Grave development

Why the disturbance of the bones of prehistoric peoples lying beneath Sacramento streets is extremely troubling to American Indians

Illustration By Kelly Mudge

Next time you’re walking in downtown Sacramento, mentally strip away the pavement under your shoes. Imagine the low-lying city before it was raised 10 feet to avoid the flooded valley floor. Then imagine it stripped of buildings, pre-gold rush. Imagine the grasslands, studded with oak and rich in deer, rabbit and elk, where American Indians have settled, fishing for salmon, snaring ducks, in villages of 20 to 200 people.

The Nisenan, a tribe that now comes under the umbrella of “Maidu,” lived year-round in earth-covered domes, and when their elders died, they buried them, sometimes in baskets after cremation.

The living tribes actively protected the bones of the dead, but that’s an impossible task these days. In many cases today, graves that could be more than 1,000 years old are unmarked, which has become a problem in such an urban area.

This April, in downtown Sacramento, construction workers in orange vests stood stoic while traffic moving east on H Street forked around the island of orange cones in the middle lane. Eleven feet underground, in an open trench, an archaeologist was uncovering clues about those early inhabitants of the Sacramento Valley.

Kim Tremaine, a Dixon archaeologist in a dusty T-shirt and jeans, had climbed down, hidden from midday drivers, to work in a space not much wider than her shoulders. The smooth dirt walls of the trench were shored up by metal plates that boomed and reverberated as trucks passed overhead. A duct bank, a square wedge of concrete encasing water pipes, ran through the trench at waist height. Underneath it, about nine feet underground, broken bone protruded from the dirt wall. Tremaine knew that much of downtown sat atop important archaeological sites. Was this one of them?

Sacramento Regional Transit District, which was relocating utility lines in preparation for light-rail tracks, had called Tremaine after pulling away a load of soil and shearing off the back of a human skull. Nearby, a faint outline of bone lightened the soil wall, suggesting a full burial. Tremaine wondered if she was standing in a cemetery, a sacred site.

Lying on her back against the cool ground, Tremaine looked up into the smooth, rounded bowl of bone. She noted the small, intricate whirls of the inner ear. If she could look at the teeth, the archaeologist thought, she could answer the first important question: Was this an American Indian burial? She knew a Chinese chapel had once existed nearby, but the downtown area also was known for supporting a number of important Indian villages. Looking south of H Street, Tremaine had seen the high spots that might have provided dry settlement sites when the river overflowed its banks.

Carefully scraping away the soil, Tremaine discovered a headband of beads. Hundreds of small chalky white olivella beads a little bigger than match heads had been carved from seashells and shingled together—a sign of importance. Some Indians believed that accompanying valuables told the creator what the dead had accomplished in their lives. If so, this individual, a woman of undetermined age, would be seen as a great success.

The beads gave Tremaine the first hint as to the age and origin of the site. Judging from their style, she said, the burial was likely 500 to 1,000 years old and definitely American Indian. But she didn’t know how the woman died.

For days at a time throughout April and May, Tremaine’s work was stopped by bad weather and agency negotiations. Both the city and Regional Transit had authority over the land, but they didn’t know which one should take responsibility for the burial site, Tremaine said. Pumps rumbled and sucked rainwater away.

Construction workers watched over the site, but their heavy equipment was removed. Developers sometimes resent the work stoppage that comes with an important find, but Regional Transit executive manager Mike Wiley said that in this case, workers just moved to other parts of the project. Tremaine’s contract was another expense, however.

As an archaeologist, Tremaine’s job was to evaluate the scientific “significance” of the site, but living Indian tribes had other concerns.

Randy Yonemura, with his long black braid falling over the back of his orange vest, kept an eye on Tremaine’s progress throughout the spring. To him, the bones were more than a prism by which scientists might glimpse details of prehistoric cultures. As a contracted monitor, Yonemura considered the buried individual one of his ancestors, a woman who had passed over to life in another world but whose remains deserved respect and protection in this one. As monitors, Yonemura and his family and friends had been overseeing disturbed burial sites in Northern California for generations. Each time, he was infuriated by developers’ disrespect for the sacred, but if his ancestors’ remains must be damaged and dug up, then at least construction would be halted, and the bones carefully removed and repatriated in a safer, more secure location.

Yonemura took his responsibilities to his ancestors seriously but rejected the formality of his title. “I’m just a person trying to protect what belongs to the people,” he said.

