The journey is almost over.
For Robert Dorame, the tribal chairman and the most likely descendant of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Native American tribe, the quest to see his ancestors’ sacred remains reinterred in hallowed ground has been long and arduous, fraught with obstacles and setbacks. But now, he and other Native American tribes stand at the precipice of bearing witness to what some believe will be the resurrection of the largest Native American ancestral graveyard in California.
On Saturday, December 13th, over 1,500 bundles of tribal remains will be returned to the earth in a plot of land in Playa Vista near the bottom of the bluffs below Loyola Marymount University. There will be private observances for the Native American tribes at the gravesites, which the public cannot attend, along with a public ceremony later that day.
In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Dorame talked about his emotions leading up to the day of the reinterment, the path that led to what will be a day of celebration for several Native American tribes and the critical role that Councilman Bill Rosendahl has played in making Dorame’s dream of reburying his ancestors come true.
Tribal governments and Native American organizations from various parts of the state will attend the ceremony, which will be somewhat like a large family gathering, said Dorame.
“It was my feeling from the beginning that each tribal government was to be notified when the reinterment takes place,” he said. “It’s a way for them to have closure as well, and it’s a way for them to express what they wanted from the beginning, which was to maintain the cemetery and keep our ancestors in the ground.”
Dorame said that he had a mixture of emotions as the long-awaited day approached.
“[December 13th] will be a very emotional day for me and for all of the Indian community and tribal governments,” he said. “I’m pleased that the ancestors’ journey has finally come to an end, and we’re really happy that they will no longer be sitting in cardboard boxes.”
Dorame, who is charged by the Native American Commission with the responsibility of preparing the ancestral remains for reburial and selecting the gravesite, was referring to the trailers on Playa Vista property that contained his descendants’ remains. They have been there for several years, after they were unearthed during the construction of Phase One of Playa Vista’s residential housing component. The excavation of the remains and the building of the development on sacred Indian burial grounds created a chasm between various tribes and Playa Vista, until Rosendahl brokered the beginning of several discussions between Playa Vista officials and Dorame to consider the reinterment of the remains, following a ruling in September 2007 which halted Phase Two of the developers’ commercial phase.
“I will not rest until these sacred remains are returned to their burial ground,” Rosendahl pledged after the verdict.
“He has kept his word,” Dorame said of Rosendahl during the interview. “And now, the ancestors are almost back at home, and the councilman was very instrumental in making that happen.”
Over the last several months, Dorame and several of his immediate family members have been preparing the remains for reburial, using sage and other elements to purify the sacred bundles.
Dorame says that as he walked the area that is being prepared for reburial, he felt a sensation of serenity.
“There’s a real peaceful feeling at the burial site,” he noted. “There’s an extreme feeling of serenity there.”
In a show of respect for the councilman due to his intervention with the developer, Rosendahl was invited by Dorame to take part in a purification ceremony in October.
“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 [Rosendahl’s] dedication and his mediation [with Playa Vista] have been so helpful, it was an honor having him there.”
Rosendahl was deeply moved by the spiritual ceremony.
“It’s a very sacred process,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “I was very moved and spiritually connected.
“In the spirit of renewal, I’m very excited about the progress that has been made. I’m pleased with the leadership that Robert has shown on this project. It is a heavy spiritual burden that he carries.”
Rosendahl says he is gratified that Dorame and Playa Vista were able to come to terms for the most part on the reburial of the ancestral remains without a much longer delay. Initially, the development company had considered initiating reinterment in 2010 or 2011, and the two sides were at a standoff until Rosendahl intervened.
“I’m absolutely delighted with the cooperation of Playa Vista with the Indian nation and I’m very happy that Playa Vista has stepped up to the plate and shown sensitivity and respect for this sacred process,” he said.
Playa Vista officials say they are pleased that the day of reinterment is just over the horizon.
“We’ve been working very hard with [Dorame] to make sure that the reinterment process has been as respectful as possible and to provide an opportunity for closure,” said Steven Sugerman, a spokesman for Playa Vista Capital.
Anthony Morales, the tribal chairman of the San Gabriel Gabrieleno/Tongva Indians, plans to be at the reinterment ceremony, according to both Dorame and Rosendahl. Morales was angered when the remains were unearthed during the construction of Playa Vista.
“Part of our culture is respect for the land,” Morales told The Argonaut after the September 2007 ruling. “Our people used to camp near the wetlands, and when we see what the developer has done there, it’s like part of our history and our culture has been destroyed.”
Pat Larkin, a land developer who formerly worked for Playa Vista, will not be at the reburial ceremony, but plans to be there in spirit.
“For me, the site is significant because it was one of the hubs of the Gabrieleno/Tongva people,” said Larkin, who is of Cherokee ancestry. “There were a lot of encampments near the bluffs below Loyola Marymount and west of Lincoln Boulevard, where many tribes hunted and fished.”
Dorame said Larkin played a role similar to the one that Rosendahl had in a reburial site in Seal Beach near the Hellman Ranch area, acting as a bridge between the Native American tribe and a developer.
“As with any mediation or negotiation, you have to try to put yourself in the other person’s position,” Larkin said. “There were a lot more ephemeral and spiritual issues that had to be considered.
“It would be like having a Christian or Jewish burial site desecrated right outside your place of worship.”
Dorame agreed that Playa Vista had reversed its earlier position on the reburial and had been more cooperative in the last few months.
“I believe that they have followed the protocol for the conditions that we have set forth,” Dorame said.
“It pains me that I can’t be there in person, but I came out to see Robert just to get some closure for myself,” Larkin said. “As a former employee of Playa Vista, it’s nice to see this chapter is going to be closing, and from a Native American standpoint, it’s great to know that the ancestors will be going back into the ground.”
Sugerman said that Playa Vista would do everything that it can to welcome the Native American tribes at the reinterment service.
“Playa Vista will provide the opportunity for a large cross-section of members of the Gabrieleno Tongva community to attend the ceremony,” he said.
Rosendahl, who will attend the public and private ceremonies, hopes that the reinterment will initiate a new beginning for both the Native American tribes and Playa Vista.
“My belief is that this will culminate in a huge healing process, have a positive impact on everyone and usher in a new spirit in 2009,” he said.
Dorame said that at some point during the reburial celebration, he will have a moment to reflect on everyone who was instrumental in making December 13th a very special day for Native Americans.
“The journey has been completed,” the tribe’s most likely descendant concluded. “It’s not going to be about anything else that day, not about any individual or group, only about the ancestors.
“It’s going to be a great day for the people.”