhead, gently and reverently holding the well-chiseled stone up to the sunlight.

The owner of the forestland wants to harvest its redwoods. Franklin said he worried such fragile artifacts would be trampled in the process.

"It's so beautiful, it doesn't even look real," he said of the stretch of woods known as Bohan Dillon Ridge that slopes away to the ocean a few miles away. "How could you not want to protect this?"

Franklin is historic preservation officer for the Kashia band of Pomo Indians, whose history stretches back for thousands of years in this region 100 miles north of San Francisco. Today his fight to protect the tribe's past from developers, looters and vandals received a critical moment in the spotlight.

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation released its annual list of America's most endangered historic places, and two Kashia sites -- the Regalia House and the sacred Old Round House on the reservation at Stewarts Point Rancheria -- were on the list of 11 locations.

National Trust officials say the Kashia sites highlight a common problem: Tribal sites from Connecticut to California are being bulldozed and pillaged as frustrated tribes, most without casino revenue, lack the funds to protect their heritage.

When it comes to sacred Native American sites, cultural misperceptions abound, tribal officials say. For years, for instance, youth groups in the United States encouraged the collection of arrowheads.

Trust officials want Congress to increase the amount tribes receive under the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. Without the means to boost preservation and public education, said National Trust President Richard Moe, "the Kashia and many other tribes will lose everything that's sacred and important."

Since 1996, the number of reservations seeking federal preservation funds has soared from 12 to 66, and tribes have scrambled to hire preservation officers like Franklin. But funding levels in the 41-year-old federal program have not kept up with demand, and the average amount a tribe receives will soon be cut in half, to $45,000, according to statistics provided by the trust.

"It's a long-standing embarrassment for the federal government's preservation program," said Elizabeth Merritt, general counsel for the National Trust. "Here they are encouraging more tribes to participate in protecting their own culture. But each additional tribe gets a smaller slice of the funding pie."

Not counting Alaska, 300 tribes inhabit more than 53 million acres nationwide.

Alan Downer, a preservation officer for the Navajo nation, said because of the low funding levels in Western states many enforcement officers who might catch looters must cover areas of 1,000 square miles or more, leaving most tribal sites unguarded.

"The money the federal government offers to help tribes is just enough to make you realize what you can't do," he said.

Tribal officials say many Americans are unaware that the ruins of ancient Indian cultures exist in their communities.

"Our people have been living here for thousands of years, not hundreds. People in America find it difficult to grasp that amount of time," said Bambi Kraus, president of the National Assn. of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. "Indian Country is full of sites with secrets and stories. All we ask is for respect."

Tribes battle a black market of pilfered Native American sacred objects, which are routinely sold on Internet auction sites.

"There are tribal burial grounds being looted as we speak, all across the Western United States," said Martin McAllister, an archeologist who specializes in recovering Native American artifacts. "It's a huge industry."

John Fryar, a retired investigator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, said he has seen numerous Native American skulls for sale, some for $10,000.

"I have a video of looters talking about how they scattered bones so their crime wouldn't be so obvious," he said. "One guy bragged about taking a toy out of the skeletal hand of a child."

The Yurok tribe in Northern California has prosecuted numerous looters. One was a local jewelry maker caught digging on tribal burial grounds in Humboldt County. Another admitted to excavating 60 Native American sites, and told tribal officials it was research for a book.

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