Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grave Matters

A mariner traveling up the coast 300 years ago would have seen the round reed houses of the settlement of Humaliwo on this spit of land. There are no visible remnants of the village, but the name, which is said to mean "were the surf sounds," survives as the word Malibu. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises.
—Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, An Indian's View of Indian Affairs, 1879

I had a conversation with Chumash Elder Alan Salazar at the City of Malibu’s Chumash Day festival this year. He said he wished the city still had room for the Chumash. “Maybe they’ll give us a few acres some day,” he said, only half in jest. “Maybe they’ll give something back to us.”

Right now, it seems more likely that the Chumash people and all those who care about preserving Malibu’s Chumash heritage, are instead facing more potential losses.

 I’ve been reading the Environmental Impact Report for the City of Malibu's Civic Center sewer plan and found the following: 

The EIR report concludes that “the main bulk of the site is south of the proposed pipeline routes along PCH, and the resources are probably already disturbed…” 

The logic is that the site has been disturbed before and makes it OK to disturb again, I guess. The report states that a monitor will be employed for excavation work in the vicinity of the wastewater treatment facility. Any artifacts or burials that are uncovered and not accidentally pulverized will presumably be reinterred elsewhere, but it’s disheartening.

As the EIR states, the sewer construction project is planned for the area that gives Malibu its name, Humaliwo, where the surf sounds. The EIR states that the main village site is “one of the largest, deepest, and best studied archaeological deposits in Southern California. It contains both a prehistoric cemetery, dating back 1,000 years, and a historic‐era cemetery that was in use from 1775 to 1825.”

Humaliwo has been excavated and re-excavated in the 1960s and '70s, but artifacts still reportedly turn up.  More than 200 burials have been removed from the site. Even the authors of the sewer project conclude “it’s possible that prehistoric deposits remain intact.”

Malibu is built on shattered fragments of the past. This coast was inhabited for an estimated ten thousand years by the Chumash and their ancestors. The descendants of Malibu's original residents are still working to piece together a heritage and cultural identity almost entirely erased first by the California Missions, and then by generations of persecution and discrimination.

Fragments of shells, bird bones, charcoal, flakes from tool making, and a shell bead are weathering out of the base of this Malibu Chumash midden. The exposed fragments will eventually be washed away by the tides. Middens, or shell mounds, also frequently contain tools, effigies, beads and shell ornaments, pipes, charm stones, fish hooks, and human burials. This one is several meters deep. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
The potential for the sewer project to disturb what remains of the community's Chumash heritage is troubling, but there’s another important cultural site in the Civic Center area that is at even greater risk of irreparable damage, and that’s the Malibu Rancho Hotel project site on the corner of Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway. This small undeveloped piece of old Malibu is a significant Chumash village site and is also said to be hallowed ground, where human bones may still lay undisturbed in the earth.

Bulldozers were at work there this week, clearing the ground, despite the fact that the owner reportedly doesn’t have a permit for excavation work. It wouldn’t be the first time a developer bulldozed an important cultural site accidentally or on purpose.When it’s gone it’s gone and one can build whatever one likes without worrying about the ghosts of the past. It doesn’t matter that it was sacred, or that the bones of someone’s ancestors were laid to rest there. It doesn’t matter that a priceless piece of history is gone forever. 

A portion of the Malibu hotel site, which is also a major Chumash archaeological site, was bulldozed last week. While brush clearance is an important part of fire safety, bulldozing is overkill for weed removal and can damage fragile cultural resources. © S. Guldimann

Large Chumash and pre-Chumash cemeteries are known to have existed at Arroyo Sequit, Trancas Canyon, Point Dume, Paradise Cove, Solstice Canyon and the Malibu Lagoon area, and archaeologists estimate that there are thousands of smaller grave sites scattered throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. Many of the most significant Chumash sites were allegedly leveled or buried in the 1920s to make way for Pacific Coast Highway, and disturbed again in the 1940s, when the road was widened.

Burials from the Leo Carrillo area excavated during the construction of Pacific Coast Highway in the 1920s. 140 burials were identified at this site, but many had been disturbed by earlier grave robbers and the site was salted with numerous fake artifacts—more about that in a future post.

