Native Americans Lose Sacred Site to Developer
‘What are you suggesting we do,’ CEO asks
By John Earl, Scott Sink and Rashi Kesarwani
Hearthside Homes CEO Edward Mountford angrily denied reports that the company had uncovered 87 ancient Native American burial remains since breaking ground in June of 2006 on its planned 356 unit Brightwater housing project or had failed to report them the Orange County Coroner’s office in a manner required by California law.
Brightwater is on 105.3 acres of land on the upper bench of the Bolsa Chica Mesa in Huntington Beach.
“It was all reported on time, according to the regulations,” Mountford told the Voice.
Mountford’s denial came despite a leaked company memo showing that 87 “human bone concentrations” along with 4,217 artifacts, some of which were directly associated with the burials, were uncovered “during the grading monitoring” on a 11.8 acre section of the Hearthside property known as ORA-83.
The memo was first revealed by Flossie Horgan, Executive Director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, a locally based group dedicated to restoring the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Even with the memo, however, it is still not clear if the remains were reported to the coroner or not; presumably, the coroner may have had the information but failed to report it to the Native American Heritage Commission within 24 hours as required by law.
Artifacts associated with the burials included cog stones, small circular shaped stones with notches or cogs carved around the parameter that served a religious purpose. Over 400 cog stones have been discovered at ORA-83.
Dating back 8,500 years, ORA-83 was part of a village that once straddled the Santa Ana River when it flowed through the Bolsa Chica and Huntington Beach mesas. The descendents of these coastal people are the Tongva and the Acjachemen, also known by their mission-era designations of Gabrieleño and Juaneño, respectively.
Anthony Morales, Tribal Chairperson of the Tongva Tribe of San Gabriel and the present Native American monitor or “Most Likely Descendant” (MLD) for ORA-83 said, “That whole area was a major village, [with] a high concentration of everyday life activity.” The Tongva consider their site “very spiritual, very significant and very sacred,” he said.
According to Professor of Anthropology Pat Martz, the distinctive cog stones, which
archaeologists believe were distributed throughout coastal California, “probably originated at this site. Most of the cog stones are found along the [Santa Ana] River and as far as Nevada.”
Martz sasys that ORA-83 is the only site-worldwide-that has produced so many cog stones. “It was a ritual site of an unknown religion that we don’t know anything about,” she says.
“Some Native American people say [these stones] were probably placed on the site as a star map,” said Martz. “The site may have astronomical significance as well,” she adds.
An Oct. 2005 Coastal Commission Report points out that some scientists and Native Americans, including archeologists, the director of the Griffith Observatory and the International Indian Treaty Council cited ORA-83’s potential archaeoastronomical significance in joining the Smithsonian Museum and Congressperson Loretta Sanchez in calling for ORA-83 to be listed in the Federal Register as a National Historical Site and preserved.
Mountford denies the astronomical importance of the site, but he acknowledges its overall archeological importance, something that proponents say is now more evident than ever, but that he says is nothing new. “It’s an important archeological site that’s been known for 25 years,” he said.
He refers to Horgan and others as Johnny-come-latelys. “We got our first permit to do excavation back in 83 and 84. So this is not news. This is Flossie trying to get her name in the paper again.”
The State Historical Resources Commission nominated ORA-83 as a National Historical Site, which is optional for private landowners, but Mountford said he didn’t remember why Hearthside refused it. “Well, it was optional and we just decided that it wasn’t appropriate at this time,” he recalled.
But federal recognition of the site probably would have added momentum to efforts to stop development at a time when Hearthside’s parent company, California Coastal Communities, needed to get homes online for sale as soon as possible to please rebellious stockholders and beat a declining housing market.
In a 2006 interview, company president Raymond J. Pacini called the Brightwater community “43 percent of our assets from a book value standpoint.”
As for the Brightwater development, Reuters reported that the first nine of the 356-home complex generated $11 million dollars at the end of last year.
Despite its successes, the company has endured charges of self-interested greed from some of its shareholders. In a 2006 letter from a Connecticut company owning 7.8 percent of California Coastal’s stock, shareholders wrote that management put “self-interest and personal desire” ahead of stockholder interests by awarding themselves “an expanded stock-options program and by paying million-dollar bonuses to executives.”
Stockholders representing a hedge fund wanted to get Brightwater on line faster and pressured Pacini to either share the project or sell the entire company. But in a subsequent board of directors election their faction won only 18 percent of the vote.
Pacini told the interviewer that he placated the rest of the shareholders by taking out a $125 million loan in order to pay a special stock dividend of $12.50 a share and minimize the company’s debt.
When reached by phone for comment, Pacini answered, “Put us on your do-not-call list” and hung up.
The OC Register (Feb. 26) also quoted an official MLD occasionally appointed to Brightwater who acknowledged that the 87 bones of contention were excavated within the previous 18 months.
The California Health and Safety Code says that the discovery of human remains in any location other than a cemetery requires “no further excavation or disturbance of the site or any nearby area reasonably suspected to overlie adjacent remains” until the coroner determines the burial is not part of a criminal investigation.
When asked if the decline in the home sale market in 2006 had created pressure for Hearthside to speed up construction, Mountford answered, “No, because…all the [excavation] work was done prior to the grading” in 2006 and that no remains were found afterward.
But Horgan alleges that she knows that significant human remains were found at the site in May of 2007, although she won’t cite a source for that assertion.
If the coroner finds the presence of Native American human remains, he is required by law, in turn, to contact the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) within 24 hours But David Singleton, program analyst for the state agency, says that never happened in this case.
Singleton says that the NAHC first learned of the findings in a Dec. 17 e-mail update, which contained the Nov. 5 memo, apparently from Hearthside archeologist Nancy Wiley, who is president of Scientific Resources Surveys, a private archaeology firm.