Throughout California valleys and foothills, Yonemura and his family have tried to protect a great variety of objects left in the ground by their ancestors. They’ve covered burials with rocks and seen the bodies removed anyway. They’ve seen grave goods like beads and jewelry advertised for sale on Web sites. They’ve tangled over the years with law-enforcement officers who claimed they had no right to monitor burial sites. Yonemura said he even attended an auction in the foothills once where a collection of American Indian hawk- and eagle-bone necklaces dug from private land were sold as part of the landowner’s possessions.

Since the early 20th century, Indians also have tried to protect burial sites from highways built right through them, and university professors who collect bones and grave goods for study, as well as looters who sell artifacts to collectors. What’s buried with a person, they insist, still belongs to that person.

Even now, after federal court cases recently made examples of those who looted sites in Utah and California, a pair of defendants in El Dorado County are heading for a late summer trial over looted artifacts, which the local newspaper identified as arrowheads and “byproducts of Native American manufacturing tools.” Gloria Mass, the special prosecutor said that two other defendants already have pleaded guilty and been sentenced. One is doing a year of jail time.

Yonemura believes this long-held disrespect for Indian heritage has passed on to contemporary developers, and even to those archaeologists paid to preserve burials in the way of coming construction. Yonemura found himself up against all of them again on H Street.

Mike Wiley of Regional Transit explained that construction crews dug deep underground to move utility lines in preparation for new light-rail tracks.

Photo By Larry Dalton

While Regional Transit and other agencies working along H Street waited out the wet spring, Tremaine excavated the burial from the top down, removing soils from high in the trench wall first, looking for color variations or chips of bone that might offer more clues. When she got down to the burial, she found that the body was buried in what was called a “tightly flexed” position. The female was laid on her side, her body facing north, her knees drawn up as if she’d been kneeling and the delicate bones of her feet facing into the trench. Leaving the burial in place throughout the spring, Tremaine kept uncovering other artifacts on the north and south sides of the trench: the blackened soil of human cremations, bird bones from animals that might have been buried to accompany the deceased, arrow points and bone whistles.

In the trench, Yonemura, who wanted none of these artifacts exposed to daylight, laid stalks of wilting wormwood among the flashlights and trays of recovered beads. Referring to it as “medicine,” Yonemura “cleansed” his hands and Tremaine’s by rubbing the wormwood over them at the end of the day. He also burned stalks of “medicine,” cleansing the site with smoke. Tremaine understood that this was meant, among other things, to protect them from spiritual retribution for disturbing the burial site.

Yonemura hesitated when asked if the spirits of the deceased counseled him, but then he nodded. Yes, he could hear them, and they wanted to return to the ground.

As the excavation progressed, Yonemura grew quiet and somber. Stocky in build, he began to walk uneasily, favoring his left side where he’d once cracked his ribs. After years of sticking his nose into construction projects that cost millions of dollars and involved hundreds of people, he was growing tired of fighting. Bones had been found recently at the site of the new City Hall, and Indians had had to push to get the project stalled long enough for excavation. He’d heard that at other sites, the bones were hidden or removed secretly without consultation.

With laws in place to protect “cultural resources” like burial sites, and with “cultural resource management” (CRM) companies paid to look for remains before a construction project began, Yonemura wondered why no one discovered, until a skull was broken, that a number of burials lay in the path of the new light-rail extension.

Yonemura claimed that his anger was sometimes so intense that it weakened his health. But he’s working on it, he said, for his own good.

When he rails at developers for blundering into sacred sites, Yonemura spreads his criticism wide: The CRMs don’t do a good enough job at determining where Indians settled, and the developers don’t respect Indian burials enough to avoid them, and government agencies only care about protecting historic buildings and not about protecting the artifacts of prehistoric peoples. Sometimes Yonemura feels like he’s the one thing standing between a burial site and a backhoe.

The laws do favor the protection of Indian resources and do obligate developers to include Indians in their planning process—whether those laws are closely followed or not.

Legally, any human remains discovered by anyone, including construction crews, must be reported to the coroner. The coroner, or an archaeologist, confirms the remains are human and determines whether they’re Indian. Beverly Eddy, a part-time professor at California State University, Sacramento, and a consultant for the Sacramento coroner’s office, explained that she looks at a suite of characteristics to determine heritage. American Indians generally had “shovel-shaped” incisors, said Eddy, because they lived on a coarser, more fibrous diet. They also generally didn’t have overbites, but perfectly matched upper and lower teeth. There was some controversy regarding shapes and sizes, but she also looks for rounder rather than elongated head shapes.

