At Playa Vista, a Controversy over Indian Remains In the Playa Vista area of Los Angeles, the remains of more than 400 Tongva Indians have been unearthed during construction of a mixed use development. Building continues, and the remains await re-interment.

At Playa Vista, a Controversy over Indian Remains

At Playa Vista, a Controversy over Indian Remains

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In the Playa Vista area of Los Angeles, the remains of more than 400 Tongva Indians have been unearthed during construction of a mixed use development. Building continues, and the remains await re-interment.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, two versions of the all-you-can-eat experience - from Indian tradition to a ballpark bonanza.

CHADWICK: First, a construction site here in Los Angeles has been a source of controversy for years. For one thing, it's going to be a huge, mixed use community, and it's reshaping the neighborhood.

BRAND: And for another of NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, some people consider it sacred ground.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: I'm on a high bluff that overlooks a section of Los Angeles that's called Playa Vista. That's Spanish for view of the beach. And there is one. From these bluffs, you can see the Marina, and beyond that, the Pacific.

A hawk is surfing the thermals above me this afternoon, and a little lizard is at my feet, sunning itself. The breeze in the ocean are what drew Tongva Indians here centuries ago when they settled. It's why they chose to bury their dead at the fort of these cliffs.

But now, the peaceful natural sounds have been joined by other noises.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

BATES: Hear that? That's construction for a multi-billion dollar planned community, also named Playa Vista. When its completed, more than 10,000 people will work and live here.

When construction began here, more than 400 grades of Tongva Indians were exhumed. Cindy Alvitre is a professor at Cal State-Long Beach, and a Tongva. She says discovery of those graves shouldn't have surprised anyone.

Professor CINDY ALVITRE (California State University, Long Beach): They knew the cemetery was there, but they weren't quite sure exactly where. And when they started to encounter numerous burials and as they started to survey the ground, they realized that this was the cemetery that so many archeologists have been discussing.

GRIGSBY BATES: G. Edward Evans agrees. He spent decades studying the Tongva at Loyola Marymount University. He now heads the library of the Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff. Ed Evans says the Playa Vista site is probably the biggest Native American burial ground ever found in California. While that's exciting to archaeologists and historians, he understands the conflict over Playa Vista between all the parties involved.

Mr. EDWARD EVANS (Library Director, Northern Arizona Museum): There is a tension between archeologists and scientists and the native people who have very legitimate rights to those remains. That's like someone excavating my grandmother.

GRIGSBY BATES: Many Native Americans are deeply offended that these ancestral graves have been disturbed at all. But Steve Sugarman, a spokesman for Playa Vista, says everything was done properly.

Mr. STEVE SUGARMAN (Spokesman, Playa Vista): Well, we went through an elaborate process to remove them in a very meticulous manner with Native American monitors on site during every aspect of it. And the archaeological treatment plan that had been agreed to was put into place.

Prof. ALVITRE: He's absolutely right. They have followed it to the letter of the law.

GRIGSBY BATES: But, Cindy Alvitre says, laws don't go far enough in protecting ancient native graves.

Prof. ALVITRE: This is perfect evidence how little protection Native American burials and Native American culture resources have.

GRIGSBY BATES: Laws recognizing and regulating cemeteries didn't exist before California became a state in 1850. The state designates graves that pre-date that time as archeological resources to be catalogued and studied. Again, Cindy Alvitre.

Prof. ALVITRE: The most tragic things that happens to burials that they do acknowledge that they're Indian burials is that they become objectified. They're no longer human beings. And at that point, we lose any connection to them as our relatives.

GRIGSBY BATES: When remains are found on construction sites, California law says a Native American monitor is mandatory. That's Robert Dormet's(ph) job at Playa Vista, although he considers it something else.

Mr. ROBERT DORMET (Playa Vista): It is not a job. It's a responsibility to take care of the ancestors.

GRIGSBY BATES: Dormet's primary mission is to make sure the Playa Vista remains are stored properly and reinterred as soon as possible. The remains and artifacts from 411 graves have been placed in individual boxes and stored in a climate-controlled trailer in an undisclosed location.

This is at the Tongva's request, to protect the remains from vandalism or theft. Reinterment could be as late as 2011. The remains will go as close to their original site as possible. Robert Dormet says whenever it occurs, reinterment will be quiet and private.

Mr. DORMET: We do invite other Indians that have a standing in the Indian community so this isn't a show-and-tell situation.

GRIGSBY BATES: Playa Vista's Steve Sugarman says a pavilion showcasing Tongva culture will be part of a new complex when it's finished. Cindy Alvitre isn't impressed.

Prof. ALVITRE: By them doing that, what they're constructing is a glorified obituary that keeps us fixed in the past. It's a beautiful distraction so that people will continue to believe that we do not exist in the present.

GRIGSBY BATES: Meanwhile, phase two of Playa Vista has begun construction.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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