SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For at least 6,000 years the village of Sa’Angna, was
home to members the Gabrieleno Tongva tribe, now a lawsuit in federal court
seeks to save what remains of the settlement from becoming a mixed-use
upscale development project.
At issue is a development created by the Playa Capital Corporation, also
known as Playa Vista, called “The Village at Playa Vista” which sits below
Loyola Marymount University in an area known as the Ballona wetlands.
Included in the project is a drainage ditch that the company is calling the
“Playa Vista Riparian Corridor.” The ditch is loosely based on an old
creek, which has, like most natural waterways in the Los Angeles basin,
been rerouted and channeled.
Apparently the re-channeled ditch cuts right through a large cemetery with
remains presumed to be of the Gabrieleno Tongva tribe, the native tribe of
the Los Angeles basin. Though more continue to be found, currently it is
estimated that the remains of some 300 people have been unearthed due to
One eyewitness has even described it as a “pond of skulls and ribcages.”
Tribal sources claim that the burial area was used during a period of time
from about 6,000 years ago until the 19th century. Eyewitnesses have
reported that, in addition to human remains there are also artifacts such
as waterproof baskets and other items dating back several centuries.
“What you have here are several different eras of burial grounds in one
area,” said Johntommy Rosas, the vice-chairman of one of the bands of
Rosas brought the suit against the project and in a David versus Goliath
manner has stubbornly refused to back down. He is asking for a stop to the
project along with punitive damages listed at over half a billion dollars.
A judge recently denied his opponents’ calls for dismissal.
Rob Wood is an environmental specialist with the California Native American
Heritage Commission. He believes that there are both moral and legal issues
to decide here and accuses the developer as being stubborn in regard to the
moral issue. He recounts several instances where developers went out of
their way to restructure developments.
Wood claims that much of the issue could be resolved if the drainage ditch
were moved “just 200 yards” away to avoid the burial site, something that
he said the Playa Capital Corporation has refused to do.
While the moral issue of digging up an entire cemetery is fairly obvious,
the legal issue is a bit more complicated. Apparently a 1991 agreement that
expired after 10 years was automatically renewed in 2001. Wood claims that
it is illegal to automatically extend the 10-year agreement, something that
Rosas also alleged in his lawsuit.
Among other things, Rosas is also arguing that the project is a violation
of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and argues that these
kinds of cases should be viewed as civil rights cases.
“Though people don’t really look at these kinds of cases in this way,
there’s really no other way to look at it than a clear civil rights
violation,” said Wood.
Part of the rules governing American Indian remains require that a “most
likely descendant” be appointed to make recommendations on mitigation
However, the issue with “most likely descendants” is further complicated by
infighting among Gabrieleno Tongva tribal members. Apparently members of a
new Santa Monica faction of the tribe signed off on the project. However,
these members in question did so before the Santa Monica faction broke off.
The other two factions – none of which are federally recognized – are based
in San Gabriel, to the east of Los Angeles, and in Culver City on Los
Angeles’ west side.
The Santa Monica faction is a recent break-off from the San Gabriel faction
and has been in the news for a controversial proposed casino project in
Compton, a section of Los Angeles.
Wood and Rosas claim that a few members of the Santa Monica faction are on
the payroll at Playa Capital Corporation and are responsible for signing
off on the project.
Calls to Playa Capital to check on the veracity of these claims were
referred to Steve Sugerman at the Sugerman Communications Group in Los
Angeles. Calls to Steve Sugerman were not returned.
Ironically, the California Native American Heritage Commission is also
named in the suit though Rosas has been working with the Commission to stop
the project. Both Rosas and Wood said the reason for this is that the
Commission lacks enforcement authority to stop such a project.
Efforts to stop the project have revealed the difficulty that American
Indians have in stopping or at least mitigating such projects despite such
relatively recent laws such as the Native American Graves Repatriation Act,
which does not cover cases such as this one. There are a tangle of laws
governing cemeteries that seemingly provide a double standard for American
The problem is that American Indian graves from pre-European contact, in
the simplest terms, are regarded as archeological sites and not cemeteries.
Most cemeteries in California are governed under state health and safety
codes and stem from an 1872 law.
However, since most American Indian burial grounds predate the 1872 law, a
court case in 1982 determined they are not included in the same governing
authority as all cemeteries after that law was enacted.
The project can only be altered or stopped by the agencies that signed the
original 1991 agreement. Because the project is situated in what Rosas
describes as “the last remaining coastal wetland in the Los Angeles basin
the 1991 agreement had to be signed off on by state and federal agencies as
dictated by the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The original signatories to the agreement are the Army Corps of Engineers,
the developer, the Office of Historic Preservation, and the Advisory
Council on Historic Preservation. Also, the city of Los Angeles will be
acting as the lead agency in the California state environmental review
process. Thus far none of the signatories has tried to stop the project.
The only other entity that could at least make recommendations to mitigate
the project, or at least move the drainage ditch, are the archeologists on
the project. Rosas alleged that this is not likely given that the
archeological firm on this project, Statistical Research Incorporated
(SRI), is employed by the Playa Capital. On their Web site SRI estimated
that the project would cost $10 million, which is what they are going to
Both Wood and Rosas claim that various archeologists have walked off the
project in protest.
The project had raised environmental concerns and one of the original
groups that had planned to build at the site was DreamWorks, famed director
Steven Spielberg’s film making company.
However, a portion of the marshlands were eventually set aside by the
developers to remain untouched, a move that Wood characterizes as necessary
since the donated land could not be developed anyway. Spielberg also
eventually dropped out of building at the site in the late 1990s.