Miwok Artifacts Found in Larkspur, California

A project by Whitney Perry.

An old plant nursery sat abandoned in disarray for more than twenty years in Larkspur, Marin County, California. Located on the block alongside Hall Middle School, Redwood High School, and downtown Larkspur, the Niven Nursery was a prominent feature of central Larkspur. After school students would creep through the broken glass and rusty greenhouse frames, imaging the stories told about lush rose bushes and the abundant plant life that once flourished beneath the glass. In 2010 the city approved a project for The New Home Company to develop the 16-acre property and began construction of a $55 million dollar housing development (The New Home Company).

New homes in the Rose Lane housing development. Photo from The Dahlin Group.

The housing development built 85 residences, with 29 single-family homes, 42 senior homes, and 14 cottage style homes (The New Home Company). The development company also included a bonus new community center for the city of Larkspur (Fimrite). During construction an astonishing amount of Native American artifacts was discovered. A shell mound of Native American remains was documented on the site in 1907 but it wasn’t until the city approved development plans in 2010 that an excavation was required under the California Environmental Quality Act (Fimrite). 25 archaeologists and 10 other specialists were brought in to excavate a 300-foot stretch of the property, which took a year and a half (Fimrite). The excavated site contained 600 human burials, shells, antler tools, flutes, beads, hairpins, game pieces, ritualistic stone objects, tools, musical instruments, harpoon tips, spears and throwing sticks, bones of grizzly bears, black bears, bay rays, deer, sea otters, condors, and at least one ceremonial burial (Fimrite).

A home under construction. Photo by Lacy Atkins.

In accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), construction was halted for the inadvertent discovery of Native American human remains, graves, and ritual objects. The Federated Indians of Graton Racheria were designated the most likely descendants of Larkspur’s indigenous people and the decision of what to do with the remains was left up to them (Fimrite). They decided to rebury the artifacts in an undisclosed, different on-site location (Fimrite).

“The philosophy of the tribe in general is that we would like to protect our cultural resources and leave them as is,” Nick Tipon told the SF Chronicle, “The notion that these cultural artifacts belong to the public is a colonial view” (Fimrite).

Archaeologists were itching for an opportunity to study the remains. Certain artifacts dated 4,470 years old and were from the Coastal Miwok tribe who once roamed throughout the northern Bay Area and much of northern California (Circo). “This was a site of considerable archaeological value,” said Dwight Simons to the San Francisco Chronicle (Fimrite), “My estimate of bones and fragments in the entire site was easily over a million, and probably more than that. It was staggering.”

Map of artifact site. Photo from The San Francisco Chronicle.

All of it was removed and relocated to an undisclosed location on site and paved over. Not a single item was saved. The carbon-dated geologic record in the soil was destroyed, as was ethnographic evidence of dietary information and household items, and goods that were traded. Archaeologists say it was the largest and best-preserved American Indian site found in the Bay Area in at least a century (Hansen).

Despite the archaeologist’s dismay, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria unapologetically decided to leave the items buried. There have been many cases of tension between archaeologists and Native Americans in the Bay Area over how to protect cultural sites. Native Americans mostly prefer to leave the items alone, while archaeologists want to preserve and study them for science (Fimrite). California state laws try to mitigate the conflict by leaving the decision to be made by the tribe but the laws have little backbone. If artifacts are discovered on private property it is impossible for anyone to demand a protected cultural site and the decision of what to do is made by the property owner (California Public Resources). The city of Larkspur could have stepped in and demanded a redesign to leave the remains untouched but the development company included a free community center in its initial design (Fimrite). Larkspur officials were in an unlikely position to protest proceeding with construction.

