(KTVU) - A Caltrans road project on Highway 101 in Mendocino County has gone from an apparent cultural insult to a full blown legal battle in Federal court over the alleged willful and wanton destruction of sacred Native American sites.
The controversial Willits Bypass, already two years in the making, will take another two years to complete. But thousands of area native Americans see it and Caltrans project as destroying their ancient culture
The tribes say, a huge viaduct, part of the $300 million, 6 mile project to bypass a small town of just 5,000 people, violates sacred grounds.
"What's under there is the Yami Village that they destroyed. They destroyed this village during the night when we had no tribal monitors on," said Pricilla Hunter, a Pomo Tribal Elder.
To Ms. Hunter and many others, this has become a crusade.
"We heard the cries of our ancestors during this whole project. Our people were killed right here, and they were, you know, chased out of this valley and they had to run to the mountains. It's happening all over again. Our village is being attacked and destroyed and our artifacts taken away from here," she said.
For many years, environmentalists successfully delayed the project. But, two years ago, when construction began, when the Indians found out that their ancient villages were being destroyed, they got involved but they didn't have much success until this lawsuit Friday.
This changes everything. The defendants are Caltrans and the Federal Department of Transportation.
The agencies are accused of violating the National Historic Preservation and Environmental Policy Acts that require strict preservation of cultural assets; from arrowheads to villages to grave sites.
Bay area attorney Philip Gregory is representing the tribes.
"Caltrans is required to enter into an agreement to protect these archaeological sites. Caltrans has refused to enter into an agreement that will protect the sites, refused to negotiate in good faith with the tribes," said Mr. Gregory.
Caltrans issued a statement Friday saying that while it cannot comments directly on litigation it is involved in, a copy of the lawsuit that it acquired is filled, in Caltrans opinion, with many errors and false assumptions.
It will issue a full response soon.