California Coastal Ocean Indian Artifacts

Protecting Offshore Relics

By Chet Barfield
San Diego Union Tribune STAFF WRITER

July 13, 2005

From a coastal bluff at Sunset Cliffs, Sycuan tribal Chairman Danny Tucker sees the shoreline as it was a thousand years ago, extending half a mile or more farther out to sea.

Looking out at the rolling waves, he visualizes what's below on the ocean floor, hidden by centuries of rising water and receding land: the grinding stones, arrowheads and countless other artifacts of his Kumeyaay ancestors.

"We have knowledge through our oral history and traditional songs of times long past and our relation to the shoreline," Tucker said. "It's part of our culture. It's part of who we are."

Yesterday, Sycuan and a coalition of other local tribes announced a pilot project, in collaboration with state agencies and environmental groups, aimed at protecting submerged Indian artifacts long plundered by divers.

The project, described as a first nationwide, is being overseen by a conservancy called the Western Alliance for Nature. It calls for increased public awareness and heightened vigilance by government agencies and volunteers.

"These relics should not be thought of as collectors' items or museum pieces," alliance founder Larry Wan said. "They represent the connection to (American Indians') ancestry in a sacred and spiritual way."

Patricia Masters, an undersea archaeologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said she has studied offshore prehistoric sites since the 1970s and has identified at least 110 such areas between San Diego and Santa Barbara. Artifacts at the sites number from one to the hundreds.

"Unfortunately, many of these sites no longer exist because the artifacts were removed by uninformed divers," Masters said.

Most of the sites are within a mile of shore, where Masters said the ocean level has risen more than 160 feet over the past 12,000 years because of polar and glacial melting. Many artifacts also may have been in canoes that capsized or sank, she said.

The initiative, called the Native American Submerged Off-Shore Cultural Protection Project, is endorsed by state Controller Steve Westly, who is on the State Lands Commission. The commission has jurisdiction over underwater areas two miles from the coast, Westly aide Cindy Aronberg said.

She said the collection of Indian artifacts in coastal waters is illegal, but many recreational divers may not know this.

A state parks supervisor said rangers can assist in protecting the cultural sites, and a spokeswoman for San Diego Baykeeper, which monitors bay and coastal pollution, said her organization's boating volunteers also would help.

Wan said the project eventually might include underwater tours with docents leading divers to prehistoric sites, explaining the importance of leaving them intact.

The project took two years to develop, said Louie Guassac, a Mesa Grande tribal member who helped organize the coalition of 12 local tribes. A detailed plan, including costs, should be completed in two months, Guassac said.

Tucker said his tribe and others would help fund the project.

"The submerged sites have withstood time by natural elements," he said. "It is our responsibility to . . . honor their survival by protecting them."

Chet Barfield: (619) 542-4572;



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