Letter to the Editor


On the shores where Imperial Beach meets The Silver Strand, the US Navy is beginning work on its newest Navy SEAL training facility. It will be a multi-million square foot, state of the art facility specifically designed to train the special forces of the future. And it will be built unapologetically on a 7,000 plus year-old Kumeyaay burial ground.

On the shores where Imperial Beach meets The Silver Strand, the US Navy is beginning work on its newest Navy SEAL training facility. It will be a multi-million square foot, state of the art facility specifically designed to train the special forces of the future. And it will be built unapologetically on a 7,000 plus year-old Kumeyaay burial ground.

Large ancient coastal sites like this are more than rare in San Diego they are almost non-existent. Demolished amid centuries of coastal development and rising sea levels, intact Early Archaic shell middens like the one that occupies the site are essentially unheard of. Seemingly, the only thing more rare than the site itself is a site that the Navy wouldn’t willfully destroy.

More than 7,000 years old, this site was once a place where my ancestors lived, ate, hunted, fished and eventually, passed on. In those days, when one of our people passed, they were buried within the shell midden to continue on their journey into the afterlife among the people and land that they loved. In 2002, the 7,000 year-old partial remains of a young boy were discovered deep in the ancient mound. The Navy reinterred the ancient human remains with the promise they would be kept safe in perpetuity for another 7,000 years. As it turns out, their estimates were 6,985 years too generous. While the specific hole dug to inter my ancient relative will be avoided, the disturbed portion of the site adjacent to it that undoubtedly contains more remains will be callously destroyed under false pretenses.

Plans for the Navy’s Coastal Coronado Campus have evolved throughout the project’s 14-year timeline. And throughout the project’s lifecycle, the ancient sites of my people surrounding the base were a constant nagging hindrance to the environmental review for the ambitious construction project. Or at least, they should have been. Luckily for the Navy, the normal chain of review took a slightly different route. Normally, the base archaeologist (sometimes with private consultants) evaluates the sites and that evaluation is then reviewed by the Archaeologist for the Navy Region Southwest to ensure the findings are accurate and in compliance with federal laws. Luckily for the Navy, the red tape of that process was circumvented by a simple convenience: both of those positions happen to be held by the same person: Base Archaeologist Dr. Andy Yatsko.

Dr. Yatsko benefited not only from being his own oversight during the process, but also from a conveniently selective memory of the archaeological investigations of the area. In his decision to destroy the disturbed western portions of the site, he cited “all” the archaeological reports done in the area, which indicated no significant intact subsurface deposits. When an archaeologist working for the Kumeyaay Nation found a report from the area that was conveniently left out of the Navy’s analysis, it turned out that the missing report just happened to have definitive evidence of intact subsurface deposits, which would have likely stopped or at least delayed project approval. I guess the Navy is pretty lucky that they missed that report. A report that was missed even though it summarized work done by a private contractor that Dr. Yatsko himself approved and had supervision over. A report that Dr. Yatsko claimed not to have access to for the previous decade of environmental review but which he obtained within 24 hours of it being brought up in a meeting. But by then, the review had gone through and it was too late for the report to be considered in the approval process. Pretty lucky indeed.

The Kumeyaay Nation isn’t taking the desecration sitting down. For almost a year and a half, we have been fighting to save our ancestors. Countless consultations with Navy, meetings amongst ourselves, appeals to state and federal officials, site tours and paperwork reviews have exhausted every possible avenue we have. We have argued, we have talked, we have negotiated and even begged to save our ancestors. But in the end the consultation process, like so many 19th century treaties, turned out to be a façade designed to allow the Federal Government to take what they wish, when they wish, without being hindered by technicalities like Federal Law.

During our first official meeting with the Navy at one of our reservations, a representative of the Navy openly mocked a tribal member as he explained why the site was so important to us, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated show of incredulity at the thought of our peoples’ remains being anything of significant importance. At the time, we thought it was an example of a bad apple. More and more it seems, it is an example of an attitude created by specific leadership among the Navy’s Southwest bases.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that the Navy is not fighting to build their base, they are in a symbolic battle to prove that no one can tell them what to do. You see, we are not asking for the project to be scrapped or even significantly changed. We are simply asking for the Navy to edge their massive project’s border a slight bit westward. The overall footprint of the base would be reduced by less than 4%. They could easily build their facility while avoiding the 7,000-year-old site, but doing so would mean giving in to the demands of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Navy is very clear that they don’t give in to demands. Or proper oversight. Or treaties. Or federal laws.

