Native American tribe, archaeologists at odds over Indian remains


Workers continue with the construction of Rose Lane Development in Larkspur, Calif. Archaeologists and Native Americans are clashing over Indian remains and artifacts that were excavated during a construction project in the San Francisco Bay Area and then reburied at a location that wasn’t disclosed, a newspaper reported. Archaeologists say the burial ground and village site in Larkspur dated back 4,500 years and held a treasure trove of information about Coast Miwok life that should have been preserved for future study. (Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Buried beneath a 4,500-year-old Indian burial ground and village site in Larkspur, Calif., were thousands bones of bat rays, waterfowl, deer, sea otters, grizzly and black bears — and 600 humans. There were antler tools, flutes, beads, bone awls, hairpins, game pieces and Atlatl throwing sticks, used for hunting before bow-and-arrow days.

The findings of Coast Miwok life are being recorded in a report, but the actual items are now lost to those who wish to study them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

To make room for a multimillion-dollar residential development, The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who have been recognized as the descendants of Larkspur’s indigenous people, made the decision to remove and rebury the remains in an undisclosed location in the area and reportedly grade over it. Not a single artifact was saved.

But according to Smithsonian magazine, “The story is actually a lot more complicated than Good Archaeologists vs. Bad Developers.” The issue surrounds a tribe’s desire to protect its ancestors’ artifacts and archaeologists’ desire to study them, amid construction of the $55 million Rose Lane development in Larkspur that began this month.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the 1,300-member tribe, said the tribe traditionally reburies sacred objects because many of them are intended to stay with the person who died.

“Our policy is that those things belong to us, end of story. Let us worry about our own preservation,” he told the Chronicle. “If we determine that they are sacred objects, we will rebury them. … How would Jewish or Christian people feel if we wanted to dig up skeletal remains in a cemetery and study them? Nobody has that right.” 

Archaeologists argue that an invaluable piece of history — going back approximately to the time the Great Pyramid of Giza was built in Egypt — has been lost.

“It should have been protected,” Jelmer Eerkens, an archaeology professor at UC Davis who visited the site, told the Chronicle. “The developers have the right to develop their land, but at least the information contained in the site should have been protected and samples should have been saved so that they could be studied in the future.”

The shell mound was first documented in 1907, the Chronicle reported, but no one knew its significance until a developer decided to build, prompting a land examination.

The developer was required under California Environmental Quality Act to bring in archaeologists to study the mound under management of the Graton Rancheria tribe.

Eerkens said the issue was the work was done under a confidentiality agreement, so when archaeologists finally discussed it last month, it was too late to preserve the ancient site.

“There are a lot of things that went wrong here,” he told the Chronicle. “It’s really a shame.”

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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