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Sacred Site Digs Rile Native Americans in No. Cal.

chicoSol, News Feature, Jennifer MacDonald Posted: Jun 13, 2008

OROVILLE, Calif. The hike to the archeological dig site is long, dusty and steep. Scaling down the embankment on this winter afternoon, a dozen scientists are hard at work hundreds of feet below, digging at what was once a thriving Native American village. The site is usually under the water of Lake Oroville, but the water level drops at this time of year, helping to uncover artifacts from a civilization lost long ago.

Digs like this one are part of the federal re-licensing process for the Oroville Dam, a key part of the state's water system.

The Department of Water Resources's 1957 license to operate the Oroville Dam expired last year. Now, the dam is operating on a temporary annual license. DWR wants to re-license the dam for another 50 years. But by law, the agency must assess the impact on sites within a quarter-mile radius of the project area.

The Oroville Dam is the single most important component of the California State Water Project that provides water to 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. So the state has an interest in meeting the mandates of the law.

But the digs have caused a rift between the Konkow Maidu, the Native Americans who live in the Oroville area, and the DWR.

Many Maidu say they feel violated by the digging and collection of their ancestors' bones and belongings. They are resentful the artifacts and even human remains end up in the possession of government agencies and universities. And they say they want the sites left alone for spiritual reasons.

But under state and federal law, the DWR must assess the "cultural impact" of the dam. That means locating and taking inventory of thousands of Native American village sites as well as ceremonial and burial grounds.

The artifacts tell a story about the indigenous societies that thrived for thousands of years without pollution, paved streets or poverty, societies that existed without drug abuse, jails or guns.

For some Maidu and the scientists, discovering the world of the hunter-gatherer tribes is really a search for identity.

Lawana Watson, 44, belongs to the Enterprise Rancheria, and grew up in Oroville, but didn't connect with her culture until about 15 years ago. Since learning how her ancestors lived, Watson feels her life has a purpose.

"Identity is most important," Watson said. "It makes me think about what I can do to better my kids' and grandkids' lives, how to use our environment to teach our kids our culture."

But for many Maidu alive today, the search for answers has gone too far.

Art Angle is a tall, stout 67-year-old Konkow Maidu man who grew up in Enerprise, one of the towns flooded by Lake Oroville with the construction of the dam in the 1960s. Angle's grey and black hair is just long enough to slick back. He's dressed in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans and a pack of Pall Malls is visible through his shirt pocket.

"They've dug us up; they've examined us; they've turned us inside out," Angle said. "They've run us through carbon dating, DNA whatever they can do to figure out what we looked like; what we ate; and how we survived all these years without European influence."

Angle, who grew up in Enterprise, one of the towns that was destroyed and flooded by Oroville dam in the 1960s, has spent much of his life fighting for the cultural and political rights of Native Americans.

Angle led the fight to locate and bury the brain of "Ishi," the name given the man who was believed to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe after he emerged near Oroville in the early 1900s. The story of the recovery of Ishi's brain from the Smithsonian documented by many writers may be one of the most well-known and wrenching stories of repatriation.

Today, Angle is among the many Maidu who view the excavation of their ancestors' bones and belongings as a new form of discrimination against a people that has already suffered too much.

The fight to stop the digging has persisted since the archeological digs began in 2004 with the beginning of the federal re-licensing process for the Oroville Dam. More than 1,000 sites have been located within the project area, and another 600 sites are expected to be surveyed, said Janis Offermann, cultural resources manager for DWR.

Under the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), if crews uncover human remains, the digging must stop and the tribes must be notified.

The federal law also requires that all human remains and items associated with burial or sacred ceremonies be returned to tribes. No human remains have been returned to tribes in Oroville, although 138 bodies were dug up in the early 1960s.

Artifacts like arrowheads and stone tools found within the state-owned project area become the property of the state, Offermann said. The artifacts are shipped to California State University, Sacramento, for research.

This infuriates Maidu leaders like Gary Archuleta, chairman of Mooretown Rancheria that operates Gold Country Casino in Oroville. Artifacts should be returned to the tribes, Archuleta said, "not just carted off in a box to end up sitting somewhere."

DWR can't give control to Maidu because the sites are on state property, Offermann says. And DWR is legally bound to figure out which sites need protection. Sites deemed culturally or historically significant are placed on national or state registers of Historic Places.

DWR officials say their relationship with Maidu tribes has grown closer. Monthly meetings of the Maidu Advisory Council, a group that consists of members of different tribes in Oroville and DWR officials, allow them to voice concerns.

Still, some Maidu don't feel like their voices are heard.

"We voiced our opinion on a lot of those issues and one of those issues was don't go digging," Angle said. "Did it work? No. They're still digging."

Related Articles:

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