That information didn’t include a detailed chronology of when the human findings occured. Only the memo’s hard to notice reference linking those remains to the “ground monitoring” that started in June of 2006 establishes a general time frame.
But without a documented disclosure of archaeological records by the developer, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to establish whether the findings were properly reported or not.
Singleton asked Wiley for a chronology of the site findings. “[S]he said that she would need to check back with the company,” but still hasn’t provided the information, he said. Wiley also failed to respond to e-mail and telephone inquires from the Voice.
Horgan says that she inquired to the Orange County Coroner’s office for documentation of all human remains taken from Bolsa Chica from 1991 to the present “and they gave me back, I think, 6 or 7 cases, and the latest was for 2002.”
When applying to the Coastal Commission for a permit in October of 2004, Hearthside reported that 97 percent of the ORA-83 site was excavated. Commission staff reviewed the site a month later in Oct. 2005 and concluded that it “appears to be virtually 100 percent recovered.”
Horgan says that there’s a contradiction between that staff report said and the SRS memo. “So what we have here is a discrepancy between what the Coastal Commission understood and what the memo says, and what the coroner said, and what we received from the coroner’s office, because there’s no way in the world that these remains were found in 2002.”
Singleton says that in other cases of discovered human remains the coroner’s office has reported back immediately to the NAHC. He blames Hearthside for the delay. “This is an exceptional practice carried out by this company and their archeologist,” he said. But the coroner still hasn’t reported the findings listed in the memo to him to this day, he adds.
Mountford says that Wiley reported the ORA-83 human remains to the coroner as required, adding that the Native American monitors that the company pays are responsible for keeping the NAHC informed. “We always have them on site whenever we’re doing excavations or in any areas where there’s undisturbed earth,” he said.
The MLDs who quietly handled the remains, David Belardes and Joyce Perry, did not respond to repeated phone calls from the Voice by press time.
Rebbeca Robles, from the Acjachemen Nation and the chairperson of the local Sierra Club’s Sacred Site Task Force is not satisfied with the current laws intended to protect indigenous cemeteries and sacred sites.
“The system actually seems to prevent the protection of these sites,” she told the Voice.
Martz agrees. “Developers hire an MLD,…and he gets paid to rebury [the remains] somewhere,” she said.
Horgan called the developer’s actions a “conspiracy of silence.” She contends that “Certain developers refuse to follow the law,” adding that profit is their primary motive.
“It reminds us of the destruction of other sites, despite our best efforts,” said Robles. For example, according to the Tongva Tribal Concil web site, “Over 600 Tongva/Acjachemen Ancestors were secretly removed [in 1998] by the Irvine Company to build the Harbor Cove housing tract of condos in the Back Bay. These remains were over 9,000-years-old, already ancient when the pyramids of Egypt were built.”
Robles called the Harbor Cove development a “similar situation. There wasn’t any disclosure.”
The Irvine Co. was never found guilty of breaking any laws in their Harbor Cove project, and Hearthside hasn’t been charged with violating any laws either, but the coroner’s office admits that enforcement of the rules is lacking.
Assistant Chief Deputy Coroner, Bruce Lyle, told the Voice that his office has to balance its scarce public resources with its inventory process. He says the coroner’s database isn’t systematically organized to enable easy access to the records of Native American remains once they are examined. Referring to the information his office faxed to Horgan, however, he said, “I have a pretty good feeling that they’re all there” and that the 174 sets of remains are accounted for.
But Lyle added that “We wouldn’t wag the finger” at the developer even if it hadn’t reported human remains on time.
Bury My Heart at Brightwater
This isn’t the first time that Hearthside was suspected of not reporting human remains. In 1994 the Huntington Beach City Council asked the Coastal Commission’s Executive Director to determine if the company’s permits for excavation should be revoked, asking, among other questions, if important information about human remains had intentionally been withheld and why those remains were not reported to the coroner for over a year.
The Exectutive Directo took no action, saying that the issues raised were beyond the commission’s purview and that the applicant had complied with permit terms.
The taking of land from Native Americans for the profit of others is nothing new, and the corporate taking of one the last open coastal areas in Orange County is arguably part of the final conquest over the original occupiers of the land.
Unlike CEO Raymond Pacini, who benefited from a $600,000 salary with $6.5 million in exercised stock options, Orange County’s descendants of the Acjachemen Nation struggle against great odds to preserve the human remains of their ancestors, if not their land, and to maintain their dignity as a people.
At the Bolsa Chica site at Hearthside, two information kiosks near Warner Avenue and Brightwater Drive commemorate indigenous history. But many Native Americans, archaeologists and environmentalists feel that the monument is insufficient.
“It’s a matter of environmental justice. If that had been an Anglo cemetery, there would have been some way to preserve it,” said Martz.
Brightwater also means that history that could benefit us all will be lost, says Singleton, who also acknowledges the pain Native Americans feel for the loss of their sacred land. “It’s disgusting,” he complains.
“[W]hat native people have said about the site, it is very heartfelt,” he says. “People have called in tears expressing their outrage…It’s hard for non Native Americans to appreciate the different view that Native people have toward burial grounds and ancestors.”
Mountford maintains that Native Americans are also benefiting from the Brightwater housing development due to the extensive excavation of artifacts on the site. “They’re getting a wealth of information,” he says.
But he doesn’t worry about whose land Brightwater belonged to hundreds and thousands of years ago.
Pointing out that virtually all of Orange County’s most desirable costal and inland living places were once the homeland of Native Americans, he says, “They haven’t occupied the [Brightwater] site in a long, long time, right? I mean, what are you suggesting we do?”