Northern California Native Americans Sue Caltrans Over Destroying Sacred Sites in Mendocino County: Suit

Two Northern California Indian Tribes filed suit in federal court, alleging that Caltrans has destroyed  important archaeological areas and failed to properly protect historical sites during construction of a stretch of road in Mendocino County.

The suit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian Tribes alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. As examples, the suit alleges that Caltrans is bulldozing over important wetlands, unearthing historical obsidian pieces without properly storing them, and blocking historic salmon passages. 

The Willits Bypass Project is a 6-mile long rerouting of U.S. Highway 101 through Little Lake Valley, near the city of Willits, in Mendocino County that is expected to be finished in November 2016 and cost $300 million.

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Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbee Jr. said he is surprised by the allegation because his agency has been working in good faith with another Native American tribe, the Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians, who live much closer to the project.

That tribe has been working with Caltrans for the last 14 years, he said. In fact, Frisbee noted the tribes in question live about 15 and 30 miles away from the site. Caltrans has been trying to now work with all three tribes for the last couple of years trying to update their agreement.

As for what's been dug up so far, Frisbee said it's mostly been stone chips, all of which have been catalogued and will be distributed to a local museum and tribes. He stressed there are no burials in the project area, adding that the Pomo tribe cremated their dead, so there are no human remains to disrupt.

And Frisbee added that Caltrans is actually paying tribal members to serve as liaisons to the project and monitor the agency's work as it relates to cultural finds.

Despite Caltrans' explanation, the plaintiff’s attorneys are asking that the project be stopped until Caltrans can sit down with the tribes to give them a role in making sure their "history is protected," attorney Phil Gregory said ahead of a news conference in Burlingame.

The saga over the Native Americans and the bypass has been going on for years, and has been documented by media outlets such as Indian Country Today since at least 2012. The suit notes that even though the project has been in the works for two years, Caltrans has yet to develop a process for "identifying historic properties, cultural resources and sacred sites." The tribes learned about the project in 2013, the lawyers said, and tried to negotiate with Caltrans without going to court, but to no avail.

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The tribes felt that something had to be done.

“Imagine Caltrans treating a church with such disrespect,” Gregory said. “This case challenges Caltrans’ ongoing failure to properly protect the tribes’ ancestral sites in constructing the bypass. Caltrans’ ground-disturbing activities are devastating ancestral Native American sacred and cultural sites.”

James Russ, president of the Round Valley Tribal Council, added that this tribe was not consulted. “Our main objection is not the bypass project in itself, but the reckless way that Caltrans conducts business with tribes and tribal communities. Our tribe does not take lightly the disrespect to our sacred sites and our tribal people.”

The complaint alleges that sacred sites are identified only after construction and ground-disturbing activities are completed. And the tribes are asking a federal court to make that construction stop and figure out a way to address ongoing damage to sacred and cultural sites. The tribes are also seeking an unspecified amount of money in damages.

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