Road construction will soon start in and around Fort Independence. The work will include the building of a new, full-access semi-truck-friendly entrance into the Winnedumah Winn’s Casino and resurfacing of roads on the Fort Independence Reservation proper.
There have been concerns from some tribal members and land owners that the project will disturb Native American archaeological and burial sites. Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians Chairperson Israel Naylor said through a spokesperson he “ensures” that all measures have been taken not to disturb any archaeological sites.
Tribal members, who have asked to remain anonymous over perceived conflicts between the current tribal council and various tribal members, said the council and project managers are ignoring warnings that the work will be done directly over seven grave sites.
John Bowden, public works director for the Ft. Independence Tribe and official spokesperson for the project, said the project areas have been scoured by archaeologists and cultural monitors will be present on every construction site.
“Every precaution has been taken,” Bowden said. He said the archaeological studies have thus far “fulfilled” all requirements and have even gone beyond the scope of what is required.
During the construction of the casino and fueling station in 2008, human remains and artifacts were found in some of the excavation materials.
“Whoever dug this up will have blood on their hands,” said one project opponent.
Jeff Mullenhour, Inyo County’s deputy coroner, said he was involved in the identification of remains in 2008. “If I remember right,” Mullenhour said, bones were discovered and identified as “ancient human artifacts” and returned to the Tribe. He said he does not know what the tribe did with the bones after they were returned. He added this is the basic procedure when artifacts or remains are discovered, particularly in the U.S. 395 corridor: identification is done through a cooperative effort between archaeologists, tribes and the coroner’s office and returned to appropriate tribes.
Project opponents said that young people with a lack of experience in dealing with Paiute Indian sites and graves are to blame for incidents such as happened in 2008. One opponent explained that it can be difficult to explain to younger generations where the sites are as it was not a tradition to map grave sites and cemetery locations.
Regional Archaeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Dan Hall said he understands the opponents’ concerns.
However, Hall explained that the 2008 project was initiated by the Tribe as a whole and funded independently, so the BIA had no jurisdiction to intervene. Tribal law allows for the prosecution of individuals for disturbing archaeological sites, but not for tribes, Hall said. The BIA is now the lead agency on, and bankrolling the project and all appropriate laws and regulations have been followed.
Opponents of the project are worried some of that excavation material will be used again in the current construction projects.
Hall said those material piles from the 2008 construction are “non-existent” and materials for the current project will come from “off-site locations.”
Bowden added that the project has passed environmental review and that Caltrans would not have agreed to the project if it had not met these review standards. These standards, set forth in both the National Environmental Protection Act and the state’s equivalent, the California Environmental Quality Act include that a project may not have significant impacts to the environment, humans or cultural or historic sites.
The project will begin this month at a cost of $3 million. The majority of the funding comes from the BIA with a small portion, some $14,500, coming from the Obama Administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Bowden said the hope is to turn the casino/fueling station into an attractive and easily accessible stop for truck drivers. The current entrance is not easily accessible for semi-trucks.
Qualcon Construction of Minden, Nev. will be performing the work. The work, slated to begin next week, will widen the off-ramp/entrance to 150 feet and include the addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes, the widening of a frontage road for “future expansion” and resurfacing of roads on the Reservation.
Bowden added the job should benefit the entire community. The Tribe expects the easy access off-ramp should bring in more truckers and more revenue, and hopefully, jobs. The stop is and will be advertised on trucking radio and periodicals, Bowden said. He added it is one of the only truck stops in the Owens Valley. The grand scheme of things, Bowden explained, is a three- to five-year plan that starts with the new off-ramp/entrance to the casino and room for expansion.
The new off-ramp should increase safety as well, Bowden added.
Florene Trainor, public information officer for Caltrans, said while there have been no reported accidents at the location, semi-trucks must take up a full lane when pulling out, which is a hazard.