By Akerele Christabel. 5:20 pm PST

In a bid to conduct archaeological surveys with an eye to reconstructing US Highway 395, archaeologists have drawn the ire of local tribes in the area. The $69.7 million Caltrans Project was meant to convert the two-lane road to a four-lane expressway. This was expected to ensure the safety of motorists using the road.

Things took a discordant turn when, in the course of the archaeological survey, the team unearthed bones belonging to the ancestors of the local tribes in the area.

To keep grave robbers out, the US Government enacted laws at the federal and state levels that prohibited public disclosure of Native American cultural sites. However, the team of archaeologists from Caltrans had stumbled upon one such cultural site in their construction efforts. Local tribal leaders reported that more than 30 tangled human skeletons had been unearthed at the site near the Inyo County community of Cartago, many of them adorned with artifacts: glass beads, abalone shells and arrowheads. This has led tribal historic preservation officers to petition the California Department of Transportation to halt construction and realign the project to avoid the gravesites.

Sean Scruggs, tribal historic officer for the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians said these words in protest at the unearthing of their ancestors remains.

“We’re saying, ‘Stop!’ Your gigantic highway project is disrupting the peace of untold numbers of ancestors in a place that had gone undisturbed for thousands of years,”

“How many human remains must be unearthed before Caltrans decides it is time to respect our advice and perspective?” he asked.

“Indigenous tribes in California warned that there were many remains & artifacts in Owens Valley and that a Highway 395 expansion would be a problem. The state didn’t listen. Now, DOT crews are unearthing Native bones, with tribes demanding work stop.” UAINE (ndnviewpoint). (Photo: @mahtowin1)

Another native who echoed his viewpoint was Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic officer for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone reservation.

“We don’t want this to become another sensational case of horrific desecration. We have been trying to work with Caltrans to find a creative solution but have yet to see a proposal that aligns with tribal interests. This needs to change…We’ve had at least a hundred meetings with Caltrans,” Bancroft said. “But formal consultation was never completed regarding design issues that have never been addressed.”

The refusal of both parties to yield ground means that the Caltrans Project could be a battlefield for competing values and interests. The state government agency would not give up on such a monumental project after its initial investments. At the same time, the native tribes have a history of being uncompromising and inflexible in their values and what they perceive to be duty to their ancestors.

One historical feud occured in the early 1900s, when Los Angeles city agents quietly bought up ranchlands and water rights for an aqueduct to quench the thirst of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.

LA drained so much water via the aqueduct system that the 110-square-mile lake dried up. This made it nearly impossible for local ranchers and farmers to make a living. The scandal was later dramatized in the 1974 film classic Chinatown.

In 2012, state coastal regulators fined a property owner $430,000 for excavating artifacts at a 9,000-year-old Native American village site near Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach. Native American tribes with ties to the land believed that the penalty was not severe enough. In the same year, American Indian tribes asked the federal government to slow down its development of the $1-billion Genesis solar project in the Mojave Desert because of the discovery of human remains missed by archaeological surveys in a rush to build. This time, they were rebuffed.

In 2019, construction of a San Diego Freeway widening project was halted immediately after Native American remains were discovered during excavations. Orange County Transportation Authority officials consulted with the California Native American Heritage Commission on how to proceed.

Presently, the local tribes are involved in a heightening standoff with Caltrans. They now want the burial site in the path of Caltrans’ highway project deemed off-limits to further construction until a solution agreeable to all sides is reached. The construction agency’s proposal to curve the disputed section of the highway along the burial site was not welcomed by the Native American tribes who called for a clearance of at least half a mile.

On Thursday May 18, 2023, tribal officers finally received some news that Caltrans had halted all construction activities in the area.