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Tribe monitors building sites

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Native Americans are working more closely with the city of Sacramento these days to protect remains or artifacts discovered at downtown construction sites.

The Shingle Springs Band of Miwoks is expected to be on hand to monitor digging or other soil disturbance and to collaborate with archaeologists if bones, ashes, grave goods or other cultural artifacts are found at the future Powerhouse Science Center site, under an agreement approved last week by the Sacramento City Council.

At least one representative of the band was also observing at a vacant lot at Seventh and H streets last week when archaeologists did site testing prior to construction there. Mercy Housing and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency are planning to build the city's newest single-resident occupancy housing project there next year.

Once test results come back, SHRA and the Native American band will work out an agreement for construction monitoring based on what is found there, said SHRA Environmental Coordinator Shelly Amrhein.

"We're definitely trying to be proactive about these types of issues," Amrhein said. "We're really trying to make sure it is coordinated properly."

But that wasn't always the case. Conflicts arose in 2004 and 2005 after Native American remains were uncovered during construction of the new City Hall and Sacramento Regional Transit District's relocation of utility lines for light rail tracks on H Street.

A Native American monitor was brought in to work with an archaeologist on the latter only after work crews sheared off the back of a human skull.

On the Powerhouse project, SHRA took the lead on developing a Cultural Resources Treatment and Monitoring Agreement with the Miwok band because the agency is contributing federal Community Development Block Grant funds to the $45 million project. That makes SHRA the responsible entity under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The first on-site work is expected to start next spring. At that time, sidewalks will be built and Jibboom Street will be repaved as part of the city's I-5 interim project. After that, crews will do minimal excavating in the building, which is owned by the city.

Under the agreement, all work must stop within 50 meters of any spot where a suspected burial site, darkened soil or midden is found. A midden, once used as a rubbish site, could contain bones or artifacts. An archaeologist must be called in to determine the significance of the discovery.

All work on the entire site must stop if a human bone or bone of unknown origin is found. The county coroner must then be brought in. If the remains are determined to be Native American, the coroner must notify the California Native American Heritage Commission, a Sacramento-based agency whose job it is to notify the most likely descendants. The descendants must work with the contractor to plan the best way to rebury the remains and any artifacts found with them.

The agreement covers Native American human remains, including bones, bone fragments and ashes; grave goods; funerary items; ceremonial items; other cultural items and animal remains. Any worker who discovers such items must turn them over to the tribe, which may be done through an archaeologist.

The agreement allows Native Americans to be out at the site whenever soil is disturbed, even before anything is found. Typically, one or two people will be at the site, said AmyAnn Taylor, general counsel for the tribe.

The tribe's ancestors lived right along the Sacramento River. So the Powerhouse site is a sensitive area, she said.

However, some of the soil there was replaced during previous work to put in monitoring wells and clay caps. The Seventh and H streets site appears to be even more sensitive than the Powerhouse site because of that, and because the other remains were found nearby in recent years, Amrhein said.

The tribe has worked diligently with the city to be able to go in and retrieve remains or artifacts that may be uncovered. Tribe members are confident they'll be able to reach agreements about how to proceed in a way that won't alter any construction plans, Taylor said.

"The relationship we've reached with SHRA and the city – we’re committed to working together on any of those types of issues if they come up," she said. "We feel like, no matter what, we can achieve something that is mutually beneficial." 

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