Protect Pomo Cultural Sites Caltrans
This image shows previous protests to stop the construction of Willits Bypass.

Tribes Sue Caltrans for Destruction of Cultural Resources


In the ongoing fight to protect cultural resources in what is now Mendocino County, California, two tribes have filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration.

RELATED: Tribes and Caltrans Reach Impasse, Tribe Refuses to Sign Agreement

The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian Tribe filed suit Thursday, October 29 in U.S District Court claiming Caltrans is illegally destroying cultural resources and Native American sites in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Caltrans is building a six-mile bypass around Willits on Highway 101 that cuts through the heart of Little Lake Valley, lush wetlands and ancestral home of many Pomo tribal members in the area.

The lush Little Lake Valley before construction began. (Sherwood Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians Cultural Monitor Randy Phillips)

“Caltrans must not be allowed to demolish cultural resources and sacred sites simply to build a highway bypass,” the tribes’ attorney, Phil Gregory, said in a press release about the lawsuit. “Imagine Caltrans treating a church with such disrespect. 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.”

This image shows the destruction of wetlands ponds, which are seen prior to construction above. According to the complaint, he bulldozer is demolishing wetlands ponds so Caltrans can build “created wetlands.”

Caltrans has denied the uncovering of any human remains or graves. “We have been working closely with state and federal agencies throughout this project,” Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie told ABC 7 News. “We have not destroyed any villages or cultural areas on this project and we have been working diligently for the last almost two years with all three local tribes.”

But that isn’t what the tribes say. “There was a complete lack of tribal consultation, as well as no planning or preparedness to address tribal concerns, prior to starting construction of this project,” said James Russ, president of the Round Valley Tribal Council, in the release. “Since the beginning, Caltrans has known the project area has a moderate to high potential for buried archaeological remains. Because Caltrans continues to proceed in bad faith, such as isolating our tribal monitors, we are forced to look to the court to protect our religious ancestral, and cultural properties that are being desecrated by Caltrans. Our main objective 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.”

These images from the complaint show elders and spiritual leaders praying at the destroyed Yami Village site on June 12, 2013.

Caltrans responded with a press release saying that: “no cultural sites have been destroyed at the site of the Willits Bypass or its mitigation properties.” Caltrans also says it has adhered to all state and federal guidelines and environmental law since the project began.

Prior to the lawsuit, in September, Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians withdrew from discussions about the “programmatic agreement,” which is meant to establish procedures approved by both the tribe and Caltrans for cultural resource management. In a letter dated September 2 Coyote Valley Chairman Michael Hunter listed the tribe’s reasons for withdrawing, among them were inadequate tribal consultation, not being able to agree on the standards by which sites were identified and protected, conflict over measures to compensate for sites that have already been damaged, and a lack of communication and good faith.

“Our tribal elders felt it was essential to stand up to the aggressive and resistant manner Caltrans has treated the local tribes. Caltrans refuses to protect our cultural heritage. On September 12, 2013, in the dead of night, Caltrans’s bulldozers destroyed one of our sacred sites in Little Lake Valley without tribal monitors notified or present,” notes Hunter in the lawsuit release. “The National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation referenced the destruction of this ancient village as a ‘major violation of federal law.’ Caltrans refuses to protect ancestral archaeological sites and we ask other Indian nations and concerned citizens to join in demanding Caltrans protect our sacred sites and that government-to-government consultations with tribes be conducted meaningfully and respectfully.”

These images show what the complaint dubbed “adverse effect on historic properties when Caltrans ruins the site by installing wick drains.”

The bypass is scheduled to open next year, possibly in November 2016. The tribes are asking the court to stop construction and figure out a way to address the ongoing damage to sacred sites and cultural resources. The two tribes are also seeking money in damages.

The full text of the complaint with supporting photographs, is available here.

RELATED: Tribes Say CalTrans Illegally Destroying Historical Sites for Bypass

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