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Metate Moved from La Jolla: Questions remain about Native American artifact’s care, storage, placement

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The metate (small flat stone) before it was removed from Cuvier Park in La Jolla in 2017.
(Courtesy / )

When a new sidewalk was installed along Coast Boulevard in spring 2017, a small Native American grinding stone, aka metate, was moved to accommodate the construction. It was taken to a City storage facility, and now, almost two years later, questions remain about where it will go from there. And that’s not the only mystery associated with this milling stone.

The rock was located in Whale View Point Park in La Jolla, but it is unknown when, how or why the rock came to rest in La Jolla. Historically, Native Americans lived in what is known in the Spindrift Archaeological District in La Jolla Shores, but the extent of their Village has not been mapped. Artifacts — that include ashes from a campfire to pottery to human remains — have been found buried in piecemeal searches, and out at sea.

The metate found in La Jolla is small, flat and was embedded in the grass.

Ron May, architect, president and principal investigator for Legacy 106 (historic preservation consulting firm), said he has seen the metate in the park for decades, but the stone itself is “unusual.”

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“It’s not made from native soils,” he told the Light. “There are no big rocks there, so from a geological standpoint, it doesn’t look like the (metate) was made there. Maybe it was made in the Mission Valley area and moved there,” he said.

“Somebody had used the rock to grind something. The Native tribes created lots of little sites to accomplish things in their life. People may have moved it there to grind food on that stone — such as little clams or dried kelp — and haul it away to where they lived, if it was them that brought it there.”

Another theory is that the stone was moved (from private property on its native location) to La Jolla by non-Natives, but that is considered hearsay.

However, the stone has yet to be inventoried as a historic artifact, with significant ties to the site.

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The sidewalk installation project that prompted the metate removal was finished in summer 2017, and involved the installation of 1,100 linear feet of sidewalk and two pedestrian beach-access ramps along Coast Boulevard, south of Cuvier Street. La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group chair Ann Dynes, who facilitated the sidewalk installation project noted: “Had this thing been registered as a monument, it would not have been removed. No one had ever done the research or had it designated on a map that the City knew anything about, so it was taken away … it was in the middle of the sidewalk right-of-way.

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The metate was moved to accommodate this sidewalk along Coast Boulevard.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“As I understand it, the sidewalk people prepped the site and carted the stone away and put it in City storage, where it remains today. It is apparently considered a ‘boulder of interest.’ ”

City spokesperson Tim Graham confirmed (while referring to the stone as a ‘bedrock mortar’) that it is being “housed in a fenced and secured area of the City’s Rose Canyon operations yard” and that “In January, the City met with representatives of the Kumeyaay Nation to hold a meeting at the Rose Canyon location and give tribal members the opportunity to view the bedrock mortar and perform a blessing on it.”

But the removal of the stone caused some heartburn in the historic and Native communities.

“When people realized it was gone, they contacted the Kumeyaay research association and complained,” May said. “Word spread in the Native community and people spoke out at the San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB). People were really angry the metate had been moved.”

HRB Archaeological and Tribal Cultural Resources sub-committee chair Courtney Coyle confirmed that the concerns were heard several times, as recently as Dec. 10, 2018.

“The tribal community said there was supposed to be a report prepared by the City on the background of why and how the metate got moved in the first place, where we are the process, and what needs to change in the future so this kind of resource does not get put in storage (ever again),” Coyle said.

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She added a staffer has been assigned to prepare the report, but her workload “has prevented her from getting to this item quicker.”

Apart from the delay, Coyle said other concerns expressed were that tribal representatives felt “this doesn’t seem like a priority for the City” and “it has taken so long and we’ve gotten nowhere,” and “we were not consulted before moving the metate.”

May added that he has not been made aware of the City’s plan for the metate going forward: “Park & Rec said it’s in storage, but no one has seen it. Do they plan to keep it in storage? Throw it away? Put it in someone’s yard? Once taken out of the context of the site itself, it’s just a rock with no story. It doesn’t serve archaeology to have it taken from its site. There has been no analysis of it.”

May said there are ways of pulling remnants up from the grinding surface (little proteins or things): “It’s possible to get some residue.”

As far as inventory purposes, May said he hasn’t seen any reports or documentation of measurements, photographs, etc. “The parks people do not have an archaeologist on staff and did not have an archeologist evaluate it. They just had some guys move it,” he said.

In his mind, he wrote in an e-mail to the Light: “There should have been a full environmental impact study conducted by the Development Services Department prior to any decision to remove the milling feature. And, what is more, the Mayor’s office has a staff person assigned to coordinate with all the appropriate Native American tribal representatives concerning sacred lands impacts. Failure to complete these requisite steps resulted in public outcry in 2018 that included an attempt to alert the Historical Resources Board, though they have no legal jurisdiction because the milling feature is not yet a designated resource.”

He also opined that the City should have funded “a scientific investigation of the soil underneath the park lawns to determine if there is a buried archaeological site associated with the milling feature. Historical research into City files should have been conducted to determine if the milling feature had been taken from some inland location and donated to the park for interpretive purposes, or it if had been there when the City acquired the park lands. And the City should have initiated consultation with the Kumeyaay tribal representatives decades ago to determine if the milling feature is a sacred artifact.”

When the City does remove the stone from storage, another question remains: Where will it go?

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“Some view the metate as a touchstone for Native heritage along the coastline,” Dynes explained. “Assurances have been made that it is fine, but the question is, where to put it when they put it back. Should it go back to Whale View Point or the inland area of San Diego? We want it put someplace responsible, but we are not pushing one way or another.”

When heard at the HRB Archaeological and Tribal Cultural Resources sub-committee, Coyle said, suggestions included returning it to tribal lands or replacing it to the area from where it was taken. “The City staffer (assigned to this) said it is a City asset and part of the City’s collection and she could not just give it back,” Coyle said. “She said she would need to go back to her department and discuss it.”

This report could be produced as soon as the Feb. 11 HRB sub-committee meeting.

Graham added, “Initial discussions regarding next steps for the relocation or repatriation of the mortar have already begun, and while no plans have been finalized, the City will continue to consult with the members of the Kumeyaay Nation regarding potential locations for the mortar.”

— To learn more, visit bit.ly/HRBsubcommittee


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