Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 30, 2001 - Issue 39



Program Preserves Historic Sacred Objects


 by Agnes Diggs North County Times Staff Writer - June 17, 2001


art Ancient Family by Ginny Hogan

art Ancient Family by Ginny HoganTEMECULA, CA - In the hills near Clinton Keith Road, a dozen or more giant earth-moving machines are cutting foot-deep swaths to prepare the land for civilization. In their wake, on foot, Pechanga tribe members search for sacred objects that may have lain in the earth for thousands of years.

Travis Spears, 29, and his mom, Theresa, trek in the dust, dirt and heat, trowels in hand, systematically checking the side walls of each cut and sifting through the dirt as the soil is graded. The job is physically demanding.

So far, they've found at least one valuable item on a hillside, a rustic steatite (soapstone) formation that may have been used as a healing stone or ornamental jewelry. It's Spears' job to watch for and preserve the integrity of items found at the site. Historical and archaeological resources are protected under the law.

"If remains come up, they need to be removed properly," Spears said. "(The site) could be a(n unmarked) burial ground, for that matter, that needs to be protected."

While the recovered items are referred to as artifacts by archaeologists, they are called sacred objects by tribe members.

"If it comes from the ground, if it comes from the people, it is sacred," said program coordinator Benjamin Masiel. "A lot of thought went into the production (of the item), that's why it's sacred."

The Pechanga tribe has 20 men and women like Spears who fulfill this task, all trained at the reservation's cultural center to identify tools, household items, ornaments and even human remains that might otherwise be lost to posterity forever. The monitors work in pairs, and the number of them assigned to a site depends on the size of the project and the amount of equipment being used, as well as the number of areas the machines are working on a given site. Pechanga monitors are currently working at five jobs in different stages of activity around the county. The monitors receive a safety orientation before going onto a site, and abide by the site's established safety procedures.

The tribe formed a seven-member cultural committee in 1990 when the city of Temecula and Riverside County began major buildouts in the area. Their goal was to find ways to protect and preserve major resources. The committee was the forerunner of the monitor program, which began in 1992. The monitors needed to be trained to know what to look for, and brought in instructors experienced in protection and preservation.

"They walked us through the whole process of what to expect in an archaeological dig ---- terminology and tools," Masiel said.

Since then, the group has worked on numerous projects, from Temecula to Corona, within the boundaries of their aboriginal territory, Masiel said. They have worked with survey teams from UCR on studies that have a tribal interest. They identified 100 more sensitive sites than had been previously recorded in the area, working with the Santa Rosa and Cahuilla tribes.

What started as an occasional consultation with developers has grown into a teaching program and a professional consulting group formed to retrieve and repatriate sacred objects.

Some of the recovered items are usable as part of the training process, Masiel said, usually utilitarian items used in daily life. Some have spiritual and cultural significance ---- they are put away and not handled on a day-to-day basis.

The monitors work closely with UCR's Eastern Information Center, one of about a dozen regional centers of the California Historical Resources Information Center. The centers are information repositories, maintaining records, manuscripts, reports, maps and databases of archaeological sites, said center coordinator M.C. Hall. Eastern Information Center maintains the information pertaining to Riverside, Inyo and Mono counties. Researchers, developers and concerned groups consult with the center, seeking information about the archaeological or prehistoric records of the site, Hall said. If information about a site isn't available, the ground has to be walked over and examined systematically, he said.

When a historical resource is found, monitors ensure that it is not destroyed or lost.

"It's a good thing to do," Hall said of the monitoring process. "Development is an ongoing thing and these historical and prehistoric resources are finite. Development and economic expansion doesn't save them, and so they're lost."

Although there are other American Indian monitors who do the work for monetary compensation, this is nonprofit venture for the Pechanga tribe, which is spending financial and other resources on the program. The cultural committee members all volunteer their time. Their basic motivation is to protect the sites for the best interest of the tribe, Masiel said.

The monitors are ranked according to their experience. The cultural committee established the training standards, set up the curriculum and held the classes. All the monitors went through a program to evaluate their knowledge to make sure they were on a par with professional monitors. The trainees were given hands-on field experience and a lab practicum that required them to go to a site and identify artifacts, soils and technical names. Trainees have to pass both the classroom and field exercises to qualify.

"When they go out there, we have confidence that they have the basic skill level," Masiel said.

When remains are found, the first priority is that they remain in place. Otherwise, the monitors must decide if they are "associated grave goods," items that were meant to be in the ground. If so, they are reinterred at a designated place where they will be safe from grave-robbers.

"We prefer they be as near as possible to where they were originally," said John Gomez Jr., monitor supervisor. Ideally, they prefer to preserve burial sites by redirecting plans for open space or avoiding the areas completely, Masiel said.

Cultural committee members take a proactive approach to preservation, preferring to testify at government planning meetings and hearings, making sure that they will be part of the approval process.

Tribe representatives have found themselves in modern political battles to protect the integrity of their ancestors' final resting places.

"Sometimes when you give testimony (at hearings), it's pretty emotional," Masiel said. "We wouldn't want to develop anything through someone else's graveyard, but we have to go and testify that (the remains in question) are our ancestors."

As far as is known, only the Pechanga have such a monitoring program; however, the next class will have members of other tribal governments from Central California coming to train.

"They're looking to start their own 'protection process,'" Masiel said. "There's a lot of development now that's encroaching on their sites. They want a monitoring program to protect the excavations." Their education process will include strategies for negotiating with developers and governments, Masiel said. "All that stuff we had to struggle through that got us to the point where we are."


Maps by Travel


Pechanga Band
Native American tribes, including the Pechanga Band and other bands of Luiseño Indians, existed as sovereign governments long before Europeans came to North America.




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