Military halted dig on island after questions from Pechanga Band




San Nicolas Island in California. Photo from U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy halted an archaeological project in California after the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians raised concerns, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Graduate student Tom Holm was an eager participant in the project but changed his perspective when he met with tribal elders. He invited some to San Nicolas Island and the tribe soon asked the military whether the work complied with federal historic preservation and cultural resource laws.

"We're only trying to do what's right by our ancestors," Chairman Mark Macarro told the paper. "We must ensure that all applicable federal laws are followed."

The tribe's queries eventually led the Navy to determine that the tribe shares a "group identity" with the people who lived on the island. A notice published in the Federal Register last week said 469 ancestors and 436 funerary objects excavated there would be returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The determination does not apply to work on a cave that was shut down, the Times reported. But it could help the tribe with future NAGPRA issues.

The last person who lived on the island was an Indian woman who died in 1853 after being taken to the mainland and was given the name Juana Maria. She may have lived in the cave where the work was being conducted.

The woman, who is also referred to as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, is believed to have been a part of the Nicoleño Tribe. Some of the words she was heard using have been linked to Luiseño, the language spoken by the Pechanga Band, but not everyone agrees with that connection.

"Granting cultural affiliation with Pechanga would be a big mistake," John Johnson, a curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, told the Times. "I don't believe it would survive a legal challenge."

Johnson believes the people who lived on San Nicolas Island and the Channel Island are more closely connected to the Tongva Tribe. The Chumash Tribe also lived on the islands.

Get the Story:
With island dig halted, Lone Woman still a stinging mystery (The Los Angeles Times 3/5)

Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Inventory Completion: U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC (February 26, 2015)

Related Stories:
Pechanga Band to reclaim ancestors and artifacts from military (3/2)