Finally at rest
Second set of Native American ancestral remains quietly reinterred
By Gary Walker
The road to seeing his ancestors back in their sacred burial grounds is an obligation that Robert Dorame has shouldered for several years.
Part of his duties as the designated “most likely descendent” of the Gabrielino/ Tongva tribe includes reburial of the remains of tribal ancestors, a process that is a sacred component of Native American culture.
On May 20, in a small, quiet ceremony with few people in attendance, several bundles, which can hold several dozen fragile remains, were reinterred at Ballona Discovery Park in Playa Vista.
For Dorame, the final journey that his ancestors will be taking has left him in a state of tranquility.
“There is a sense of finality now,” he said in a recent interview near the site of the ancestral burial grounds.
The designation most likely descendant is a title issued by the Native American Heritage Commission that empowers Dorame with the discretion to select the final resting place for the remains of his Native American ancestors.
His feelings could not always be described as calm in his dealings with Playa Vista over the tribe’s remains. When Phase I of the planned community was in the process of being constructed, a Gabrielino/Tongva cemetery was unearthed, along with many cultural artifacts. For several years they remained in a Playa Vista warehouse while Dorame tried to get the developer to return them to him so, as the tribe’s most likely descendent, he could give them a proper reburial.
“Those weren’t very easy times for me,” Dorame recalled.
When Councilman Bill Rosendahl was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2005, he learned of Dorame’s desire to rebury his ancestors. Rosendahl, who represents Playa Vista, acted as a go-between and soon Dorame took possession of the remains.
Over a period of several months beginning in 2008, The Argonaut interviewed Dorame and others who had been waiting for the reburial of over 1,500 ancestral remains.
The first reburial took place Dec. 13, 2008, against the backdrop of the Westchester bluffs a few hundred yards away near Discovery Park, which had not been built. That day, members of four Gabrieleno/Tongva tribes took part in Native American traditional rituals in private reburial ceremonies and later that day, invited members of the public and press witnessed the reinterment of over 1,320 bundled remains of their ancestors as they reentered the ground where they had rested for centuries.
Rosendahl downplays his role in the reinterment, but Dorame said that without his intervention the reburials would not have happened.
“Without the councilman, this would not have come to fruition,” he asserted. “Councilman Rosendahl has been instrumental in this from the beginning and he has been an ally in making this a reality.”
Playa Vista Co-President Patricia Sinclair attended the recent reburial ceremony, along with other members of her team.
“(The reinterment) brings this portion of the project to a close,” Sinclair said. “We’re very happy that the ancestral remains have been put back into their burial grounds.”
Rosendahl said he realizes the importance of seeing the tribe’s ancestors restored to where they had been unearthed.
“I’m extremely happy that these final remains of the sacred ancestors have been put to rest,” he said. “It’s closure.”
Dorame invited Rosendahl to participate in an ancient and secretive reburial ritual a few weeks before the first reinterment, which few outside the tribe are allowed to take part in or witness.
Rosendahl said there was an additional reason that the reburial was cause for celebration. “It’s fantastic news because Phase II will be starting soon with some low-income housing,” he said.
The councilman was referring to the Village, the second stage of Playa Vista’s commercial and residential real estate venture. It will feature 2,600 residential units, 175,000 square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of “community serving retail,” including a shopping center.
Not everyone is happy with the reburial. David Singleton, a program analyst with the California Native American Heritage Commission, said his organization was invited by Sinclair but declined to attend.
“We respectfully disagree with the landowners and the most likely descendant on the reburial,” Singleton said. “We did not have the authority to prevent the ceremony from happening because we don’t have any legal control over (Dorame).”
Tension has existed between some members of the Gabrieleno/Tongava tribe for several years, and challenges to Playa Vista are no different. Members of a San Gabriel-based tribe took part in the many lawsuits filed against Playa Vista in its early days. Dorame was not part of the legal actions and some in the San Gabriel-based tribe remain angered that Playa Vista unearthed a burial ground during construction of Phase I.
“We are not against development, but we try to balance the protection and the preservation of cultural resources of the burial grounds,” Singleton said. “We expect (the ancestors) to be buried with respect.”
One point of contention by those who take issue with Dorame’s handling of the reinterment say that the burial grounds are not exactly at the place where they now rest. During the first reburial, Dorame said it was not possible to reinter them at a location much closer to the original cemetery, which is west of Lincoln Boulevard near the Ballona Wetlands.
The gravesite is shielded from noise and traffic by a fence and landscaping and is not open to the public. While these are not optimal conditions for a final resting place for his ancestors, with the proper cleansing and soil treatment, Dorame thought that his elders could be respectfully laid to rest in this spot.
His daughter, Mercedes, who took part in this month’s burial ceremony, also approves of the reinterment site.
“I do like the proximity to the original resting place, so in that regard I like it,” she said.
Dorame said in his charge as the most likely descendant, he has tried to focus on the ancestors and not the existing fissures between some tribal members. “It’s really sad to see that some people try to discredit others because they refuse to treat each other in an Indian way,” he said.
Rosendahl, whom Dorame calls a “very spiritual man,” said he is hopeful that any remaining animosity will dissipate with the latest reburial.
“The healing process can come into completion now,” he said.
With the most recent reinterment, Dorame feels that he has satisfied his commitment as the most likely descendent.
“I feel great relief,” he concluded. “The reburials have been completed with dignity and peace, and the ancestors are now on their safe and peaceful journey home.”