Several years after the hallowed burial grounds of a Native American tribe were unceremoniously unearthed on the way to the construction of a residential development in Playa Vista, the caretaker of the tribe’s remains has found them a new home.
Like a guide in search of an oasis, Robert Dorame has been tirelessly exploring different sites where his ancestors can be reburied. As the caretaker for the reinterment of his sacred elders’ remains, Dorame says selecting the site, as well as preparing them spiritually for their journey home, is a task he takes very seriously.
“The most important thing for me as a most likely descendant, as designated by the Native American Heritage Commission, it is my responsibility to the tribe, to the Indian community at large and to the general public, to make them understand it is very important to us that our ancestors have a peaceful restful place for their repatriation,” he said.
The designation “most likely descendant” is a title issued by the commission that empowers Dorame with the discretion to select the final resting place for the remains of his Native American ancestors.
In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Dorame was joined by his daughter Mercedes at the site that he has chosen for his ancestor reburial ñ a plot of land at the base of Loyola Marymount University, where centuries ago, the Gabrielino/Tongva lived, hunted and fished. After months of meeting with representatives of developer Steven Soboroff, the president of Playa Vista, the process of finding a resting place for Dorame’s ancestors has begun to move forward.
There are three stages of preparation in the process, which Dorame has broken down into phases, much like Playa Vista has during its residential and commercial construction. The first two stages involve the spiritual cleansing and assembling of the remains, which are currently in an environmentally controlled trailer on Playa Vista property.
The third phase of the process will be the actual reinterment.
“(Playa Vista) has agreed to work with us jointly on Phase III,” said Dorame.
The actual reburial is expected to take place later this summer.
There were four places that could have been chosen for reburial. An area west of Lincoln Boulevard that was Dorame’s first choice was no longer available, so he selected the site below the bluffs of Loyola Marymount, in the shadows of Playa Vista.
“It will be a peaceful rest, as long as it proceeds as we have agreed to develop the area for Phase III,” said Dorame.
Playa Vista representatives say they plan to continue to cooperate with Dorame in reburying his ancestors.
“We’re making excellent progress,” said Steven Sugerman, spokesman for Playa Capital.
“We feel that things are going well.”
The planned Native American gravesite will be shielded from noise and traffic by a berm and landscaping, says Dorame. While these are not optimal conditions for a final resting place for his ancestors, with the proper cleansing and soil treatment, he feels that his elders can be respectfully laid to rest in this spot.
The terrain, which is now flat, will be rebuilt into a hill.
“We will try to make it as private as possible,” Dorame said.
His daughter also approves of the selected site, for the most part.
“I do like the proximity to the original resting place, so in that regard I like it,” Mercedes Dorame said. “It’s unfortunate that there is a road and homes nearby, but I’m glad that there is land being set aside for this.”
The younger Dorame had not been to the selected reburial site since her ancestors were excavated during Playa Vista’s Phase I project, and four years later she had a new mindset as she surveyed the area.
“Coming back and seeing the site is quite a different experience,” she said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Playa Vista, has been instrumental in bringing Playa Vista and Dorame together to create a solution for the reinterment of the ancestral remains.
“(Rosendahl) is very interested in how things are proceeding,” Dorame said. “He’s been like a big brother to me, and he has been very supportive of the entire Indian community.”
“Robert has always had my full support in this very spiritual endeavor,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “He knows that I am extremely respectful and extremely sensitive to the fact that his ancestors are not at rest, and how important it is to complete this sacred process so that his ancestors can once again be reburied with the utmost respect.”
Dorame invited Rosendahl to take part in the cleansing and spiritual ceremonies with the ancestral remains, which is a very private and personal event.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Rosendahl recalled. “I have great respect for everyone’s ancestors, and I appreciate the fact that Robert invited me to participate in this sacred ritual.”
“I’m happy that (Rosendahl) was a part of the process,” Dorame added. “It takes people with integrity, a certain individual to stand up for someone else.”
The chosen site, which is not far from an original burial ground, will feature Native American monuments that honor the dead. There will be four columns in native basalt stone, with depictions of animals and insects that are important to the Gabrielino culture through pictography, the use of pictorial images.
“I think that works in conjunction very well with the ancestors in honoring them,” Dorame said.
“It will not only be a place for prayers, but also a place for honor and respect for the ancestors of the Gabrielinos.”
Playa Vista has agreed to pay for the monuments.
“We absolutely will be working with Mr. Dorame on the monuments,” Sugerman confirmed.
Mercedes Dorame, who has worked at various Native American reinterment sites, said that she did not expect to be in the position of seeing her ancestors’ remains with a new resting place this soon, in light of the fact that the original proposal from Playa Vista called for reinterment after 2010 or 2011.
“It’s often a very difficult process, and a very long process that can take years,” she explained. “Sometimes it can take 20, 30 years before remains are reinterred.”
Her father recalled that there had been resistance from Playa Vista officials in the past regarding his ancestors, and with the assistance of Rosendahl, he is hopeful that that chasm has been repaired.
“Back in January, there was a change of heart with Playa Vista, about the consideration of repatriation of the ancestors,” said Dorame. “There was a decision not to prolong it anymore.
“It’s been very difficult in the process of dealing with reinterment from the original issue of how we were going to do it, and to no longer prolong it was like a triumph of the spirit,” he continued. “It’s been very rewarding to have that change of heart and it continues to move along.”
Sugerman said that the reburial process can serve as a bridge to prior unpleasantness between the tribe and Playa Vista.
“From day one, we have been trying to be as sensitive to (repatriation of the remains) as we could be,” said the Playa Vista spokesman. “We look forward to working with Mr. Dorame to find the best possible solution for everyone.”
Rosendahl said he remains committed to seeing Dorame’s elders returned to their rightful place.
“I have said before that I will not rest until those sacred ancestors are at rest in their burial ground,” said Rosendahl. “I truly believe that we are all connected in this universe, and I will be overjoyed when they are finally at rest.”
While Dorame is excited and hopeful about the day that he can fulfill his responsibility and repatriate his elders into hallowed ground, he remains cautious about the ongoing process until that anticipated day arrives.
“Once the repatriation occurs, that’s when (Playa Vista’s) cooperation will be complete,” he said. “That’s when we’ll finally have closure.”