Beneath the streets and landfill of Emeryville, San Francisco, and much of the Bay Area endure the ancient monuments and funerary places of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation, whose homeland is the San Francisco Bay Area. The Spanish invasion, beginning in the 1770s, delacerated the sovereignty, culture, religion, and language of the Muwekma Ohlone. Today, the physical legacy of the Spanish invasion include the Mission Dolores and the Presidio's Officers; Club in San Francisco, for both structures were erected in the 1770s. However, the physical legacy of the Muwekma Ohlone has not received equal preservation nor respect. Prior to the Spanish invasion, some 500 shellmounds lined the sea and bay shores fo the San Francisco Bay Area. These mounds, generally consisting mostly of molluscan shells, were made by the Muwekma Ohlone for thousands of years, and act as cemeteries. Sadly, archaeologists have referred to these shellmounds as "middens." A "midden" is defined as a waste pile, for the word's origin occurs in Middle English/Norse, and means a "dung hill." The Muwekma Ohlone term to describe a shellmound is not available or not known, for the destruction of the local language has brought much harm. Some of these shellmounds might not have functioned as cemetaries, yet in any case, they remain the cultural treasures of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation.
This map of the "pre-invasion" Yelamu (San Francisco) shows village names and shellmound areas (the dots). The Muwekma Ohlone were federally acknowledged in 1906, and they continue to work with the government for full recognition.
produced by Perry Matlock
The 1852 U.S. Coast Survey map at the top actually features two of the Muwekma Ohlone's shellmounds. The gargantuan size of these ancient monuments, perhaps wonders of the world, is attested, here. The Muwekma Ohlone continue to live amongst the now called San Francisco Bay Area, and they see these shellmounds as living cemeteries wherer their ancestors rest. To intentionally demolish a cemetery is universally considered a hate-crime. Unfortunately, no laws exist to prevent the erasure of Muwekma Ohlone cemeteris, the shellmound. This is the homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation. As new residents and visitors to their country, we ought to show the same respect we would expect to our far distant homelands and cemeteries.
The Emeryville Mall is the site of an ancient Native American village and cemetery known as the Emeryville Shellmound. Hundreds of families are buried there. Permission to build this mall was given by the Emeryville City Council which did not believe that such a valuable cultural resource was worthy of preserving, especially in light of all the money that will be made from the retail activities at this 325,000 square foot monster.
These are the same City Council members who's major campaign contributors are the very developers who need their cooperation in order to get their projects built. They get what they pay for. The City gives permission and yet another luxury hotel is produced. Emeryville' dependency on redevelopment funding necessitates that it continuously finds "blight" in the city and seeks to demolish and destroy older properties and build new buildings which will increase property values. The City is funded in large part from the property tax increases that result from all this new modern high-rise construction. Thus, the City Council is constrained by its own volition to build the many towers you see around you. And thus, historic preservation takes a lower priority in Emeryville. But citizens are protected by state law (CEQA) which requires the City to mitigate impacts of its projects on known archaeological sites. So the City will do a few activities to mitigate the loss of this once magnificent
Before You Shop at the Emeryville Mall,
Consider Where You Are
mound. These plans are woefully small and insufficient payment to the community for the destruction it is reeking on the Emeryville Shellmound, once the largest of the 425 mound sites around the Bay.
JOIN US in protesting Emeryville's disregard for its own pioneer Native families and its sleazy behavior on behalf of greed. Write to the Emeryville City Council and tell them how you feel about the decision to put shops on top of a burial ground. If this was being done to a Christian or Jewish cemetary, it would be considered a hate crime!
By Stephanie Hedgecoke
Published Nov 2, 2006 8:35 PM
Indian People Organizing for Change and the Vallejo Inter-Tribal Council’s Indigenous Sacred Sites Preservation Committee held the second annual Shellmound Walk from Oct. 12 to 20 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Indigenous people and their supporters walked every day for two weeks to struggle to preserve their ancient burial mounds from real estate development and other devastation.
IPOC has stated that the walk is held to say that the original people of the Bay Area are not extinct, to honor the ancestors and call attention to their ongoing struggle, and to dismiss the disinformation that has been used historically to justify the destruction of their ancient temples.
3rd Annual Shellmound Walk in San Francisco Bay Area
Organizers kicked off the walk with announcements at the International Indian Treaty Council’s annual Oct. 12 Sunrise Ceremony at Alcatraz on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and an evening potluck dinner at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland.
This year the Shellmound Walk traveled through the East Bay and Marin County, going through Solano Community College, Glen Cove, Pt. Richmond, El Cerrito, and UC Berkeley; then across the Bay to Sausalito, Tiburon, San Anselmo, Lagunitas, Pt. Reyes and Kule Loklo. Kule Loklo is a former Miwok village now controlled by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which allows the Miwoks to interpret their former home, but not reside there.
The struggle to preserve the ancient shellmounds is a struggle focused on the survival of the many Pacific Coastal peoples who were twice colonized. Spain’s conquistador army and priests built the mission system by forcibly rounding up and enslaving tens of thousands. During the Gold Rush, the U.S. moved in to enforce its proclamation of Manifest Destiny—that it had a right to take the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
The Bay Area shellmounds are traditional cemeteries and ancient monuments of First Nations including the Ohlones, Coast Miwok, Bay Miwok, Mutsun, Plains Miwok, Yokuts, Wappo, Patwin and several other nations. They were temples made of shells, older than the pyramids in Egypt, and originally so huge that they appear as landmarks on the original Coast Guard maps of the area. Some of them have been carbon-dated at over 5,000 years.
