Bay Area groups fighting to protect an important Native American cultural heritage site won a victory on Thursday, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site as one of the eleven most endangered historic places in the United States.
The West Berkeley site is one of the most important and earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, and is still a center of prayer and ceremony for Ohlone people living in the region today.
“The National Trust listing not only gives Ohlone people a platform to discuss the importance of protecting sacred sites that are endangered across the country, it also presents an important opportunity to open a dialogue about how human relationships to the land and the environment must evolve in the light of climate change,” Corrina Gould, spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, and co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, told Earth Island Journal.
From the West Berkeley Shellmound to Mauna Kea to Oak Flat, “sacred places are touchstones in the world,” she said. “They are important for us, as humanity. We need these places to be able to center ourselves, and to save ourselves from the calamity that’s about to happen if we don’t change.”
Gould has been fighting to save the West Berkeley Shellmound since 2016, when she first learned of developer Blake Griggs Properties’ proposal to construct a massive condominium retail complex on the last remaining unbuilt portion of the ancient village — a 2.2-acre area that is currently a paved parking lot. The proposed development would excavate 10 feet of soil, undoubtedly unearthing Ohlone burials and artifacts that still lie just below the surface throughout the area, further desecrating the traditional village site and burial and ceremonial grounds.
She and other advocates have been pushing for the site, which was landmarked by the City of Berkeley in 2000, to be returned to a more natural state, and transformed into a community space, education center, and memorial that will better serve the ceremonial purposes of the Ohlone people.
Though local efforts to protect the site have held off development thus far, the privately-owned site is vulnerable to the profit motives of commercial developers, and its future remains uncertain. The National Trust’s announcement is an important affirmation of the site’s historical significance and continued importance to the Ohlone people.
Corrina Gould has been fighting to save the West Berkeley Shellmound since 2016, when she first learned of a proposal to construct a massive condominium retail complex on the last remaining unbuilt portion of the ancient village. Photo by Toby McLeod.
Gould and other advocates are pushing for the site to be returned to a more natural state, and transformed into a community space, education center, and memorial that will better serve the ceremonial purposes of the Ohlone people. Photo by Toby McLeod.
Though local efforts to protect the site have held off development thus far, the privately-owned site is vulnerable to the profit motives of commercial developers, and its future remains uncertain. Photo by Scott Braley.
The listing doesn’t have any legal standing, but advocates are hopeful that it will help shine a spotlight on the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village and aid their efforts to protect the sacred site. The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes that, since 1988, it has included more than 300 sites on its most endangered sites lists, and those listings have been “so successful in galvanizing preservation efforts that only a handful of sites have been lost.”
“In many ways, the West Berkeley Shellmound is a cautionary tale that teaches the pain a people can experience when they are confronted with the loss of connection to their history, and in particular, their sacred sites,” Katherine Malone-France, National Trust for Historic Preservation’s chief preservation officer, said in a statement yesterday. “Halting the further destruction and desecration of the Shellmound and acknowledging this site as a sacred resource of the Ohlone people demonstrates that preservation can be a powerful force for reconciliation and justice.”
According to radiocarbon dating studies conducted in 1997 by UC Berkeley geologist Dr. B. Lynn Ingram, the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site dates back 5,700 years, when the ancestors of today’s Ohlone people established the first known human settlement in the San Francisco Bay Area at the mouth of Strawberry Creek. The village served as a burial and ceremonial grounds, and a massive repository of shells, ritual objects, and artifacts, layered with rich soil and rock, formed a large mound — a shellmound — at the center of the village.
Prior to colonization, there were more than 400 shellmounds throughout the Bay Area. Groups of Ohlone people living in different parts of the region communicated with one another by lighting fires atop the mounds, sending smoke signals visible for miles around, and also relied on them as important landmarks and tools for maritime navigation.
When Spanish colonizers arrived in the mid-1500s and established missions in California, enslaving and murdering Native people throughout the region, the Ohlone were decimated by violence, famine, and disease. After thousands of years of stewarding the land, many of the Native people who managed to survive the genocide were forced to flee their traditional villages.
In the mid-1800s, Gold Rush prospectors flocked to California, and shell material was removed from Ohlone village sites and used to fertilize farms and fill in parts of the bay. As urban development in the region expanded, Ohlone shellmounds were leveled and shopping centers, factories, and housing complexes were built on top. When the shellmounds were razed, some Bay Area cities used the materials unearthed to pave their streets — literally lining them with the bones and ritual objects of Ohlone ancestors who had been interred within the sacred burial grounds.
What remained of the West Berkeley Shellmound was leveled in the 1950s, to make room for industrial urbanization and the construction of a retail zone and apartment complexes. At that time, UC Berkeley archaeologists removed 95 human burials and 3,400 artifacts from the site.
Of the 425 shellmounds that used to ring the Bay Area, Gould estimates that only four can still be seen. “Everything we hold sacred has been built upon,” she said.
That’s why the 2.2 under-developed acres at the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site has become a focal point in the Ohlone peoples’ efforts to preserve and protect their homelands. But the fact that these efforts are focused on such a small portion of the Ohlone’s original territory is also indicative of the extent to which colonization and industrial urbanization have impacted Native American sacred sites — a story familiar to indigenous peoples across the country and around the world.
While some recent efforts to protect sacred sites and Native American cultural landscapes have become points of national conversation — at places like Standing Rock and Bears Ears — the movement to save the West Berkeley Shellmound has not received the same level of widespread attention. Until now.
Speaking in the midst of a record-breaking fire season, Gould explained how her Ohlone ancestors intentionally set fires in the Bay Area in order to prevent the kind of destructive fires we are witnessing today. Intentional burns encouraged new growth and helped indigenous peoples ensure they had the resources they depended upon for survival. “That was a way of living in reciprocity with the land,” she explained. “Today, we’re so afraid of fire. But we used it as our relative, as a tool, as a way of taking care of the land.”
Learning to listen to indigenous teachings is a crucial first step in combating an impending climate catastrophe, Gould said. “We need to look back in order to go forward. And we need to ask, how can we learn from the original teachings of indigenous peoples? And how can we begin to learn those lessons in a space that, now, looks like an urban setting to most people who visit?”
Gould’s dream is to transform the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site back into a green space, and to open up Strawberry Creek, which was buried and now runs underground through the area, to “allow the water to bleed again.” This, she said, will “allow us to imagine what it is like to live in reciprocity with the land and the water, and will show us a different way of being in the world.”