The cemetery for Mission San Luis Obispo extended from the northern side of the church across what is now Chorro Street. In the 1890s, Chorro Street was opened up, and a 4-inch water main was laid between Monterey and Palm streets. Hundreds of long-forgotten Native American graves were disturbed. There is no clear evidence relating to the proper reburial of many of these human remains.
Similar disrespect was shown toward the principal Chinese cemetery on lower Higuera Street. When the old El Camino was widened to become State Highway 2, the predecessor to Highway 101 just prior to World War I, the cemetery disappeared.
Young and Stella Louis, who were married in 1912, took me with a team of historians from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California to the site in front of the present-day Chumash Mobile Home Park in 1978.
San Luis Obispo’s experience of insensitivity to human remains is not unique. It occurred in every region of America as cities and towns expanded.
Never miss a local story.
Because of this, in 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The legislation was intended to ensure an appropriate response when Native American remains are uncovered in archaeological surveys required in construction projects or later during the course of building.
This act also pertains to human remains and cultural artifacts associated with burial sites excavated in the past and that are now part of museum collections. These remains and artifacts were to be “repatriated” to the descendants or nearest surviving peoples.
Starting with private collectors in the late 18th century, museums and colleges began the formal study of Native American peoples.
The disciplines of anthropology and archaeology rose in response to European and later American contacts with indigenous peoples. Soon, museums and private collectors were competing with one another in the acquisition of artifacts.
The thought that these indigenous peoples regarded their remains as sacred never occurred to finders, sellers or buyers or stopped them from engaging in this international trade.
Even worse than the trade was the fashion in which some of these human remains were used. Many of the founders of the discipline of archaeology such as the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie at London University, were associated with the racist pseudoscience of eugenics, which tended to support the superiority of Northern Europeans.
Eugenics filtered into the new medical colleges in the late 1800s. Skulls were collected, and they were measured by volume by filling them with sand. Inferences were made that we now understand to be without any scientific basis.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Native American rights movement of the 1960s, greater sensitivity to these issues began to develop.
The matters addressed by Congress in 1990 were matched by similar concerns in the United Nations, UNESCO and the European Union.
It was in that spirit that Dr. June Jones, senior lecturer in biomedical ethics and law at England’s University of Birmingham, began attempting to contact the Native American people of the Central Coast. The skulls of seven Native Americans unearthed near Avila Beach during railroad construction in the 1880s were found in a metal cabinet in the university’s medical college.
Dr. Jones wanted to know how she could return these remains to their ancestral home.
John Burch, traditional lead of the Salinan Tribe of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, was the only Native American leader to reply to Dr. Jones’ inquiries.
A small but significant exercise in international relations began.
But there was still the mystery of how the skulls got to Birmingham.
To be continued.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.