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Court orders construction halt on Viejas sacred site

SAN DIEGO – A state superior court has issued a restraining order to stop construction on a $20 million water project after human remains were found in an area that the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians says is a sacred burial ground and ceremonial place of their ancestors.

In a June 7 hearing, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes ordered the Padre Dam Municipal Water District to avoid construction on around two-thirds of the two-and-a-half acre site where it is building a new reservoir and pumping station. The restraining order extends to June 25.

Attorneys for the Viejas Band sought the restraining order against the Padre Dam Municipal Water District to halt construction until the matter is decided by the Native American Heritage Commission.

On June 17, the commission will continue a hearing that began in April and hear testimony from both sides. If the commission finds that the site is a sanctified cemetery that will be harmed or destroyed by the water project, it will issue recommendations to mitigate damages or even avoid the site altogether.

The water district is building the reservoir as part of a second pipeline system to the district’s eastern service area. The existing pipeline is 50 years old and would leave 30,000 customers without water if it broke, according to water district officials.

Although the new pipeline would benefit the Viejas Band, protecting the tribe’s cultural patrimony is essential and the entire site must be surveyed before further disturbance occurs, Viejas Tribal Chairman Bobby L. Barrett said.

“To move forward and desecrate this sacred burial ground would dishonor those who have been laid to rest there. It would also dishonor their living relatives and everyone in San Diego County who appreciates the cultural and historical significance of this site.”

The water district will be required to abide by the NAHC’s recommendations or face legal action requested by the commission and initiated by the state attorney general, who was present at the June 7 court hearing and spoke in favor of the restraining order.

The water district was alerted early about the potential cultural value of the site, Barrett said. Qualified Native American monitors and experts hired by the water district in 2007 said that significant tribal cultural resources were present and recommended the water district avoid construction on the site. But the water district approved the project without revealing this information to tribes and the public, and said the project would not have any potentially significant negative effect on cultural resources, the Viejas leader said.

Human remains and a high density of burned pottery shards were later uncovered at the site, indicating a sacred burial ground and ceremonial place where cremated Native Americans were buried in sacred pottery urns.

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, whose ancestors have lived in the area for 10,000 years, were designated as the most likely descendents of the people buried there.

Although only around 6 percent of the site was recovered, the Padre Dam Water District’s Data Recovery Report of August 2009 details the extent and significance of the discovery.

Fourteen human bones belonging to at least three to eight individuals have been positively identified by the Medical Examiner’s Office, dating to A. D. 780 – 1910.

The excavation also recovered 204 other bone fragments, which are characteristic of traditional cremation practices of local indigenous bands.

The human remains were mostly “burned during cremation” and the “calcined bones may have come from human cremations given the large amounts of burned pottery and other burial artifacts that may have been grave goods,” the report said.

The Viejas Band asked the water district to fully assess the site and construction plans in order to prevent further desecration before proceeding and also agreed to work with the water district to review alternative sites. The water district agreed to stop construction in February while the two sides negotiated.

But in May, the water district said it would not wait for the NAHC ruling but instead would immediately resume construction, the Viejas leader said. Viejas then filed for a restraining order to stop the project from moving forward until the commission’s determination.

Padre Dam General Manager Doug Wilson told San Diego Union-Tribune online that the district’s experts had determined that the site contained kitchen pottery and wasn’t a burial site.

He said the construction delay is costing the district $150,000 per month, and that would add $10 million to the cost, and the district would probably drop the project.

“We’ve done everything by the book. If we get stopped, then no public agency can be comforted to know that they can also be stopped.”

But Barrett said protecting the ancestors is more important than finances.

“This site is sacred to our people, and it is culturally and historically significant for all residents of San Diego County and southern California.”

The chairman said the band had asked Padre Dam Municipal Water District to conduct a full assessment of cultural resources to help the tribe understand the cultural resources that may be present throughout the site.

“This would seem entirely reasonable given that the district’s own report recognizes the immense historic and cultural significance of what has already been discovered – and that report only covers a six percent sample of the site,” Barrett said. “Until there’s a full assessment, we don’t know what, if any, other options exist for onsite project redesign. The district also previously considered three other alternative sites, and we continue to offer to work with them to further assess those and other sites as possible options.”