Native tribes warned of a buried kingdom in the Owens Valley. Now Caltrans crews are digging up the bones (2023)

CARTHAGE, California -

It didn't take long for a team of highway archaeologists to make their first discovery while searching for buried human remains on an old stretch of US Highway 395 that cuts along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range.

That alone was enough to worry the local tribal leaders, but they came across several bones that had overlooked the previous archaeological surveys needed to begin construction.A $69.7 million Caltrans projectconvert 12.6 miles of 395 from a two-lane road to a safer four-lane highway.

State and federal laws prohibit public release of information about the location of Native American cultural sites to reduce their vulnerability to various types of theft, including grave robbing. But last week, tribal leaders say, more than 30 interlocking human skeletons were excavated at a site near the Inyo County community of Cartago, many of them decoratedartifacts: glass beads, abalone shells and arrowheads.


Now, as nearby bulldozers move over huge piles of excavated soil, the tribe's historic preservation officials are demanding that the California Department of Transportation halt construction and reroute the project to avoid burial sites.

Native tribes warned of a buried kingdom in the Owens Valley. Now Caltrans crews are digging up the bones (1)


"We say, 'Stop!' Your gigantic highway project is disturbing the peace of countless ancestors in a place that has been undisturbed for thousands of years," said Sean Scruggs, Fort Independence's tribal history officer. Paiute Indians.


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"How many human remains have to be dug up before Caltrans decides it's time to respect our advice and perspective?" he asked.

Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation, said, "We don't want this to become another sensational case of horrific desecration."

"We've tried to work with Caltrans to find a creative solution, but we've yet to see a proposal that aligns with the tribe's interests. This needs to change," she said.

The project got off to a rocky start when it was proposed in 1997, with many tribal leaders warning that almost every hillside, sage flat and coastline in the region contained evidence of the existence of the indigenous people who knew it as a kingdom of irrigated villages and rich game surrounded by canyons and cliffs, carved by storms and currents.

Native tribes warned of a buried kingdom in the Owens Valley. Now Caltrans crews are digging up the bones (3)

Caltrans' $69.7 million improvement project being built along US Highway 395 near the eastern Sierra Nevada community of Cartago has been closed to the public due to the discovery of a Native American burial site.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

"We've had at least a hundred meetings with Caltrans," Bancroft said. "But formal consultation was never completed on design issues that were never considered."

The freeway project, which lies within the Caltrans roadway, was identified as a priority. But unless the state governing body gives in to tribal concerns, they are headed for a showdown with complicated and competing values.

Conflicting interests are nothing new.

In 2012, state coastal authorities fined a property owner $430,000 for excavating artifacts at a 9,000-year-old Native American village near Bolsa Chica Marsh in Huntington Beach. Native American groups with ties to the land said the sentence was not harsh enough.

That same year, Colorado River Indian tribes unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to slow development of the $1 billion Genesis solar project in the Mojave Desert due to the discovery of human remains that were missed by archaeological digs in the rush to build.

In 2019, construction on a freeway expansion project in San Diego was halted immediately after excavations uncovered Native American remains. Orange County Transportation Authority officials consulted with the California Native Heritage Commission on how to proceed.

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The Olancha-Cartago 4-lane highway project will pass west of the Olancha community, cross the Los Angeles Aqueduct and continue through the Cartago community to close the gap between existing four-lane sections of the route that are vital to the Eastern Sierra's regional economy.

Native tribes warned of a buried kingdom in the Owens Valley. Now Caltrans crews are digging up the bones (5)

Construction continues at the base of the Great Wall, part of an improvement project along a 12.6-mile stretch of US Highway 395.

(Derek Armon / Falcon Engineering)

Construction is about 40% complete, Caltrans officials said, and is expected to wrap up sometime next year, barring unforeseen problems.

The site overlooks nearby Owens Lake Beach, a dry, flat area best known as the center of a historic dispute that began in the early 1900s when Los Angeles city agents quietly purchased land and water rights to an aqueduct to quench the thirst of the city. growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.

LA. drained so much water through an aqueduct system that the 180-square-mile lake dried up, making it nearly impossible for local ranchers and farmers to make a living — a scandal dramatized in the 1974 film classic "Chinatown."

But for the Native Americans, the area was once an essential part of their religion, culture and history until the late 19th century - before American troops were sent toprotects the white settlersand tribal land and water were actually stolen.

As part of an effort to present a more complete picture of the region's significance to the indigenous peoples of the Owens Valley,five local tribes nominated 186 square kilometersbottom of the lake for inclusion in the California Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.

These tribes now want the cemetery in the path of Caltrans' freeway project to be considered off-limits to further construction until a mutually acceptable solution is reached.

It will not be easy. In April, Caltrans offered a proposal to curve the disputed highway stretch around the grave. 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 of clear space.

The tribes insist they are not opposed to the highway improvement project. The problem is that the construction was approved, they say, without their consultation.

Instead, they watched with growing anger and frustration as Caltrans archaeologists and road crews with hard hats, shovels and buckets flew each morning in search of the remains of their ancestors.

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Teams in yellow vests work in areas earmarked for construction, carefully digging 10 feet or more into hard alluvial soil and pushing shovels of soil through mesh screens to collect the slightest evidence.

The work is performed with the presence of a Native American monitor, which is a requirement under state law.

"As soon as remains are discovered, Caltrans closes operations, calls the coroner and must follow protocol as outlined in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the California Public Resources Act, which outlines the process," the agency said in a prepared statement.

The March 15 letter from the president of the Lone Pine Paiute Reservation was pleading and harsh. He requested official consultation with both of themCaltransand the Federal Highway Administration regarding "the manner in which the project was designed and implemented."

On Thursday, tribal officials finally received some good news: Caltrans announced that it had "suspended all construction activity in the affected area," including the search for human remains.

"Caltrans is committed to protecting the tribe's cultural resources," it said. "When concerns arise, there are a number of tools we can use, up to and including project redesign."

"It's a good start," said Scruggs of the Paiute Indian community at Fort Independence, "but we still have a lot of international consultation."

"All we want," he added, "is prior informed consent before they launch something of this scale in our ancestral homeland."


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