Orange County Freeway Renovation Pauses Due to Discovery of Native American Burial Site

On September 25, construction crews in the process of participating in a highway improvement project unearthed bones belonging to Native Americans, bringing a halt to the construction project.

"Work remains stopped in the area while all established procedures are followed," Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) spokesman Eric Carpenter told the Orange County Register.

The bones were found next to the Interstate 405 freeway, near an overpass that is not being identified per the request of the OCTA to make sure the remains stay protected. The overpass was in the process of being widened, one of eighteen scheduled for improvement during the $1.9 billion project.

"An archaeologist determined that artifacts around the bones signify Native American remains," said Artin Baron, supervising deputy coroner, of the Orange County Coroner's office.

"It was not a coroner's case, so we immediately turned it over to the California Native American Heritage Commission," he said. Such remains are protected by federal and state laws.

It's not uncommon to find Native American burial grounds in California; Baron estimates that such unearthings occur a couple of times a year.

"OCTA is working with Caltrans, which oversees and ensures that established state procedures are followed," Carpenter said.

In such situations, according to the Native American Heritage Commission, the "most likely descendants" are contacted and invited to inspect the remains, artifacts, and site. Then it's up to the next of kin as to how the remains are buried with "due dignity"—on the site or on sacred land.

"Otherwise, it would be like going into a cemetery and digging up someone's grave site," Walter Ahhaitty, operations director for the Fountain Valley-based Southern California Indian Center, said. "It should not be taken lightly. We might not know today where our indigenous people are interred, but they knew and they cared."

A highway overpass in California. Construction on an unnamed overpass in California has been halted due to the discovery of Native American remains. Supannee_Hickman/Getty

Apparently it may take two months or more to safely remove the remains from the site so construction may continue—something the OCTA is prepared for, shifting construction operations toward repairing another overpass until the remains have been removed.

"Any time you start disturbing dirt in California, you're likely to find artifacts," Alther said. "It's the price of doing business," Attorney Dorothy Alther, executive director of the California Indian Legal Services, told The Orange County Register.

This isn't the first time the OCTA had to deal with such issues throwing wrenches into their construction plans. In 2007, construction on a residential community in Huntington Beach was halted when bone fragments believed to be over 8,500 years old were found on the construction site.

Orange County Freeway Renovation Pauses Due to Discovery of Native American Burial Site | News