An inventory of human remains at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum that was published in 2007 to meet the requirements of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides a glimpse at the vast number of Malibu graves excavated up to the 1970s, when protections were enacted. Examples include:

 In 1915, human remains representing a minimum of two individuals were removed from 'the Malibu Ranch,' an unknown location in Los Angeles County, CA. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County by Irving V. Auger. No known individuals were identified. No associated funerary objects are present.

At an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of 13 individuals were removed from Arroyo Sequit Mound in Arroyo Sequit. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum by E.D. Mitchell. One set of human remains was identified by a tag reading 'EDM. 281, burial 18, Arroyo Sequit Mound." The other 12 sets of human remains were identified by a tag reading "California Los Angeles County Arroyo Sequit Shell Mound Misc. Bones EDM-274."  

(I can't help wondering what happened to the other five skeletons that weren't donated. Are they still floating around somewhere in a private collection? Or stored in a cardboard box in the basement of some other museum or university?)

At an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of three individuals were removed from a site in Solstice Canyon. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in 1971 by the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

(Apparently there is still a Daughters of the Golden West. Their website states that they are a "fraternal and patriotic organization," and they appear not in any way connected to the writings or mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, but it doesn’t explain why they were donating dead people.)

Archaeologists from UCLA, USC, LACC, and the Southwest Museum, dig up bones at an unidentified Malibu location in 1956, while residents watch with interest. The accompanying caption reads: "A bulldozer uncovered ancient Indian skeletons about two feet underground while preparing a site for a real estate development." This photo is from the USC Digital Archive, and was originally taken for the Los Angeles Examiner.

The bones excavated at the Trancas Canyon Cemetery site, CA-LAN-197, really did end up in the basement of a university. The area was initially excavated in 1968 by a group of Malibu residents. This wasn’t a scientific investigation as much as it was a sort of entertainment, like the Victorian fashion for acquiring Egyptian mummies and then having a special unwrapping party. UCLA archaeologists later stepped in to supervise the excavation, but only after other neighbors, alarmed by the cavalier treatment of human remains, called the sheriff to report suspicious activities.

The late Dorothy Stotsenberg provided a brief account of the amateur archaeologists' efforts in her book My 50 Years in Malibu. She wrote: "In 1968, Bobbie Sanders, my amateur archaeologist friend, uncovered a primitive burial ground beside Trancas Creek. The sight of people digging in the field attracted the attention of her Malibu neighbors and the County Sheriff, just as Bobbie unearthed a perfectly preserved skull. The sheriff told Bobbie he had to take the skull to the L.A. County Coroner's office for investigation, and that he would return it later.”

Self-appointed amateur archaeologists began excavating bones at what is today the Trancas shopping center in 1968. It was a sort of anthropological free-for-all. Eventually the sheriff was called and university archaeologists stepped in. Very few grave goods were discovered but the longstanding rumor that the best artifacts ended up as paper weights and in curio cabinets could help account for that. This photo is from the 1968 Chamber of Commerce phone directory.

Stotsenberg recounted that "Her Malibu neighbors became the Malibu Archaeological Society and received written permission from the property owners to continue the dig...revealing 14 burials. Word spread of the Trancas dig and John Beaton and Nelson Leonard of UCLA and the Archaeological Survey got themselves into the act."

According to Stotsenberg, the initial skull was cremated by the coroner's office because "the bones were not of interest." Stotsenberg reported seeing a portion of the Trancas site remains "in a drawer in the UCLA archaeology department" in 1981. "Nothing was ever done with those bones," she wrote.

The site, located under what is now the Trancas shopping center parking lot and the county's flood control channel, contained more than 100 burials dating to approximately 310-430 BC, according to radiocarbon data. Records indicate that the eastern portion of the cemetery was damaged when Trancas Creek was channelized by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District during the construction of the Malibu West subdivision.  A portion of the site was also reportedly graded and covered in 50 cm of fill during the construction of the original shopping center parking lot. Rodent activity, erosion and vandalism have also impacted the site. A survey conducted during the recent shopping center redevelopment reportedly found no evidence of artifacts. A sobering reminder of how easily the past can be swept away. 

