The discovery and excavation of the remains of over 100 bodies at the site of a cultural center in Los Angeles has brought the public together around a common cause: to protect and honor the city's first cemetery.
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American Heritage Cultural center scheduled to open in mid-April, is in the city's historical El Pueblo area, which was founded in 1781 by Spanish settlers and priests from the nearby San Gabriel mission. The cultural center was in the midst of building the Campo Santo Memorial Garden, a public outdoor space, when the first human remains were found in late October 2010.
According to Mission San Gabriel records found by Desiree Martinez, an archaeologist who is a member of the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, 673 people were buried at the cemetery, which was established in 1822. Some 20 years later, it was deemed too small and a new area was designated for burials.
While LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes maintains that they immediately contacted the archdiocese and continued with the removal of the remains in a lawful manner, there has been much dispute and concern amongst Native American groups, archaeologists, the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other community members about the proper handling and future of the remains. Wendy Teeter, the curator of archaeology at the UCLA Fowler Museum and professor of Sacred Site Protection in the American Indian Studies Department at UCLA, was first notified of the discovery and excavation that was taking place at the beginning of this month, after a former UCLA archaeology student notified his professors that he believed that Native American remains and artifacts were being uncovered and not being treated properly.
Native American cultural materials, such as shell beads, bi-face fragments (a two-sided stone tool) and burials in which bodies were purposefully not placed inside a coffin, or semi-flexed burials (the bodies are not in coffins; they are loosely bent in a near-fetal position), told archaeologists that Native American remains were indeed being unearthed.
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes spokeswoman Katie Dunham said that they cannot say what ethnicity the people buried in the cemetery are.
Martinez disagrees. She said that according to Mission records she found and presented to the CEO of La Plaza and the coroners office, "There were many Native American peoples buried in the cemetery, Luiseno, Cahuilla... and for a lot of people it just states Indio, Indio, Indio, but those are most likely local tribes like the Gabrieleno/Tongva, who were one of the larger communities in the Los Angeles vicinity and were very much under the influence of San Gabriel mission."
Martinez has no doubt that there are Native American remains present at the site. "Native Americans were the labor force in the missions, they intermarried and many Tongva people were Christianized either by force or by will.”
“Not only were Native American people buried here but also Irish, Mexican Americans, African Americans and Europeans,” said Lylliam Posadas, the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act Assistant at the UCLA Fowler Museum. “This is not just a Native American issue but also an issue of the city of Los Angeles.”
On Sunday, January 9 a tribal member of the Gabrielino/Tongva people decided to go to the site and honor her ancestors. Word spread quickly, according to Martinez, and the impromptu gathering turned into a vigil of about 60 people of various ethnic backgrounds who also came to pay their respects. “It’s been very grassroots but the outpouring has been amazing, this has provided a rallying place for the community so it has been positive in recognizing that all people had a role in the history of Los Angeles, Native Californians, Native Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, African Americans, all folks who represent that time period,” said Teeter.
On January 14th LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes released an official statement saying that all construction in the camposanto area had been put on hold indefinitely, "in light of the unexpected number of human remains uncovered and their great historical significance."
Katie Dunham of LA Plaza said that they were taking meetings with interested parties and are trying to determine what should happen next.
"I hope the remains are placed back into the ground and covered with a memorial that says who they are,” Teeter said.”It would be nice to have a story commemorating the Native Americans who built this city on their backs, and to have a place to recognize them and honor their memories."