Eddy said that she’s called to analyze remains maybe 15 to 20 times a year. Some of them are found in people’s backyards. Others are brought anonymously to places like the California State Indian Museum.

If remains are determined to be American Indian, the California Native American Heritage Commission helps identify the most likely descendent from a list of statewide tribes and interested individuals. The most likely descendent decides when and where to rebury the remains.

Because of the trafficking in burial objects and bones, some tribes have begun capping burial sites with concrete, said Jeff Murray, cultural resource manager for the Shingle Springs Rancheria.

Murray’s rancheria recently was identified as the most likely descendents for the remains found under H Street. The Sacramento Valley was home to Maidu, Wiwok and Yokuts over the years, and his El Dorado County reservation includes Indians from each of those tribal groups. Approximately 120 of them live on his reservation now. Though Yonemura is not part of the rancheria, he was chosen as the monitor to represent Shingle Springs.

The H Street construction site is really only a small portion of a large project connecting the Amtrak station downtown with the light-rail station on K Street. But even that development is part of a much larger project. Ultimately, Regional Transit is running light-rail tracks from the Amtrak station to the city of Folsom.

An environmental review was done for the entire project but gives very little attention to the H Street site, which had yet to be discovered. A short paragraph noted that previous surveys had identified a “moderate to high probability for archaeological resources” at three downtown locations, defined broadly as “beneath existing buildings in downtown Sacramento, seven feet beneath downtown Sacramento streets … and beneath the Union Pacific Railyards.”

Mitigation was handled in a couple of sentences explaining that construction activities were unlikely to disturb underground resources. If they did, work would stop until an archaeologist could “assess their significance.” If human remains were found, “no further disturbance” would occur until the coroner arrived.

The report did not mention avoiding potential burial sites. As Wiley said, the entire downtown area is a potential site. Knowing that there might be burials anywhere underground made it impossible to choose a construction route that would avoid them. Also, he said that finding underground resources is very rare, even in a hot spot like downtown Sacramento.

Yonemura claims he knew all along that a village existed right there, “and it seems like I’m the only one who knows!” The information was handed down to him by his elders, and a look at old topographical maps, said Yonemura, showed him that Sutter Lake was just northwest of the archaeological site, making the area a prime settlement spot. The lake since has been filled and turned into a parking lot.

Peter Schultz, the state’s senior archaeologist, agreed that known sites downtown are supposed to be avoided if possible. Some were discovered as far back as the 1850s, he said, when they showed up in the local newspapers. But developers and agencies proceed right along with their plans, still surprised when they find something, Schultz added.

Kim Tremaine, a principal with Tremaine & Associates, was the archaeologist who uncovered seven burials under a small section of H Street.

Photo By Don Button

Yonemura grew increasingly disappointed when the H Street site revealed the floor of a “round house” or “dance house.” Usually a site of ceremonial gatherings, it would have been an important space for any village. Near its borders, a cremation sat in the ground in the shape of a basket, though there was no evidence left of the vessel that might have held it.

Yonemura might not have gotten involved with the H Street site if it weren’t for his interest in the building of the new City Hall on I Street, where Murray said he intercepted trucks loaded with soil and bones about to be hauled away.

In spring of 2004, said Yonemura, he was visiting that contentious project when he noticed that utility companies were digging test holes on H Street, probably looking for underground utilities already in place. He approached the contractor and asked to see the environmental-review documents. The contractor, who didn’t know he was supposed to have environmental documents, called his boss, stopped work and packed up for the day. A few weeks later, said Yonemura, representatives from the city of Sacramento called and consulted with him on how to better test for remains underground. Besides Tremaine, the city’s Department of Utilities staff members are the only people Yonemura praises for their sensitivity.

Yonemura admits that once the project got under way, Regional Transit responded appropriately, hiring Tremaine and investing in American Indian monitors like himself. But he wasn’t satisfied. If developers followed the spirit of the law, said Yonemura, Indians would be consulted during the design phase of such projects, not as construction work was beginning.

Yonemura trusts Tremaine to be sensitive with the artifacts she finds, but he also believes that archaeologists traditionally have treated their finds as possessions for collection and further study—another detail that infuriates him. Yonemura doesn’t want the H Street bones DNA tested but will likely let Tremaine radiocarbon test them for age.

As Yonemura proves, Indians don’t always see much difference between science and grave robbing. Would anyone allow scientists to go digging in the City Cemetery, for example? And it’s not always ancient tribal bones that are collected. Murray’s great uncle once told him that he visited his own father’s grave and found that the bones had been dug up and removed. The practice has led some contemporary Indians, including Murray’s great uncle, to opt for cremation.

