Discussions about Playa Vista often revolve around its luxury homes, its location and its plans to continue to build out and create a self-contained residential and commercial community. Its opponents speak in terms of the impact that the development has had on the nearby wetlands and the traffic jams that have ensnarled commuters near the intersection of Jefferson and Lincoln Boulevards.
On far fewer occasions does the topic turn to the excavation of the sacred ancestors of a Native American tribe that had rested in the hills of Westchester for centuries. Their displacement and state of unrest has long troubled the tribal council, and until recently they were uncertain if they would ever be allowed to return their forebears to their hallowed burial sites.
Now, with the help of Playa Vista officials and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, the remains of approximately 400 ancestors of the Gabrelino/ Tongva Indian tribe will soon be returning home.
On Friday, February 8th, Robert Dorame, who has been designated by the California Native American Heritage Commission as the “most likely descendant” of the Gabrelino/Tongva tribe, Rosendahl, an archeologist and representatives of Playa Vista met to discuss the timeline for the reburial of Dorame’s displaced ancestors and to select an appropriately respectful location for the remains, which are being held in a trailer on Playa Vista’s property.
The designation “most likely descendant” is a title issued by the commission that empowers Dorame with the discretion to decide where the final resting place for the remains of his Native American ancestors will be.
Dorame had the opportunity to review his ancestors’ remains for the very first time on February 8th, and he performed a purification ceremony with sage to honor his forebears.
“It was an emotional visit,” he told The Argonaut in an interview at Rosendahl’s Westchester office following the visit. “It’s the first step in the process of where the ancestors will be laid to rest.”
Since 2004, Playa Vista has held the cadavers since they were unearthed during construction of Phase I of the development. The tribe filed several lawsuits to stop the developer from continuing construction of the development’s initial stage.
Dorame and others have attempted to regain their ancestors’ remains, to no avail — until recently.
A meeting of the California Native American Heritage Commission at UCLA Law School last month reactivated conversations about the reburial of the Native American tribe’s ancestors, and it was there that Rosendahl was able to act as a go-between for Dorame and Playa Vista to have the remains put back into the earth.
Rosendahl, who represents the council district that includes Westchester and Playa Vista, has continued to function as a facilitator during the negotiations with the developer and Dorame. The councilman also took part in the private purification ceremony with Dorame.
“I must say that I felt very positive about the entire visit,” the councilman said.
Playa Vista spokesman Steven Sugerman accompanied Dorame, Rosendahl and an archaeologist, Donn Grenda of Statistical Research — a cultural resources management firm — to the site of the former burial ground near the Westchester bluffs.
“We’re pleased that we can be part of a solution to move quickly, because we know that Mr. Dorame is interested in moving quickly, and we look forward to working in partnership,” said Sugerman.
That has not always been the case. Four years ago, Dorame sent a monitor to representatives of Playa Vista to request a viewing of the remains that had been unearthed, but the monitor was rebuffed.
“It was very disappointing,” said Dorame, who is also the chair of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Indians of California Tribal Council. “But now that I’ve been able to see our ancestors, I think that it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Anthony Morales, chief of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Tribal Council of San Gabriel, also has expressed displeasure with how Playa Vista handled the situation surrounding the ancestral gravesite.
“The developer was desecrating our sacred burying grounds,” Morales charged in an earlier interview. “Building a development there was an atrocity.”
In an interview after an appellate court upheld a lower court’s decision to halt Phase II of Playa Vista’s residential and commercial component known as the Village last year, Rosendahl stated that seeing the displaced remains of the Native American tribe’s ancestors returned to their sacred gravesites was a top priority for him.
“I want the remains of the deceased Native Americans to be put back in their sacred burial ground and given the respect that they deserve,” the councilman asserted. “That’s my first priority, and I will not rest until they are at rest in their burial ground.”
Dorame says that the next step is to determine where the ancestral remains will be placed.
“We’re looking at alternative sites right now,” he said. The original burial grounds are still being considered, Dorame added.
One of the most important considerations for the burial site is that it be a peaceful, restful place, said the tribal chair — “someplace where there is not something built on top of them or where there is a lot of activity near them,” Dorame explained.
Rosendahl took the responsibility of acting to assist Dorame in his quest very seriously.
“I feel that I am an advocate for (Dorame) and his wishes,” he said. “It is my goal, before I talk about anything else with Playa Vista, to see that the ancient ancestors are put to rest so that we can have a healing process that can impact all other aspects of the relationship with Playa Vista.”
Dorame gives Rosendahl the credit for having acted as a broker between the two parties, which have not always had the smoothest relations.
“I’m happy that Councilman Rosendahl was a part of the process,” he said. “It takes people with integrity, a certain individual to stand up for someone else.”
“Councilman Rosendahl is a special person, and he has been a really instrumental part of the puzzle in getting our ancestors back,” Dorame continued. “Now we can focus on selecting a site or an area that will be peaceful for human re-interment.”
“We appreciate the councilman’s leadership to facilitate a discussion, and we’ll keep the discussion going,” he said.
Rosendahl admired the way Playa Vista officials had stored the remains of Dorame’s ancestors.
“One of the most impressive things from my end was how the archaeologists have put all of the artifacts in containers and have stored them in a way that the remains can be reassembled,” Rosendahl noted. “But they must consult with Robert [Dorame] on the proper protocols for [reburial] that satisfy him, and he will make the final decision as to how that moves forward.”
Sugerman said that the developer will assist the Native American tribe in reburying their ancestors as much as they can.
“We’ve identified some areas and we’ve begun to initiate discussions about alternate locations,” he said.
Dorame said that he knows that his ancestors want to return to where they belong.
“It’s the decent and human thing to do,” the chair of the tribal council said.
Dorame and Rosendahl are hopeful that the Native American artifacts and human remains will be reburied by this summer.
Archaeologist Grenda had not returned calls at Argonaut press time.