SANTA CATALINA ISLAND, Calif. – Nearly a century ago, an amateur archaeologist and showman named Ralph Glidden dug up American Indian burial sites on Catalina and other Channel Islands off Southern California’s coast.
To him, the human remains and relics were treasures to be displayed in the so-called Indian Museum he opened as a tourist attraction overlooking Avalon Harbor. It was a macabre place — and to American Indians, highly offensive — with windows edged with toe, ankle, wrist and finger bones, shelves lined with skulls held up by leg and arm bones, and ceilings decorated with vertebrae and rosettes of shoulder blades. What Glidden didn’t use in the museum he sold.
The museum closed in 1950, and many of those American Indian remains — an array of skulls, bones and an estimated 30,000 teeth — sat in storage for decades, overlooked by researchers and far removed from living descendants.
But over the past year, the bones finally received what the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe considers a proper burial.
In a private ceremony in July 2016, the remains of 200 ancestors, some excavated by Glidden, were reburied on a bluff in the heart of Catalina, surrounded by green hills essentially unchanged from when the Gabrielino-Tongva roamed the 76-square-mile island. A few weeks later, the remains of an additional 2,000 previously held in collections including Glidden’s were reburied on UCLA property in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Mistreated, forgotten and now reclaimed by the Gabrielino-Tongva, the remains tell a story that mirrors a broader trend as tribes use their growing political influence and the legal authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to take back remains and artifacts from museums and universities for proper care and burial.
Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, said the ceremonies — which have not previously been disclosed publicly — were “the largest repatriation of Native American remains in California history.”
The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe worked with UCLA to rebury the remains after they were analyzed by a team of experts, including Teeter and Cindi Alvitre, a member of Los Angeles’ Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe and an expert on the genealogy of American Indian artifacts exhibited in museums after 1900. Burial sites are not open to the public and their locations will not be disclosed.
In some cases, tribes with casinos are beginning to build museums of their own, sidestepping powerhouse universities and showcases such as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Most of the state’s American Indians continue to live in poverty. Yet, for the tribes that own large casinos, particularly those within easy driving distance of major cities, gambling has yielded an enormous payout, allowing them to fulfill broad cultural aspirations.
Last month, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians announced plans to build an $80 million cultural center in downtown Palm Springs, with a 48,000-square-foot museum, gardens, and a spa and bathhouse built over hot mineral springs. The tribe is already preparing to swap collections with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and to create a Cahuilla Indian curriculum for the Palm Springs School District.
The new museum is expected to open in 2020 on land owned by the federally recognized 480-member tribe.
“We’ll probably lose money on this project, but it’s a higher priority than building a hotel or another casino,” said Jeff Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente tribe. “It’s important for the world to know who we really are: a people who lived here for centuries and prospered due to the strength and inspiration provided by our history, cultural traditions and spiritual connections to the land and water.”