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California, like Florida, frustrated with development on Indigenous sites

The nearly $70 million highway expansion has been a concern of tribes for many years. (Native America Calling)

Tribes located in central California have something in common with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes in South Florida – frustration with development that threatens or has already been built on culturally significant sites. Tribes also describe what they say is a betrayal of the consultation process with government agencies and developers involved in such projects.

A case in California involves construction of a Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) nearly $70 million highway expansion project where workers have discovered multiple sets of human remains. The area of U.S. Highway 395 that winds along the east Sierra Nevada range is near to the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, among other Indigenous communities.

Tribal representatives say they warned Caltrans for more than 25 years that the area is rich in Indigenous history and contains human remains and artifacts.

“A handful of tribes entered into consultation with Caltrans, but the meetings went nowhere,” Kathy Bancroft, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and its tribal historic preservation officer, said July 11 on the Native America Calling radio program. “We had always warned them about how sensitive the area is. They speeded up construction when we asked them to stop. Finally they said ‘we’re going to plow through these burials’ and we said ‘no you’re not,’ and we’ve asked the public for support.”

The project was temporarily halted this summer, with the hope of more consultation between Caltrans officials and tribal representatives. Bancroft said tribes have compromised and asked for a 2.5-mile stretch of the 12.6-mile project to be reconfigured.

“People have lived in this valley since the beginning of time and the land is very sacred to all of us,” Bancroft said. “The area of concern is a very sacred area. They do not care about our families remains.”

Bancroft said while tribes don’t like to make public the areas of its ancestors, it participated in a Los Angeles Times story to try and place public pressure on Caltrans. On May 22, the Times published the story “Indigenous tribes warned of a buried kingdom in Owens Valley. Now, Caltrans crews are unearthing bones.”

Bancroft added that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) doesn’t apply in their case because of right-of-way jurisdictions.

Downtown Miami

In Florida, a compromise between the developer of a high-profile luxury apartment project and the city’s historic preservation board appears to have made progress after months of wrangling.

The site, commonly known as 444 Brickell, sits on a 4-acre parcel in downtown Miami on the southern bank of the Miami River. The site is adjacent to the Miami Circle National Historic Landmark.

Similarly to California, tribal officials and archaeologists knew of the historically significant site for many years. The list of discoveries that have been unearthed since the current project began include artifacts that are 7,000-years-old, including the remains of Seminole and Miccosukee ancestors.

The Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) has worked with state officials since the launch of the project, describing it as “a long and drawn out process.” Under Florida state law, tribes must be notified and consulted when ancestral human remains are found, in order to supervise their reburial at an undisclosed location.

THPO director Tina Osceola recently said the goal of her office is to make sure ancestors at the location are treated as the law requires.

“Sometimes it gets very frustrating when you see an important site like that excavated,” she recently told the Tribune, adding that state officials had been cooperative so far.

The Miami site has also seen its share of protests by those who want excavation to halt completely. Some of the more active protesters include the Seminole Tribe’s Martha Tommie, the Miccosukee Tribe’s Betty Osceola, and Robert Rosa (Taino), president of the American Indian Movement Florida chapter and chairman of the Florida Indigenous Alliance.

The potential compromise may include preservation of part of the site – something the developer – Related Group – was willing to consider at a recent city meeting. There have been calls for preservation to be done in the fashion of the 2,000-year-old Miami Circle, discovered in 1998. The land where it sits was purchased to prevent a high-rise development from rising on top of the ancient Indigenous site.

If the city approves a historical designation for 444 Brickell, Related Group could be required to preserve all or a portion of it, and exhibit the artifacts in a public space while highlighting its archaeological and historical significance. Much of the site has been excavated, however.

“It’s already been partially developed,” Rosa said on the July 11 Native America Calling radio program. “They’ve already pillaged out of [one] site. It’s been going on for two years, but they had it under wraps. We came in late in the game – after digging started during Covid. The [developer] takes every loophole and weaves right through it.”

Rosa said state archeologists working with Related Group won’t disclose where the remains and artifacts are that have already been unearthed.

“The Miccosukee want it reinterred at the site and the Seminole have it reinterred somewhere else. We’re still fighting,” he said.

Rosa is also involved in a similar situation in Jupiter, 90 miles north of Miami.

On July 25, the Jupiter Town Council voted 3-2 to allow a developer to partially dig on a property known as Suni Sands for a proposed mixed-use hotel project. The Jupiter Inlet Foundation and town documents state that Suni Sands is a prehistoric Indian village site.

Rosa said he’s considering legal action in response to the vote.

Excavation has been ongoing at Miami’s 444 Brickell site, at right. The Miami Circle National Historic Landmark can be seen at left. (

‘There’s a better way’

Back in California, Danielle Gutierrez of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe and its tribal historic preservation officer, said areas of the Caltrans project could have been saved from the start.

“In Indian Country, tribal consultation doesn’t work. It’s primarily a check box to say ‘we’ve met with tribes,’ she said on the July 11 Native America Calling radio program. “We’ve discussed this project with them, but they don’t hear us. We need to be included in the project designs beforehand.”

Gutierrez noted that it’s not only ancestral remains and artifacts that are at stake, but the environment, too, such as endangered desert tortoises, Mohave red squirrels, and Joshua trees and the butterflies that pollinate them.

“This area is an ecosystem that needs to be handled delicately,” she said. “There are alternative options. We wanted another area to be chosen that we suggested 20 years ago. Every option we gave them, they had an excuse.”

The Los Angeles Times article said Caltrans officials said construction of the highway is roughly 40% complete, and is expected to conclude sometime in 2024, barring unforeseen problems. In April, according to the Los Angeles Times, Caltrans offered a proposal to curve a disputed section of highway around a burial site, but it wouldn’t move the highway far enough away to satisfy tribal leaders who are calling for a clearance of at least half a mile to a mile.

The tribes insist they’re not against the highway project as a whole. The problem, they say, is that it was approved without proper consultation.

“[Tribes] need to be involved right at the very beginning, even if you need to knock down doors,” Gutierrez said. “Because once they start making those designs without your input, they’re going to railroad right through. There’s a better way as human beings to treat human beings.”

Tribal members who live in communities near the Caltrans project protest its construction. (California Indian Legal Services/Facebook)
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at