“Ya-way-ne-szun” is an adage in the Gabrieleno/Tongva Native American language which means, “My heart is lightened.”
“That’s how I felt,” Robert Dorame told The Argonaut December 13th as he prayed, sang and presided over the reinterment of remains at what is described as the largest Native American cemetery in California — a plot of land off Bluff Creek Drive in Playa Vista. “There was a feeling of peace and tranquility now that our ancestors are back where they belong.”
Against the backdrop of the Westchester bluffs on a clear, windy day, members of four Gabrieleno/Tongva tribes took part in Native American traditional rituals in private reburial ceremonies and witnessed the reinterment of over 1,320 bundled remains of their ancestors as they reentered the ground where they had rested for centuries.
Singing, ceremonial prayers in various and distinct native languages, colorful traditional headdresses and face painting were all part of the reinterment ceremonies.
A tribal senior elder, Charlie Cook, blew a concha horn in four directions to open the private reburial ceremony.
The graveyard is in an area that was once known as the village of Guahasna. The remains were wrapped in deerskin, a traditional burial cloth that Dorame and various family members used during purification and reburial rituals they had been performing for the better part of a year.
The remains included 88 infants, 152 children, 69 teenagers and 477 adults in the bundles, according to Dorame.
“Not all of the remains were identified as to age or sex, and were estimated to be buried as early as 3,500 years B.C.,” Dorame said. “And the latest burials on the top level were buried as late as the 1820s.”
Some bundles of remains that were part of the larger original cemetery outside the current burial site have also been interred in the current site.
Although some of the tribes have had differences with each other in the past, they all came together as one the day of the reburial.
Dorame, who has been designated “the most likely descendant” for the tribe by the California Native American Commission, feels that he had a special and personal responsibility to see that his forebears — who once lived, hunted and fished on the land below Loyola Marymount University and in the Ballona Wetlands — were returned to their ancient burial site.
“I have to be accountable to the ancestors, the tribal governments and the community at large,” he told The Argonaut after the ceremonies. “And now that they are back in the ground, there is a feeling among the monitors and tribal governments that a burden has been lifted from them as well.”
Anthony Morales, tribal chairman of the San Gabrielino/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, agrees with Dorame.
“I’m glad that this is happening,” Morales, said in an interview the day before the ceremony. “This will bring some closure for our ancestors who were unearthed during Playa Vista’s Phase Two development.”
Morales was referring to the excavation of several Native American hallowed burial grounds by Playa Vista during construction of Phase One, the residential component that opened in 2002. An appellate court stopped the commercial portion of the development called The Village, which is part of Phase Two, and allowed the tribes to pursue the return of previously unearthed artifacts and remains to their original burial grounds.
Since the appellate court ruled against a portion of an environmental impact report for Phase Two of Playa Vista in September 2007, Dorame, Morales and others have pushed to have their ancestors’ remains and artifacts returned to their original burial grounds.
“Our ancestors have already taken the journey to another life, so this will be the second time that they will be returned to their final resting place,” Morales noted. “They should never have been disturbed and removed from their burial ground in the first place.”
Playa Vista, which helped coordinate the ceremonies, sought to create an atmosphere that was commensurate with the importance of the event.
“We feel that we followed a process that was based on sensitivity and respect based on the history of the Gabrieleno/Tongva,” said Steven Sugerman, a spokesman for Playa Vista. “We think that we worked collaboratively to achieve a ceremony that was outlined by the members of the Gabrieleno/Tongva tribe, and we’re pleased that the process has been completed.”
Playa Vista Capital president Steve Soboroff did not attend the ceremonies.
During the public ceremony, Dorame thanked City Councilman Bill Rosendahl for helping to expedite the reburial, which at one time was considered for 2010 or 2111.
“Without Bill, we would not be here today,” said the most likely descendant. “We are so grateful for all that you have done for us.”
Sugerman agreed that Rosendahl’s intervention was crucial in mediating between Playa Vista and Dorame in advancing the reinterment plans.
“We appreciate the role that the councilman has played in moving the process forward,” said Playa Vista’s spokesman.
Dorame observed that there were no other representatives of city, county or state elected leaders’ offices from around the state except Rosendahl, who represents Playa Vista and Westchester.
“There’s only one politician who reassured me that this would take place and that we would rebury our ancestors, and Councilman Rosendahl has earned the reputation of being a man of his word,” he said.
Rosendahl, who took part in the private and public ceremonies, said that the developer and the Native American contingent had been united in their efforts to bring this day to fruition.
“I want to thank the Indian nation for pulling itself together and staying strong and staying focused on this absolute desecration of the ancestors,” the councilman told the audience. “And I want to thank Playa Vista for its leadership, and their cooperation was excellent.”
Dorame also thanked Playa Vista for its cooperation.
“Once they committed to the reburial, they have done their best to make this day as comfortable and special for us to hold our ceremonies here at Playa Vista,” Dorame said.
Rosendahl acknowledged that many of the Native American attendees appeared happy that their ancestors’ remains were reinterred but that they remain upset that their forebears were disturbed and relocated to shelves in a trailer on Playa Vista property for several years.
“There was a combination of anger over the way that the ancestors were treated and a feeling of joy and happiness at this closure,” the councilman pointed out in his speech.
Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey, said that her organization and the Native American tribes present shared some commonalities, in addition to their joy at seeing the bundles reburied.
“Our respect for the land is similar to what we’ve heard expressed by the native people about their concern about the land,” said Hanscom. “This is sacred ground for them.”
Hanscom, whose organization was part of several lawsuits to stop the construction of the residential complex, remains opposed to the Playa Vista development but was thrilled that the reburials occurred.
“It’s about time that some serious respect was granted here,” she said. “I think that this is a very dangerous place to have built anything, and I don’t think that it’s good for the natural estuary that was once here.”
Morales, who participated in a reinterment earlier this month near the Angeles Crest National Forest, said, “Reburials should never happen. Once you’re buried, you’re buried forever.”
Virginia Carmelo of the Gabrieleno/Tongva tribe of the Los Angeles Basin echoed the view of many of her counterparts in expressing joy that her ancestors have been reinterred.
“It was unfortunate that they were disturbed, but now they are at rest and I’m very pleased about that,” she said.
Rosendahl briefly touched on “the little bumps along the way” that occurred prior to the day of reinterment, but sought to focus on what he called a day of healing and closure for all parties.
“This is an auspicious moment,” he said. “This brotherhood and sisterhood that we’re experiencing here right now on this beautiful piece of land now has brought the Native American community together.
“We’re all connected, we’re all part of humankind and the human condition.”
Prior to joining Carmelo in leading a procession through the gravesite, Dorame presented Rosendahl with a clapper stick that is used in preburial Native American rituals. In September, he had invited Rosendahl to take part in a bundle purification ceremony, which was the first time that Dorame had permitted a non-Native American to participate in the sacred ceremony.
Following the procession, where seashells, in Native American tradition, were tossed onto the gravesite, Dorame reiterated how calm and tranquil he felt and how he believes the spirits of his ancestors feel as well.
“A very big burden has been lifted,” he said. “My heart really does feel lightened now.”