Native traditions of caring for what shellmound activists call “living cemeteries” were disrupted by the genocidal attacks and land thefts of the Gold Rush days, followed by the institution of capitalist private property laws.
The Spanish looted the shellmounds, but the destruction of them began with the Gold Rush. A shellmound located in what is now Aquatic Park, north of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, was destroyed in 1861, reported Alexander Taylor in an “Indianology Series” in the May 1861 California Farmer and Journal of Useful Science. As late as 1909 Nels Nelson counted 425 still-existing shellmounds in an archeological report of the Stevenson Street Shellmound, which was located near the corner of Market and First streets in downtown San Francisco.
The destruction of the shellmounds was officially excused via misrepresentation of what they actually were. Until recently archeologists downplayed the evidence of thousands of human burials, which prove these were funerary places like the pyramids. They purposely mischaracterized them as “middens” or garbage heaps. In his 1965 “The Archeology of San Francisco,” Robert Suggs wrote: “The Emeryville shellmound was, in fact, little more than a huge garbage heap. ... Burials were also made in the discarded shells and debris.”
The Emeryville Shellmound was 60 feet high and more than 600 feet in diameter, covering 19 acres. It formerly held at least four historical levels of burial sites going back at least 2,500 years. Recently a shopping mall was built over what was left of the lower level, despite complaints by construction workers that they were finding hundreds of human remains. Those reports were verified by archeologists but were glossed over by the local authorities to let greedy developers make profits.
Long-time shellmound activist Perry Matlock told WW: “The heartbreaking ongoing devastation of these ancient monuments should be stopped. They should receive UNESCO World Heritage status and be returned to the Native Nations.”
Information was gathered for this report by activists with the Shellmounder News and supporters of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation. The report of the Stevenson St. Shellmound is from the Coyote Press Archives of California Pre-History, “Archeological Excavations at CA-SFR-112,” Allen G. Pastron, 1909.
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West Berkeley shellmound.
Tribe members, archaeologists, a Native American advocacy group, and an environmental organization are jointly fighting to preserve one such shell mound at the base of San Bruno Mountain, in San Mateo County. The site is located on land slated for commercial development. According to archaeologists, the mound is part of what was once the area's largest Ohlone village, known by records kept by early missionaries as Urebure or Sipliskin (also known as Siplichiquin). Cambra says the mound is 10,000 years old and contains the remains of 10,000 individuals.
According to South San Francisco City Council member John Penna, in the early 1990s Miley Holman, a San Francisco State University archaeologists, found evidence of human remains at the mound while taking sample borings for the sites previous developer, W.W. Dean Associates. Dean, Penna said, never released Holman's findings to the public.
Dean had planned to build a hotel complex on land that included the mound. South San Francisco's "specific land-use plan," which dictates what kind of development may occur in the city, allows for a hotel parking lot to cover the mound. And according to Penna, SunChase G.A. California Inc., the new developer plans to build a parking lot and a highway interchange on the site.
At a Dec. 18 South San Francisco city Council meeting, activists urged the council to refuse SunChase's request for a 10-year extension of Dean's preexisting development agreement until the shell mound could be preserved and deeded to the Ohlone. Despite warnings, that the ancient gravesite would be jeopardized, the council voted in favor of the extension. SunChase has already entered the first phase of construction of a housing development called Terrabay near the shell mound.
Penna, who want the site to be preserved for parkland or for use by the Ohlone, was the lone dissenter. "I don't believe we're pursuing the right course here, he said at the meeting.
Representatives of SunChase have declined to spell out their plans for the site. Martin Van Duyn, South San Francisco's chief planner, told council members that approving the extension did not mean they had ceded control of how the commercial site will be laid out, because Sun Chase must still apply for construction permits.
Penna said that although the council did approve a resolution calling for the mound to be preserved, the resolution will not necessarily stand up. Under the development agreement, if SunChase can show that commercial construction the site will be lucrative for the city, the council will be hard-pressed to stop it, he said.
Dennis Breen, director of development for Sterling Pacific Management Services, the manager of the property, has refused an offer to purchase about 30 acres of the land, including the mound which was made by Farnum Alston, president of the Environmental Mitigation Exchange Company. Alston proposed turning the land over to the state or to a non-profit group - such as the Ohlone - for protection, as well as educational and cultural use. Breen told the Bay Guardian SunChase planned to consult with archaeologists regarding the mound but not with members of the Ohlone tribe.
The Muwekma/Ohlone, the International Indian Treaty Council (a Native American advocacy group), and San Bruno Mountain Watch (an environmental group that has fought development on the mountain [see "Tragic Mountain," 12/11/96]) vow to keep pressuring SunChase and the city council to preserve the site.
"Putting the mound into tribal ownership is the best thing we can do to try to make up for the terrors of the past," says treaty council volunteer Perry Matlock.
By Savannah Blackwell
At the turn of the century, even after their lands were seized and their culture decimated, hundreds of burial sites for the Bay Area's Native Americans - the Ohlone tribe - remained intact. As many as 600 earthen shell mounds, in which they had interred their loved ones over thousands of years, could still be found throughout the region.
But today only a few undisturbed shell mounds (so named because oyster shells are frequently found in them) have been spared the bulldozer. The few remaining mounds symbolize sacred links to the past for the descendants of the Ohlone, the tribe that thrived in the Bay Area before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s. And they provide evidence of long lost villages.
"They represent the legacy of the people who were here before," says Linda Yamane, who is of Ohlone descent. Rosemary Cambra, chair of the Muwekma/Ohlone Tribe, adds, "What is significant to my people is to respect these holy sites."
A R D News, Notes, & Comment
The Last Burial Ground
Ohlone fight to save shell-mound site