And think how ancient that past is. According to radiocarbon dating, the first Chumash ancestors arrived in Malibu more than 10,000 years ago. That's 5000 years before Stonehenge was built. Europe was just thawing out of the last ice age and agriculture was being developed in the Middle East when the first Malibu residents arrived.

A massive stone bowl on display at the Oakbrook Park Chumash Museum in Thousand Oaks shows the Chumash people's skill at working stone. 

According to archaeologist Patricia Martz's 1984 dissertation Social Dimensions of Chumash Burials in the Santa Monica Mountains, the excavators at Trancas positively identified 62 adults, six adolescents, 15 children and nine infants. There were 18 burials that appeared to mark “individuals of special status.” One status burial contained the remains of a child of seven or eight. He was the only individual discovered at the site who was buried with beads. He was also placed in his grave with abalone shells over his body and ceremonial red ochre paint.

Martz notes that the excavators failed to record data on the depth of the graves, information on field methodology is missing from the report, and "as might be expected, there is some inconsistent recording and some missing data."

The two cemeteries associated with Humaliwo cover a 2500-year period of Malibu history. Excavations conducted by UCLA field students in 1970-71 revealed a site dating to the Chumash Middle Period—800-1000 B.C., with more than 90 graves, and a Mission-era cemetery dating to AD 1775-1805 that held an estimated 140 individuals and approximately 58,000 artifacts, including a sword of Spanish steel and a tiny silver Saint Francis medal, recovered from the grave of a child.

In 1995, anthropologists Lynn Gamble and Philip Walker and archaeologist Glenn Russell contracted with the California Department of Parks and Recreation "to organize, document, and complete research reports on the 1970s excavations in Malibu," the sites that had been excavated by UCLA students. According to a 2002 article in American Antiquity, "The collections and associated documentation were in a state of disarray. Hundreds of hours were spent on organizing and analyzing the Malibu material, including the artifacts, skeletal remains, and documentation."

The Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center at Rancho Sierra Vista Park in Newbury Park was founded by Chumash Chief Charlie Cooke to help keep Chumash culture alive and provide a venue for art shows, presentations and events by representatives of all Native American peoples. Event listings can be found here. The park, which includes the Conejo Valley side of Boney Ridge, is an important Chumash cultural heritage site. It's a 10 mile walk from here to the beach at Big Sycamore Canyon, and contemporary hikers and bikers travel the same trade route that the Chumash used for thousands of years. © 2014 S. Guldimann
Chumash and pre-Chumash burials continue to be unearthed in Malibu. In the 1970s, a significant Chumash burial site was bulldozed to make way for the Point Dume Mobile Home Park, without the benefit of excavation or reburial. My mother recalls seeing slides of the destruction. "It was terrible," she says.

In 1998, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $315,000 to settle a breach of contract lawsuit brought by a construction company against Waterworks District No. 29 after the county discovered the project area included archaeologically sensitive Chumash burial grounds on Point Dume. The construction firm argued that the county's bid package and project specifications were inadequate because of the sensitive archaeological site.

A Chumash skull was dug up at a construction project in the Paradise Cove area in 2007. Construction was halted and the authorities notified. Larry Myers, the executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, said that a member of the Chumash people, having been declared the most likely descendent, had been selected to work with the property owner. 

Three men were arrested in Point Mugu State Park in 2010 on suspicion of illegally removing artifacts from a burial. But Caltrans construction crews, following the 2013 Springs Fire, appear to have had carte blanche to bulldoze Chumash middens located along PCH in the same area. 

[Update: 23 March 2015. The Malibu Post was contacted by a State Parks archeologist who clarified that, during the extensive PCH closure following the December 2014 rains, State Parks and Caltrans archeologists were aware of the midden situation, and carefully monitored the mudslide that impacted the site.  The material that had washed down was sequestered and sample screened for artifacts. The archeologists found animal bones in addition to abundant shells, but no human remains were found. A Native American monitor was involved throughout the process.]

My mom carefully saved this October 17, 1977 article for the Westside section of the Los Angeles Times about a 3000-year-old submerged Chumash site near Point Dume.