And now, after a year and a half of fighting, the bulldozers are hitting the sacred burial grounds of an ancient people. Remains that have been at rest since before the pyramids were built are going to be destroyed. Individuals laid in the ground while mammoths still roamed the earth will be unceremoniously ripped from their resting places by bulldozers and ground up into the base footing to become part of septic systems and building foundations of the Navy’s base. This desecration may sound sad or unfortunate to you, but it’s much more than sad to us Kumeyaay. To us, the sight of those machines brutally ripping our ancestors from the ground is no different than it would be for those very same Navy personnel to watch bulldozers rip through Arlington National Cemetery, scattering the bodies of fallen soldiers carelessly under the metal treads of their bright yellow grave robbers.

Furthermore, the construction of this training facility upon the ancient human remains of a native peoples disenfranchises all native people in otherwise unforeseen ways. Throughout the history of the US, and especially in the last hundred years, Native Americans have had disproportionately large numbers of military veterans. We have served the United States with pride and honor at a rate greater than almost any other ethnic group in the US. By building the Navy’s new training facility upon a sacred burial ground, the Navy is essentially barring any Native person with traditional beliefs from participating in the SEAL Program. To the Kumeyaay, and most native peoples, every serviceman or woman involved in the unearthing of ancient remains is gambling with their own health and well-being. We believe that destroying an ancient burial ground will cause those who do so a lifetime of problems. We believe that they bring those spirits home with them to harm their families. It doesn’t even make sense to the Kumeyaay that the Navy would want to build their training facility there: why would you want to train elite troops in a place that is so spiritually disturbed that it all but guarantees that those very troops and their families will suffer untimely misfortunes? Why would the Navy want to ensure the next generation of SEALs are haunted by the spirits of our desecrated ancestors? Don’t they understand that forcing a Native with traditional beliefs to train at that facility would be the equivalent of forcing a Jewish soldier to eat pork or a Christian soldier to burn a bible? Even if the Naval Command did not care about our people, shouldn’t they at least care about their own?

At this point, there is nothing left for us to do. All the letters that could be written have been sent. All the discussions and consultations have been gone through. Officials have been reached out to and calls made but in the end, the objections were ignored. San Diego is a Navy town and the SEALs are rightfully seen as the ultimate home team. The problem with fighting poor command decisions is that the Navy knows it can always rely on public opinion and love for our military to obscure wrongdoings at the higher levels. In this case, elements of the Naval Command have decided to use our well-deserved love and respect for the SEALs to avoid accountability. And it has worked.

While we may never get justice and while we will almost certainly not stop the excavation and destruction of our ancestors, we also won’t take this attack sitting down. We will not sit quietly by while rules are ignored, promises broken and sacred remains are destroyed. We will protest and we will mourn. We will sing our traditional songs for the desecrated and we will make sure that this crime is not swept under the rug. We will stand alongside other tribes from around the State and protest this injustice. And hopefully, you will come stand with us to show your support.

We don’t want you there: we need you there. Right now our government is failing us but that doesn’t mean the people of our country will. The Naval Command can and will ignore us, as they have done for a long time, but they won’t ignore you. They won’t ignore the non-native faces that come to show support because they recognize a wrong and wish to right it. They won’t ignore fellow military personnel who see this as a mark against the honor of an institution that people have given their lives for and who choose to stand beside us in order to help take that honor back. They won’t ignore a united front of citizens who both support our nation’s bravest warriors and respect our nation’s original inhabitants.

The Naval Command is hoping that no one else notices this, no one else joins the fight, and no one else cares. If they are right, they have nothing to lose by tearing up every Native graveyard they find. Hold the Navy accountable, maybe next time, we won’t lose a 7,000 year-old site and the people buried there just so that the Navy can prove a point.

Please join us. We need you. Our ancestors need you. I need you.

Cynthia Parada


La Posta Band of Mission Indians

Cynthia Parada is a Councilperson for the La Posta Band of Mission Indians in eastern San Diego County. While a proud representative of her Band and a member of the broader Kumeyaay Nation, her words are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of all Kumeyaay.