Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has taken part in a variety of different religious and secular ceremonies during his career as a broadcaster and an elected official. But he says one recent experience with Robert Dorame, the most likely descendent of the Gabrielino/Tonga Native American tribe, resonated with him on a deep and spiritual plateau.
In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Rosendahl and Dorame discussed how the councilman took part in a private reburial process on September 30th that typically only Native Americans are permitted to witness.
The sacred custom is the continuation of a months-long preparation that Dorame and his children have been involved in as they grow closer to seeing their ancestors returned to their resting place after nearly five years of being removed from their burial grounds during the development of Playa Vista.
Dorame invited Rosendahl to participate in the hallowed purification and cleansing ritual called bundling, where the cadavers are prepared for burial during a tribal ceremony with ancient roots.
The purification ceremony is the second part of three stages that will take place before the remains are reinterred, which will occur later this year.
The councilman’s presence at the ceremony was significant because, according to Dorame, Rosendahl is the first non-Native American to take part in a bundling ceremony.
“I have never allowed anybody to come to the ceremony who wasn’t a Native American,” Dorame explained. “Ancestral bundling is a very closed and very sacred ceremony, but because of [Rosendahl’s] dedication and his mediation [with Playa Vista] has been so helpful, it was an honor having him there.”
The councilman joined Dorame in purifying the ancestral remains, which are covered in deerskin.
Crumbled sage was sprinkled in the pouches of the deerskins, followed by a prayer and a feather ritual by Dorame.
Prior to the ceremony, Dorame performed a cleansing ritual by passing sage across Rosendahl’s body.
Two of the cadavers that were a part of the bundles when Rosendahl participated were of an infant and a young child of perhaps ten years old.
Following the purification ceremony, Katherine Dorame, Robert Dorame’s daughter, began to close the bundles of the ancestral remains.
During an interview at the councilman’s Westchester office hours after the ritual, Rosendahl expressed his feelings about being invited to participate in the sacred ceremony.
“It’s a very sacred process,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut. “I was very moved and spiritually connected.”
Rosendahl pointed out that the day that he took part was the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
“I thought that today was an auspicious day, being the New Year in the Jewish calendar and the beginning of a new seven-year cycle, a year of hope,” he noted. “[October 1st] is the end of Ramadan, so we had a very spiritual 48 hour period, and I was grateful that Robert allowed me to be part of the ceremony.
“I don’t know how many non-Native Americans get that opportunity, but I’m very grateful for it.”
Playa Capital, the development company that built the residential portion of Playa Vista, has been in discussions with Rosendahl’s office and Dorame regarding the reinterment.
Rosendahl mentioned during the interview that the development company had recently pledged its assistance in writing to facilitate the reburial of Dorame’s ancestors.
“In the spirit of renewal, I’m very excited about the progress that has been made,” the councilman said. “I’m pleased with the leadership that Robert has shown on this project. It is a heavy spiritual burden that he carries.”
Playa Vista spokesman Steve Sugerman said “the process continues to move along smoothly.”
Relations with Native American organizations and the developer have not always been smooth, especially during the initial construction of Phase I, Playa Vista’s residential development component. Many ancestral remains were unearthed during construction, and the remains were taken to a trailer on Playa Vista.
Lawsuits were filed against Playa Vista to halt the development and relations between the two parties were contentious until Rosendahl stepped in to mediate a truce of sorts, says Dorame.
“We really needed someone who could talk to the opposition, and that person was Bill Rosendahl,” the tribal leader recalled. “He was the mediator between all the Indians and Playa Vista.”
During the ceremony, Rosendahl used an instrument that imitated the sound of a badger, an animal that burrows into the ground. That sound symbolizes reinterment of the ancestral remains.
Eight ancestral bundles of human remains were purified that day, and Rosendahl participated in the preparation of four.
The bundles were then sprinkled with sage again before they were transferred to the boxes, where they are being stored until they are reinterred.
“All of the bundles have their proper documentation and the work that has been done on them is recorded on a computer,” Rosendahl explained. “The boxes were then placed in a spot where the next place they’ll go will be Phase III, which is when they’ll go into the ground.”
To date, 820 ancestral bundlings have been through the purification ceremony as they await their reentry into the earth from which they were excavated.
The sage plant functions as a purification instrument and Dorame says it is a very special plant to his family and his tribe.
“I gather it close to where our ancestors lived, so it’s extra special for them,” said Dorame.
The developer’s representatives indicated at a recent meeting that they did not seem to understand the time-consuming and intricate nature of the rituals that Dorame must perform in order to prepare his ancestors for reburial, said the tribe’s most likely descendant.
“But Councilman Rosendahl has been able to see exactly what I need to do in the best interests of the ancestors and to let Playa know how important the process is to us,” said Dorame.
Getting the remains ready for reburial can be very emotional.
“It can be very difficult to stay positive sometimes,” said Katherine Dorame. “I will breathe a lot easier once they are back in the ground.”
“Anytime there are human remains it’s very emotional, and I’ve noticed that our salvation is also our sprit,” her father added. “Sometimes there aren’t words that describe our emotions, but through our instruments we’re able to. They explain our emotions.
“I always tell Katherine to carry the rhythm of the heartbeat, because emotions won’t fail you, even though words might sometime.”
Rosendahl feels that the reburial can be a new beginning for all parties involved.
“The sacredness of putting the ancestors back in the ground for their final rest will have a tremendous calming influence on everyone, and I feel strongly that this can be a model for the nation and the world for reinterment and respect for ancestors,” Rosendahl predicted.