It’s also led Yonemura to dedicate years to watching over construction projects. “That’s how I was raised,” he explained, and not just by his parents, but also by his extended family.

Recently, a number of Yonemura’s elders met together at his mother’s home in South Sacramento. In the living room, around plates of cookies and cut vegetables, family friends and advisers told and retold stories of stolen artifacts.

Yonemura’s mother, Pat, a polite woman who praised her son for his work downtown, said that her own elders tried to get her involved as an activist when she was young but that she always had her excuses. She was raising children, she said, or she was working. Her sons, however, got the message. Randy Yonemura’s brother used to monitor construction sites, as well, he said, but “it broke his heart.”

Cassandra Hensher, an archaeologist of the Karuk tribe, explained that an American Indian’s responsibility to someone doesn’t end with his or her death. “We’re supposed to be taking care of our elders in the ground,” said Hensher. “Over and over again, we fail in that.”

Linda Blue of the Wilton Rancheria had stories of looting that so infuriated the men of her tribe that they would stay up all night waiting for the robbers to return, their guns at the ready. These events, though they occurred 35 years earlier, still stung.

“Do you know what it’s like for Miwok women to see their men cry?” she asked.

Blue and her brothers, who also monitored burial sites, have seen sites watched over by law-enforcement officers destroyed, and both Blue and Pat have seen grave goods for sale: necklaces, feathers and burial beads. Pat said she once saw burial beads for sale at the Salvation Army. “We purified them,” she said, “and buried them in the cemetery.”

Sadly, burial ceremonies, which are still sacred acts, are harder to perform in the modern day, the elders said. For instance, Pat explained that Indians don’t say the name of someone who’s died for a full year, or the deceased will remain connected to the Earth, unable to pass over to the other side. Traditionally, the mother of the deceased went to a “big cry” for a full week. The family members used to dance, to smudge their faces, to fast for days. With jobs and urban lives, these sacred acts are dying out.

In 2004, the California Legislature boosted American Indian authority to protect sacred lands with Senate Bill 18, which obligates local governments to consult with tribal governments “at the earliest possible point in the local government land use planning process.”

In other words, local governments must do what Yonemura wants state and federally funded developers to do: consult early with American Indians. Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, wondered why the state didn’t sign an executive order to hold its agencies to the same standards as cities and counties. Currently, state and federal laws don’t really define the term “consult,” leaving CRMs to design their own policies.

Yonemura claimed that Far Western Anthropological Research Group of Davis did the early review of the H Street site and that they are slow to consult and quick to ignore his recommendations. Far Western principals Amy Gilreath and Jeff Rosenthal wouldn’t discuss Yonemura or his criticisms. They were, however, willing to explain how CRMs function.

On government-funded projects, said Gilreath, a CRM usually provides an environmental-impact report defining a project’s potential effects on parking, traffic, businesses and historic buildings—everything including archaeological resources.

The Central California Information Center maintains copies of past archaeology reports, and the CRM requests any information it might have on a site, but the center has a backlog and can be slow to respond.

Randy Yonemura, identifiable by his braid, watches over construction projects as an American Indian monitor advocating for the protection of burial sites.

Photo By Don Button

What happens after the records search, according to Gilreath and Rosenthal, depends. Sometimes archaeologists test soil samples or walk the site for visible artifacts. Sometimes that’s unnecessary. If artifacts are found during testing, they’re analyzed for scientific interest. If the site cannot be avoided, archaeologists recover the materials, and the project moves forward.

Rosenthal and Gilreath said that, yes, they do consult with American Indians. As soon as a site is identified, the Native American Heritage Commission provides the CRM with a list of interested parties. Far Western sends out a letter explaining what it knows about the site and asking for input, which is “standard practice” for consultation.

Sometimes, Gilreath and Rosenthal admitted, their clients don’t do what Indians want, but it’s naive to assume that there’s consensus among them: “Some want to know what we can learn from the archaeological record, and some say we don’t need you to tell us what our culture’s about. … Sometimes, we’re in the middle,” said Rosenthal.

Myers, whose organization helps CRMs identify local American Indian experts, agrees that consensus is almost impossible. That’s why the Native American Heritage Commission recommends dealing with tribal governments rather than lots of individuals.

Myers also believes the process would work more effectively with greater communication and stronger laws. For instance, legally, six burials equals a cemetery. Any time a developer discovers an Indian cemetery, Myers said, that should trigger new planning discussions. Money’s an issue, he understands. Not all sites can be avoided, but changes to the project should at least be discussed. Sometimes, he said, it’s cheaper to redesign a project than to excavate a cemetery.

