'There should have been more oversight': City issues report on metate moved from La Jolla

The City recently issued a letter to a sub-commitee of the San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) and local tribal councils explaining its role in the removal of an artifact without input from native tribes from Cuvier Park in La Jolla in 2017. In the letter, the City acknowledges “there should have been more oversight,” and attempts to state what could be done to prevent it from happening again in the future. However, some of those involved are not satisfied with the findings.

The Native American milling rock, known as a “metate” (pronounced mah-ta-tay) or “bedrock mortar” was located in the park alongside Coast Boulevard, but removed in 2017 to accommodate a sidewalk expansion project. The metate had not been inventoried as a formal historic artifact with significant ties to the site, prior to its removal. It is currently and “temporarily” being housed in a secured area of the City’s Rose Canyon operations yard.

It is unknown when, how or why the rock came to rest in La Jolla. Historically, Native Americans lived in what’s known as the Spindrift Archaeological District in La Jolla Shores, but the extent of this Village has not been mapped. Artifacts, which include ashes from a campfire to pottery to human remains, have been found buried in piecemeal searches and out at sea.

The metate discussion took place at the Feb. 11 HRB Archaeological and Tribal Cultural Resources sub-committee meeting downtown, where the City presented its response.

“The bedrock mortar got removed because there were issues between departments not sharing information, and City staff not consulting with the experts on staff and the Park & Rec Department thinking they were doing the right thing by moving it to protect it,” HRB sub-committee chair Courtney Coyle told La Jolla Light. “You aren’t just supposed to talk to City staff, you talk to tribes. That didn’t happen. What happened here seems to bear witness to a systemic issue where the City only looks at the archaeological value, not tribal value, of some of these resources. That resource, where it was, was really important could be one of the last accessible bedrock mortars in La Jolla.”

At the request of local tribes, the City produced a report, authored by Myra Herrmann, City Planning Department planner/archaeologist/tribal liaison. The three-page report delved into the sidewalk expansion project, which required the metate’s removal, and an “Archaeological Survey and Evaluation of Cultural Resources” conducted in the 1990s that the City used to reference resources that needed to be preserved.

“None of the cultural resources tested, and evaluated for significance in 1996, were found to be important, primarily because of a loss of integrity due to impacts sustained over many decades of public use and facilities improvements, and due to a lack of research potential beyond that realized by the testing effort that has been completed,” the report read.

Further, the report determined: “City staff agrees there should have been more oversight regarding the removal and relocation of the bedrock mortar to facilitate project implementation. While we cannot place blame on this oversight with one individual or department, we regret there was not a clear line of communication regarding this specific incident to avoid conflict and/or concern. We do believe however, that the quick action by Shoreline Parks staff resulted in ultimate protection and safe keeping of the bedrock mortar, despite not consulting with qualified archaeological staff, or members of the local Kumeyaay community.”

Going forward, Herrmann’s report stated the City would conduct “staff training regarding the importance and sensitivity of archaeological and tribal cultural resources” and would work with its IT department to better map these resources in the future.

The report concluded: “We look forward to working with the Kumeyaay community to identify an appropriate location in Cuvier Park or another coastal park location where it can be reinstalled or replicated and appropriately interpreted; or, if agreed to by all interested parties, repatriate the bedrock mortar to the Kumeyaay community as previously discussed. These options are still on the table, and we are available to bring closure and resolution to this important issue.”

The Response

“The conversation fell short of an apology,” Coyle said. “There wasn’t any assurance that things have been corrected at the City, so this wouldn’t happen again. It seemed as though staff wanted to jump ahead to reinstall it rather than iron out the process. I’m a little disappointed at the lack of change to the system.”

And she is not alone.

While some tribal council representatives declined to comment, Native American historian, comedian and storyteller Abel Silvas told the Light: “The City wants to sweep this issue under the rug. It’s a sad story and all comes down to the City not wanting us to talk about or care about these resources.”

He added: “These artifacts represent how people got their food; they’re spiritual and special. (The metate) is a sacred item. But apparently the City just sees it as a rock. When you die, your body goes into the soil. So soil is sacred, but the soil around the bedrock is not treated as such. They should have kept it where it was and called the tribes. We should have been consulted.”

However, Silvas said he appreciated the cultural sensitivity training to which the City has committed.

Ron May, architect, president and principal investigator for the preservation consulting firm, Legacy 106, critiqued the City’s use of a study from the 1990s as its basis and concluded: “The rock belongs in the park, not in a warehouse somewhere. This is a very valuable educational tool for children, tourists and adults. There should have been an interpretive plaque installed on the park lawn to explain how the milling feature functioned in the prehistoric society. (To have it) removed to a warehouse is a travesty.”

According to the report, the next step is to organize a trip to the La Jolla Shores and Cuvier Park areas to see if there is an appropriate location for it to be replaced.

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