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Bones of Discontent - Andrew Galvan carves a unique, controversial role in relocating Native American skeletons 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Such services don't come cheap. According to officials at the East Bay Regional Park District, where Galvan is on retainer, his firm was paid $58,000 to collect, remove, and temporarily store 12 skeletal remains from the Big Break Regional Shoreline in Contra Costa County in 2002.

Although it was the park district's intent to rebury the bones near where they were found, at the insistence of Galvan, who was also the MLD, they were ultimately reinterred at the Ohlone Cemetery, says Brian Wiese, the agency's chief of planning and stewardship.

Galvan's use of the cemetery as a repository for remains clients pay him to remove has long irked Cambra, who says her calls to have the Heritage Commission investigate have fallen on deaf ears. "It's apparently not in the commission's job description," she says. "They'd rather look the other way."

Although an MLD herself, Cambra has long been critical of how the Heritage Commission oversees Native American burial sites. She and others say that throughout California there are MLDs and job-site monitors of questionable Indian ancestry whom the commission has failed to weed out, including those more interested in cooperating with developers than in ensuring that bones are handled properly.

"I hate to say it, but the Heritage Commission appears to have missed its calling," says Lalo Franco, an official with the Tachi Yokut, a small, federally recognized tribe in the Central Valley.

The commission's ostensible mission is to help preserve Native American archeological sites. In administering the MLD program, it often serves as middleman between Indians and developers whenever Native American sites are encountered. But critics say it has little real ability to block the desecration of sites, lacks institutional accountability, and does a poor job of screening monitors and MLDs.

"You're always going to have criticism, but we think we do a lot with the resources we have," says Larry Myers, the agency's executive director, citing its meager $500,000 budget. Myers, who serves at the pleasure of the governor, has been in his post for nearly 20 years, serving three Republicans and a Democrat.

But observers say the agency over which he presides is the quintessential state government stepchild, which successive governors have ignored. It has been at least a decade since it has had a full contingent of nine commissioners, who are also gubernatorial appointees. Currently, there are only four commissioners, who haven't met in nearly two years, for lack of a quorum.

Not surprisingly, observers say, Most Likely Descendants are given little respect by developers who are typically more concerned with making archaeological issues go away as quickly as possible, and even public agencies involved in construction often treat them as an afterthought.

Take Caltrans' Bay Bridge project. In the summer of 2002, while doing preparatory work on Yerba Buena Island for the bridge's new eastern span, Caltrans workers encountered 13 skeletal remains from the site of an ancient Indian village near the island's east shore. Archaeologists had known of a village site there since the bridge was built in the 1930s, but because detailed records weren't kept, the extent of the new find was a surprise.

Rosemary Cambra was the MLD assigned to the site. That summer she visited the island with Leventhal, her tribe's ethnographer, and drafted a detailed list of suggestions related to how the remains and other artifacts should be handled, which she submitted to Caltrans in October 2002.

Citing the "uniqueness of the mound" and the fact that it was slated to be destroyed, Cambra insisted, among other things, that the site be made available to leading scholars at UC Berkeley and elsewhere and proposed an open forum for academics to learn as much as possible about it. But she says it wasn't until 18 months later, in April 2004, that she received any meaningful response from Caltrans, "and by then they'd already decided to go ahead and do what they were going to do without any input from me."

Caltrans historian Elizabeth McKee, who was not involved in the matter at the time, acknowledges that there was "dissatisfaction with the way the communication was conducted." But she insists that, in the end, Caltrans followed many of Cambra's suggestions in dealing with the remains.

As it turned out, Caltrans reburied the 13 skeletal remains in the summer of 2004 on state property near where they were found, but Cambra was unable to attend because on the day of the reburials a suicide jumper caused the Bay Bridge to close.

Yet there's another twist to the discovery. In the same month in 2004 that the reburials took place, workers unearthed a further 18 skeletal remains at the village site. But because the second set of remains was found on federal property (at the island's U.S. Coast Guard station), different rules of repatriation applied, and there was no prescribed role for a Most Likely Descendant.

In fact, the Coast Guard is storing the bones at an undisclosed location and is apparently still unsure about what to do with them. As SF Weekly has learned, Rear Admiral D.G. Gabel wrote to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in June seeking guidance in the matter.

The extent of the archaeological finds on the island has never been publicly disclosed. But they are outlined in a "white paper" prepared by Caltrans earlier this year and shared with academic researchers. McKee declined to provide specifics about the discoveries, citing a provision of the state's public records law that exempts archaeological finds from public disclosure.

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Ron Russell

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