In an unprecedented move, the Salinan tribe invited reporters, Roman Catholic priests and Army soldiers to a sacred native reburial ceremony Tuesday at Camp Roberts.
The skeleton of an adult Salinan man, between 35 and 45 years old, along with bone fragments of another human, were uncovered last November while crews were digging a pipeline for the Nacimiento Water Project, according to Clinton Blount, an anthropologist and president and co-founder of Albion Environmental.
A team of Albion anthropologists removed the bones in December while the pipeline work was completed at the camp. After studying the bones and other archaeological remnants, such as fire-cracked rocks and stone flakes, they believe the bones were of Salinans who had been quarrying stones for cutting tools and arrows. Because no other human remains were uncovered, the team did not believe the area was used by a large community nor was it a large burial ground, Blount said.
About 40 people, half of whom were Salinans, gathered to listen to John Burch, co-leader in the Salinan tribal council, perform a purification ritual, complete with burning sage, before the final reinterment ceremony.
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“I know our ancestors came back today for a reason — to offer us an opportunity,” he said. A blast of ammunition boomed from Army maneuvers nearby on Camp Roberts, which is a training ground for artillery.
“I see the ancestors agree,” he said, with a laugh. “We believe they have brought this gift for us to unwrap, a present of peace, harmony and goodwill.”
The Salinans hope the ceremony will draw attention to their desire to have federal recognition, something the tribe has been working toward for many years, tribe spokesman Chris Molina said.
“We are only state-recognized, and because of that, we do not have the authority to take care of our own and get our ancestors reinterred here,” he said. “It is our hope one day that we will have the (federal) recognition we need to gather all the bones that are out there, dug up and on shelves in places like Cal Poly or Berkeley, and return them back in the ground, where we feel they belong.”
The Salinans are believed to have lived near Nacimiento River for as many as six to eight thousand years, Blount said. The anthropologists are still waiting for the results of carbon dating to determine the age of the remains, but they feel certain the bones predate the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 1700s, because they found no evidence, such as glass beads or other Spanish artifacts, at the site.
The missions of San Antonio and San Miguel were established in Salinan territory in l771 and 1797. The mission’s early counts of Indian baptisms numbered in the thousands. Tribal rolls today number about 600, Burch said.
One of the tribal leaders, Gary Pierce, said the priests were invited to the ceremony as a peace offering. Some critics of the Catholic Church think it was responsible for the demise of the Salinan culture and the people themselves.
“It’s a misconception that the Padres used Indians for slaves,” Pierce said. “They offered their missions as sanctuaries to Salinans who had bounties on their heads.”
Camp Roberts, a California Army National Guard installation, encompasses 42,000 acres in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.
The spot for the final burial of the Salinan ancestors was underneath oak trees and green steep hills about a hundred feet above the river and about seven miles from Highway 101.
The bones were placed in a plywood box about 31⁄2-feet-long by 2-feet-wide and lowered gently into a small rectangular hole about 4-feet deep.
After two priests baptized the remains, a female Salinan elder gave a blessing: “We are the gathering of Indians. We pray that you now then go ahead. Fly into the world beyond. Go and be happy.”
The brown paper bags that had held the bones were placed on top of the coffin in the hole and were burned. Then the anthropologists took shovels and filled in the grave.
The Rev. Larry Gosselin of San Miguel Mission said, “Certain things need to be buried here, but we recognize that the grave is not the end. It is a door, a gate to something new.”