WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Somewhere in the pre-European past, a lone Patwin tribal member died on the vast Yolo basin west of the Sacramento River.
Several centuries later, a construction crew accidentally unearthed the ancient remains, setting off a series of events the most likely tribal descendants call a model for private, state and tribal cooperation.
Two weeks ago a crew, working for A.D. Seeno Construction, was digging a sewer trench at a new subdivision when it uncovered the remains. The foreman quickly called the company bosses and work was shut down for the day. The company immediately called in the Yolo County coroner and an archeologist from the University of California-Davis.
Once the remains were determined to be those of a prehistoric American Indian, the California Native American Heritage Commission was called in to determine the "most likely descendant" under state laws.
"We determined that the Patwin tribe are the most likely descendants," says
Larry Meyers, director of the California Native American Heritage Commission.
Kesner C. Flores of the Cortina Rancheria, whose members are descended from the Patwin of the western Sacramento Valley, was then called in to represent the descendants. Flores says the situation is handled differently from tribe to tribe, and there are different customs for each.
Some tribes will have their secular tribal councils handle situations such as this while others, like his tribe, have someone well versed in tribal traditions and lore to decide the appropriate steps to take, he explained. He says he learned these from his grandmother.
At this point not much is known about the remains which were taken to California State University-Chico, to be examined for age, sex and other factors. Flores says he has built a relationship of trust with the university and expects the remains to repatriated to the tribe once the determinations have been made.
"We will then do the appropriate actions as prescribed by the customs and traditions of the tribe," he said.
Flores says all parties involved have handled the entire situation very well. Terms of the California Environmental Quality Act and the federal repatriation act were followed. He credits Jon Challoner, vice president of A.D. Seeno Construction for being helpful and respectful of the remains.
Challoner describes it as one of the most "moving and interesting days" he has spent on the job. He says he did his best to protect the site from reporters and onlookers until a tribal representative could be called in.
The site contained many personal artifacts and even had the carbon markings from a campfire, Challoner said, adding that Flores helped him understand the tribal traditions and customs, an experience he called "invaluable."
Since the find, Challoner says many workers on the construction crew have become interested in American Indian repatriation issues.
"What could have been a sticky situation instead became one of mutual understanding, and a valuable lesson in the rich Native American history of the area."