To Rest In Peace: Court rules Native American remains be returned to La Jolla burial site


On Jan. 25 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UC scientists Timothy White, Margaret Schoeninger and Robert Bettinger, who wanted to study the remains of two Native American ancestors found in 1976 under what is now the UC San Diego Chancellor’s House, ending a decade-long battle. Under the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the ancestors had to be repatriated to their original tribe, but the plaintiffs wanted to perform new studies on them such as DNA analysis.

La Jolla Light contacted UC San Diego to find out the current stage of the repatriation, and according to Jeff Gattas, UCSD director of marketing, media relations and public affairs, “The remains in question were transferred earlier this year to the La Posta Band of Mission Indians, which is the designated group. The residents of La Posta Reservation are members of the Kumeyaay tribe.”

The Supreme Court decision comes to light the same week that the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Indigenous People (Tuesday, Aug 9). The Kumeyaay tribe lived, fished, hunted and gathered peacefully for thousands of years in La Jolla. This is their story.

Healing through storytelling

Abel Silvas, Native American historian, comedian and storyteller, said his family lived in La Jolla for generations until 1924, when the Convenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) of local developers established that only Caucasians could live in the Village. He identifies as a “Diegueño Californio, The Native Americans that stayed in the Mission,” he explained.

Silvas sits on the San Diego County Historic Site Board, the Presidio Park Council, and up until last month, he was part of the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board. He pointed out that his efforts as member of many boards are directed to providing information on the Native American culture of the area and its contributions to current society. “People think that we are just people that lived thousands of years ago and we are long gone, but we are still here, being in the community, telling these stories.

“I believe that on every board, committee, council and planning group, there should be an open seat for a Native American or a Californio, which is a person of mixed blood from other tribes and European descent. They are the ones who have the stories from ancient times.”

When he’s off duty, Silvas tries to educate people about Native Americans by mixing comedy, history and education in one act. His performances, which include historical dramas that he presents for children and adults alike, have taken place at local landmarks such as at the Old Globe and the Cabrillo National Monument.

Silvas also finds time to be on the tribal council of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians. These days, he’s monitoring construction work in several burial sites to impede the unearthing of Native American ancestors.

The Kumeyaays

The Kumeyaay Native Americans believe that they’ve inhabited the coast of Southern California since the beginning of time, because that’s their creation story. Archeologists can’t prove that, but they’ve found Kumeyaay resting sites on several La Jolla properties.

Ben Garcia, deputy director of the Museum of Man in Balboa Park said, “Some of the oldest human remains in North America have been unearthed in La Jolla; the Kumeyaay go to over 10,000 years there.”

Larry Banegas, president and founder of the website, served as a member of the Tribal Council for the Barona Band of the Kumeyaay. He said he believes his ancestors had a community on La Jolla soil up to 14,000 years ago. “Traditional knowledge, which is something passed down generations through generations,” he said, “says that we were able to develop a community here more perfect for humans than we have today.”

For example, Banegas describes how the Kumeyaay had impartial arbiters to resolve their skirmishes and performed controlled burns to prevent wildfires. “We were great astrologers, we managed the land, we have songs that talk about a big fire god that comes and burns everything, so if you don’t have control, he wipes out everything,” he explained.

The Kumeyaay not only lived along the coast as we know it today, but their territory extended well beyond. Archeologist Ron May pointed out, “The entire ocean has risen around 400 feet since the Native Americans were here. All of the early villages that were on old beaches are gone because of the ocean.”

However, May allows room for doubt on whether the La Jolla remains found belong to the Kumeyaays or some other group. “There’s something different about the archeological sites in La Jolla Shores and The Cove, the quality of their artwork, their people … they look different than the findings in other areas.”

On this subject, Silvas added, “The Kumeyaays today can’t prove our connection to the ancient ones, that’s why we have laws like the NAGPRA. That law established the Most Likely Descendant to those people, to take care of them, because for us to prove that we are the native people that go back 10,000 years is ludicrous.”

The Museum of Man currently holds the “Kumeyaay: Native Californians” exhibit, exploring traditional lifestyles, featuring the art of pottery and basket-making, food procurement, dress and adornment, traditional medicine, games and ceremonies.

“The Museum is working with tribal people to include their voice, given everything that’s happened,” Garcia said. “The Kumeyaay are still here, so we can work together to create a more accurate history.” Collections manager Lael Hoff, who is a Kumeyaay of the Santa Isabel Mesa Grande reservation, works to help the Museum become more inclusive. “Working for my community is something I’ve done my entire life,” she said.

Throughout the 20th century, the Museum of Man accumulated a good number of Native American ancestors, many of them dug out from burial sites in La Jolla. There’s reportedly evidence of human rests found in two different areas — La Jolla Shores and Cove and the upper areas where UC San Diego is now — that were been studied by the Museum of Man. “We are working with the Kumeyaay, and that’s an ongoing process that began last year and will be ongoing probably through this calendar year and at the end of it, the museum will have repatriated the Kumeyaay ancestors to the Kumeyaay nation,” Garcia said.

Hoff added, “Repatriating the ancestors is something that’s long overdue. The remains have been in the Museum for a hundred years.”

Crime scene

Archeologist May insisted that an archeological site is like “a crime scene; evidence has to be carefully managed.” He said people should not go out with shovels and try to find rests on their own.

Want to learn more?

“Kumeyaay: Native Californians” is a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Man, 1350 El Prado in Balboa Park. Free with the $13 general admission. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m, daily. (619) 239-2001.

Father Juniper Serra’s legacy lecture “San Diego in Serra’s time” will describe Native American experiences with the Mission, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15 at the Serra Museum at Presidio Park, 2727 Presidio Drive. Tickets $20-$25, (619) 232-6203.