As the rain slowly tapered off, Tremaine and her team continued to unearth new burials. All together, seven individuals, mostly cremated, were buried within the walls of the trench. One skeleton had been bisected by the concrete duct bank, and much of that burial was missing.

In mid-June, the last of the human remains were quietly raised out of the trench with the rich surrounding soil. Invisible to people on the street, they were moved privately to Tremaine’s offices, where they’ll be protected and studied until repatriation. Currently, Yonemura is negotiating with Regional Transit’s real-estate managers for an appropriate burial place on their lands.

Wiley doesn’t know how much time the excavation added to Regional Transit’s project, but he did estimate Tremaine’s contract at $70,000; it likely will keep rising. The whole project is estimated to cost $237 million.

Yonemura doesn’t know how much the monitors’ contracts will cost. He said he doesn’t like to charge for his own work—payment means he has to follow the developers’ rules—but he makes sure that his co-monitors get paid.

While Tremaine prepares to review the artifacts in her office, she still faces a number of questions. How and when did the woman with the headband die? Was it disease? Murder? When was she buried?

The round-house floor was a mystery in itself. It appeared to exist right below some modern-looking features. Tremaine found glass bottles and animal bone that had been cut with a knife. Could the round house have existed “post contact” with white settlers? She’s still not sure.

Tremaine remembered discovering old reports of an American Indian man called “Captain Tom,” who seemed to exist between two worlds. He lived in Auburn but “commuted” to the Sacramento Valley by train as late as the 1870s, likely to fish. In a news photo, Tremaine explained by e-mail, “Captain Tom is shown wearing Euroamerican clothing (pants, boots, vest). A rabbit-skin blanket is draped over his shoulders, and he is wearing a flicker-feather headband. His wife is shown in a Euroamerican dress with about 8 clam-disk bead necklaces and a beaded headband.”

By the 1870s, there was no longer a large, healthy Valley culture. The Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8 explains that an epidemic wiped out entire villages of Sacramento Valley Maidu in 1833, driving the remaining survivors into the foothills.

The handbook’s description of the Valley Maidu’s way of life mentioned men in little or no clothing wearing their long hair held back in fur bands, and women dressed in aprons of wire grass, their ears and noses pierced, and their bodies adorned with simple tattoos made with pine needles and the juice of a blue flower. In the cold, the men dressed in robes made of bird feathers, and families lived in dome-shaped homes covered with earth, tule mats or grasses.

Their round houses were semi-subterranean, constructed with heavy beams and covered in tule and earth, with a smoke hole in the top. Round-house dances celebrated the beginning of spring and the first fruits or were performed by doctors, some of whom cured illness and some of whom communed with the dead. Music was made with flutes, whistles and the human voice.

Women made baskets out of grasses and rushes, says the handbook. They ground seeds and dug for wild onion and sweet potato. The men dressed in deer skins and antlers as decoys while hunting, and they tracked black bears in the winter. They used nets and harpoons for fishing, or they poisoned fish with soaproot to drive them into the shallows, where they were caught by hand.

Its unknown how many American Indians inhabited the Valley, but according to the California State Indian Museum’s Web site, “as many as 300,000 to 1,000,000 Native Americans lived in California before the arrival of the first Europeans.”

There are now no federally recognized American Indian tribes left in Sacramento County.

Although various artifacts were embedded in the trench’s many layers of soil, Tremaine could excavate only the area that would be disturbed by construction work, meaning some of her questions are likely to go unanswered.

“If they’re not going to disturb any more of it, we’re just going to let them lay their pipe and go on with their work,” she said.

Tremaine has heard Yonemura’s complaints about CRMs and archaeologists, and she agrees there must be a better way to handle unexpected archaeological sites. Projects often change after environmental-review documents are complete, she said. “The full range and depth of impacts are not always disclosed, because they’re not known at that stage. … To go from six to eight feet makes all the difference in the world.”

Monitoring in that case, she believes, is key. For instance, Tremaine believes that without Yonemura on contract, the H Street site might not have been found at all. The construction team was just trying to protect and improve underground pipes and utilities. She’s not sure it would have recognized the skull fragments as human. In fact, when Yonemura recommended they search the trench floor for any final fragments, the pair were surprised to find, at the very end of their research, that further damage had occurred below and that no one had mentioned an even deeper hole that had been quietly refilled.

There, deep under ground level, the soil was still rich with bones and new mysteries. For now, they will be left where they lie.