It is illegal to remove items from a Native American historic site. That doesn’t stop people from picking up bits of the past and carting them home. Astonishing Chumash artifacts are occasionally found at Malibu garage sales. Other collections probably end up in the landfill when the owner moves or dies. 

There's no way of estimating how many sites have been destroyed during construction projects. Until the 1970s there were no real protections, and even with increased awareness and federal and local laws, including provisions in Malibu's Local Coastal Program, sites get bulldozed because no one notices the bits of shell and stone until it’s too late. However, disturbing a burial site, no matter where it’s located, is a felony. Burial sites located on private property can be legally covered over, but only after the find has been reported and the closest living tribal representatives have been contacted.

A Malibu Sheriff's Deputy poses Hamlet-like with a pile of prehistoric bones in this 1951 Los Angeles Examiner photo from the USC Digital Library. 

State and federal law requires that the finder of human remains immediately contact law enforcement. In Malibu cases, the sheriff's department will contact the coroner. Once the remains are determined to belong to a Native American burial, tribal representatives are contacted and reburial, often in situ, is arranged. Property owners may opt to have finds excavated by an archaeologist before reburial takes place, but Native American Civil Rights advocacy groups stress that all human remains should be treated with respect and not regarded as curiosities, collectables or trash.

Some would argue that it’s already too late, that most of the damage to Malibu’s cultural heritage took place decades ago. I don’t agree. There’s still time to cultivate awareness and to remember and preserve Malibu’s ancient heritage. There’s still a place in the future of Malibu for its past.

A sandstone outcropping in the local mountains still shelters this rock art painting of a  swordfish. The red ochre is still vivid after more than 500 years. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

When I was a child we were taught right here in Malibu public schools that the Chumash were a "primitive" people with little culture and none of the "hallmarks of civilization," and that the entire culture and people were extinct. 

That antiquated perspective has changed. There's extensive archaeological documentation that this "primitive" culture developed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, navigation, boat-building, woodworking, and a trade network that extended across the continent. They must have also had great skills of diplomacy, because they were a mostly peaceful people who coexisted with their neighbors for hundreds, and maybe thousands, of years.

There's also been a renaissance of contemporary Chumash culture, beginning during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The descendants of the Chumash are stepping forward to reclaim their culture. Chumash is a language group, not an ethnic designation. The fact that the Chumash language tradition lapsed is probably one of the reasons the extinction myth is so prevalent. But just because the language is gone, doesn't mean the people who spoke it have vanished. Only the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians have so far received federal recognition, but it's estimated that there are at least 5000 Californians who claim Chumash heritage, and an effort is underway to revive the Chumash languages. 

"When the last Chumash Indian left Malibu, he left a curse," commercial real estate developer Roy Crummer quipped to the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "Malibu is filled with lots of people who are committed and a lot of others who ought to be." Crummer sold his company when it appeared that cityhood was inevitable and the climate for development became less favorable. 
The Chumash, on the other hand, are still here. Their culture isn’t dead, it’s rising again from the ashes.

Suzanne Guldimann
24 June 2014

A contemporary tomol—Chumash plank canoe—is pulled up on the sand near the location of the ancient Chumash community at Paradise Cove. A reminder that the descendants of the Chumash people are still here and that the culture and traditions are relevant, worth protecting and preserving, and an integral part of Malibu's past, present and future. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann


  1. I remember as a boy seeing Indian graves that were partly dug up in what is now part of Leo Carrillo State Park. This would have been in the 1950ies when my uncle had a ranch on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway opposite what is now the park

  2. I remember as a boy seeing Indian graves that were partly dug up in what is now part of Leo Carrillo State Park. This would have been in the 1950ies when my uncle had a ranch on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway opposite what is now the park

  3. I remember as a boy seeing Indian graves that were partly dug up in what is now part of Leo Carrillo State Park. This would have been in the 1950ies when my uncle had a ranch on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway opposite what is now the park

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  6. Thanks for posting this. I am a fiction writer who tried to tackle this, because my elderly neighbors in Malibu were all telling the same story about graves unearthed in the 1950s. I have seen stuff on a book shelf. I am thinking the unidentified location at Point Dome is just above where the Pt. Dume supermarket used to be, and they had dug up that site to build some apartments.