Judging by the size of the remains this site was once important to the Miwok tribe. In 1776 Spanish military landed in San Francisco and obliterated indigenous societies that dominated the area (National Park Service). Forced relocation, slave labor, and rampant spread of diseases diminished the Miwok population rapidly (National Park Service). Today descendants of Miwok peoples live throughout the Bay Area and form the recently federally recognized tribe, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (National Park Service). In 1958 the federal government terminated recognition of Coast Miwok people (National Park Service). In 2000 federal legislation was signed and granted the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria full rights afforded with federally recognized tribes, which isn’t actually much at all (National Park Service).

Recreated Miwok Village. Photo from the National Park Service.

The significance of the site in modern day Larkspur was likely lost over time. Alongside the rapid destruction of the pre-colonial Miwok way of life was the destruction of a long history. There are a handful of sites commemorating the coastal Miwok throughout Marin County. One site in Point Reyes National Park, “Kule Loklo” (Bear Valley) is a recreated village, standing where no village ever actually stood but is convenient for tourists to visit as they walk through Point Reyes National Seashore (National Park Service).

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) is the primary piece of legislation for dealing with ownership of found Native American funerary objects, sacred objects, cultural patrimony, or human remains (PA Historical & Museum Commission). The legal procedure is required only on federal land or tribal land (PA Historical & Museum Commission). If the discovery is made on private land then State cultural preservation laws may apply, all of which vary by state. In California this is California Public Resources Code 5097.9, section.98 of which outlines the process after discovery of Native American remains during construction. Construction must be halted and the most likely descendants notified (CA Public Resources). The descendants have 48 hours to inspect the area (if given permission by landowner) and come to a finalized decision. They “may recommend” to the owner what to do with the remains (CA Public Resources Code). The two parties are encouraged to confer and come to an agreement, however if an agreement is not made the remains will be reinterred “with appropriate dignity” and the construction project will continue (CA Public Resources Code).

The language of this law includes many instances of using “may,” as if the following clause is a suggestion and not a requirement. On private property the living descendants of the tribe have virtually no power. The landowner decides whether to allow the tribe to inspect the site, and they are only given 48 hours to do so and make a decision (CA Public Resources Code). It is a limited timeframe for potentially important sacred sites. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria currently has 1,300 registered members. A fair consensus amongst so many people within two days is unreasonable.

The main media coverage about the Rose Lane development was surrounding archaeologist’s uproar about not being allowed to excavate the area. The tribe did not want their ancestral remains to be studied. Had they wanted a cultural site to be created, or to stop construction altogether, it would have been an extremely difficult and expensive legal battle. Despite the variety legal options that exist on paper, it appears the only real options were to have the remains excavated, probably museum bound, or to leave them on site. One option seems to be the obvious choice.




California Public Resources. California Public Resources Code 5099.9. http://www.nahc.ca.gov/cpr.html#5097.98

Circo, Claire. Indian Artifcacts Lost at Larkspur Development Rose Lane. April 24, 2014. http://www.thedominicanbeat.com/spring-2014-beat/indian-artifacts-lost-at-larkspur-development-rose-lane

Fimrite, Peter. Indian artifact treasure trove paved over for marin County homes. April 23, 2014. SFGate. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Indian-artifact-treasure-trove-paved-over-for-5422603.php#page-1

Guinn, Jordan. Hot Property: New Larkspur homes blend classic style, modern amenities. November 9, 2013. SFGate. http://www.sfgate.com/realestate/hotproperty/article/Hot-Property-New-Larkspur-homes-blend-classic-4968575.php

Hansen, Megan. Archaeologists lament loss of Indian artifcacts at Larkspur Development Rose Lane. April 23, 2014. Marin Independent Journal. http://www.marinij.com/marinnews/ci_25624833/archaeologists-lament-loss-indian-artifacts-at-larkspur-development

Ohlones and Coast Miwoks. National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/goga/historyculture/ohlones-and-coast-miwoks.htm

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/federal_laws_and_acts_protecting_burial_sites/1876

The New Home Company. Rose Lane. http://thenewhomecompany.com/neighborhood/rose-lane

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