It didn’t take long for a team of highway archaeologists to score their first find while searching for human remains buried on an aging stretch of US Highway 395 that cuts along the eastern flank of the mountain range. of the Sierra Nevadas.
That alone was enough to worry local tribal leaders, but they continued to strike more bones missed by earlier archaeological investigations needed to begin construction on a $69.7 million Caltrans project to convert 12.6 miles of 395 from a two-lane road to a safer four. – Expressway.
State and federal laws prohibit the public disclosure of information relating to the location of Native American cultural places to reduce their vulnerability to various types of theft, including grave robbing. But since last week, according to tribal leaders, more than 30 Tangled human skeletons had been unearthed at the site near the Inyo County community in Cartago, many adorned with artifacts: glass beads, abalone shells and arrowheads.
Now, as nearby bulldozers pound huge mounds of excavated earth, tribal historic preservation officers are demanding the California Department of Transportation halt construction and realign the project to avoid the graves.
“We say, ‘Stop!’ Your gigantic highway project is disturbing the peace of countless ancestors in a place that had been undisturbed for thousands of years,” said Fort Independence Indian Community Tribal Historical Officer Sean Scruggs. of Paiute Indians.
“How many human remains need to be dug up before Caltrans decides it’s time to heed our advice and our point of view?” He asked.
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, Tribal Historic Preservation Manager for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation, said, “We don’t want this to become another sensational case of gruesome desecration.
“We have tried to work with Caltrans to come up with a creative solution, but we have yet to see a proposal that aligns with tribal interests. This has to change,” she said.
The project got off to a rocky start when it was proposed in 1997, with many tribal leaders warning that nearly every slope, sage plain and shoreline in the area contained evidence of indigenous peoples who knew it as a kingdom of irrigated villages. and abundant game surrounded. by canyons and rocks sculpted by storms and flash floods.
“We’ve had at least a hundred meetings with Caltrans,” Bancroft said. “But formal consultation was never completed regarding the design issues which were never resolved.”
The freeway project, which is in a Caltrans right-of-way, has been identified as a priority. But unless the state government agency gives in to tribal concerns, it is headed for a confrontation of complicated and competing values.
Crossing interests are nothing new.
In 2012, state coastal regulators fined a landowner $430,000 for digging up artifacts at the site of a 9,000-year-old Native American village near the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach. . Native American groups with ties to the land said the punishment was not severe enough.
That same year, Colorado River Indian tribes unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to slow its development of the billion-dollar Genesis Solar Project in the Mojave Desert due to the discovery of human remains missed by rushed archaeological investigations. to build.
In 2019, construction on a San Diego freeway widening project was halted immediately after Native American remains were discovered during excavations. Orange County Transportation Authority officials consulted with the California Native American Heritage Commission on how to proceed.
The proposed Olancha-Cartago 4-lane freeway will pass west of the community of Olancha, cross the Los Angeles Aqueduct and continue through the community of Cartago to bridge the gap between the existing four-lane sections of the road vital to the regional economy of the Eastern Sierra. .
Construction is about 40% complete, Caltrans officials said, and should be finished next year barring unforeseen problems.
The yard overlooks nearby Owens Lake Beach, a barren, flat expanse best known as the focal point of a historic feud that began in the early 1900s when Los Angeles city officials quietly bought up ranches and water rights for an aqueduct to quench thirst. of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.
LA drained so much water through the aqueduct system that the 110-square-mile lake dried up, making it nearly impossible for local ranchers and farmers to earn a living – a scandal that was dramatized in the classic film from 1974 “Chinatown”.
For Native Americans, however, the area was once an essential part of their religion, culture and history until the late 1800s – before American troops were sent to protect white settlers and the lands and tribal water are actually stolen.
As part of an effort to present a more complete picture of the area’s significance to the Owens Valley Indigenous peoples, five local tribes have nominated 186 square miles of the lake bed for inclusion on the Historic Resources Registry of California and the National Register of Historic Places. .
These tribes now want the burial site on the way to Caltrans’ highway project to be deemed off-limits to further construction until a solution acceptable to all parties is found.
It won’t be easy. Caltrans proposed in April to curve the disputed section of the freeway around the burial site. But that wouldn’t move the highway far enough to satisfy tribal leaders, who are asking for at least a half-mile to a mile clearance.
The tribes insist they are not against the highway improvement project. The problem is that it was approved for construction, they say, without their consultation.
Instead, they watched in growing anger and frustration as archaeologists and Caltrans road crews wearing helmets, shovels and buckets deployed each morning to search for the remains of their ancestors.
Yellow vest crews are working in areas slated for construction, carefully digging 10 feet or more into hard alluvial soil and pushing shovelfuls of dirt through mesh screens to collect the smallest pieces of evidence.
The work is performed in the presence of a Native American monitor, a requirement under state law.
“As soon as remains are discovered, Caltrans will stop work, call the coroner, and must follow the protocol outlined in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the California Public Resources Code which outlines the process,” the agency said in a statement. a prepared statement.
A March 15 letter from the president of the Lone Pine Paiute Reservation was imploring and harsh. He requested formal consultation with Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration regarding “how the project was designed and implemented.”
On Thursday, tribal officers finally received some good news: Caltrans said it had “halted all construction activity in the area in question,” including its search for human remains.
“Caltrans is committed to protecting tribal cultural resources,” he said. “When concerns are raised, there are a variety of tools we can use, up to and including project redesign.”
“It’s a good start,” said Scruggs of the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians, “but we still have a lot of nation-to-nation consultation ahead of us.”
“All we want,” he added, “is prior informed consent before they launch something of this magnitude in our ancestral home.”
Los Angeles Times