Shellmounds of the Bay Area
Corrina Gould and Wounded Knee DeOcampo for reviewing the report prior to publication.
January 26, 2011
November 26, 2017
Beneath the streets and all along the estuaries of the San Francisco and San Pablo Bay region lie ancient remnants of the daily and sacred lives of California’s native peoples. Pavement and buildings now mostly cover what used to be hundreds of shellmounds — gently rounded hills formed from accumulated layers of organic material deposited over generations by native coastal dwellers. Often the sites of burials and spiritual ceremonies, these shellmounds are still places for veneration. But preserving the remaining shellmounds has proven to be a contentious issue among developers, indigenous rights groups, preservationists, and local governments.
In the latter part of the 20th century, activists began working to protect remaining shellmounds and honor leveled sites where the commerce of modern life is conducted atop the graves of the Bay Area’s native peoples. Since 2005, organizers have sponsored a 280-mile shellmound prayer walk, lasting between 10 days and thee weeks, that visits several sites in the nine-county Bay Area region. The walk is primarily organized by Native women, and many in the Bay Area Native community participate in the walk, though walkers have come from as far away as Australia, Japan, the Cape Verde Islands and Nova Scotia. Some of the sites visited by the prayer walkers are already entombed under retail strips, others are protected, and still others are facing development pressure. The most pressing threat is currently at the West Berkeley Shellmound.
West Berkeley Shellmound
The site of the oldest and largest Ohlone village around the shores of San Francisco Bay is the proposed site of a five-story condominium and retail complex at 1900 4th St. in west Berkeley. This sacred place lies under the asphalt of Spenger’s Fish Restaurant’s two-acre parking lot north of where University Avenue passes over the Amtrak Station. The site and surrounding area were given historic landmark status by the city of Berkeley in 2002, making it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Two ancient burials were disturbed by trenching just across the street at another development in 2016. A growing chorus of Ohlone descendants and Berkeley residents are calling for a memorial park, a two-acre green space to honor Ohlone history and culture, both past and present. Local Chochenyo leader Corrina Gould needs your help on this current sacred site battle. Learn more at her Indian People Organizing for Change website, the West Berkeley Shellmound Facebook page, or at project director Toby McLeod’s blog.
Sogorea Te Shellmound
During the 2010 prayer walk, one of the sites under the most scrutiny was the Sogorea Te shellmound in the city of Vallejo, located on 15 acres in Glen Cove Waterfront Park. The shellmound is 3,500 years old, and use of the site as a village and burial ground has been dated to 1,500 B.C. Like most shellmounds, it was leveled in the early 1900s by private property owners; the land was eventually deeded to a municipal agency for parkland.
Plans called for a $1.5 million low-intensity development to include picnic tables, a parking lot, a bathroom, and links to a network of Bay Area trails. Invasive plants will be eradicated and an old home on the property will be razed. The plan also called for “capping” the identified shellmound site with a layer of soil and installing plaques describing the land’s history. The proposed work would have been conducted under the observation of a state-designated indigenous representative, who had already given his approval of the project. Work on the park was slated to begin in October 2010.
But groups like Sacred Sites Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes and Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) opposed the plan and had been voicing concerns since 1999 about various attempts to develop the site. Indigenous activists instead ask that the entire site be undisturbed to protect the remaining shellmound and the environmentally sensitive wetland. They also ask that artifacts and remains removed during archeological digs be returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The University of California at Berkley, for example, houses approximately 13,000 ancestral remains from shellmounds like Sogorea Te.
“The creator picked that place for our ancestors to be buried,” Wounded Knee DeOcampo, one of the activists protesting development plans at Glen Cove, said. “That’s where our ancestors are. That’s where their spirits are. We have a responsibility as Indian people to protect our sacred sites.”
In 2011, following an occupation of the site by activists that lasted over 100 days, the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes established a cultural easement and settlement agreement with the City of Vallejo and the Greater Vallejo Recreation District which sets a legal precedent for granting Native people jurisdiction over their sacred sites and ancestral lands. The cultural easement would forever guarantee the tribes’ legal oversight in all activities at the site. In exchange, the tribes would agree to pay the city $100,000.
The deal allowed for a scaled-back version of the waterfront park project to proceed. Terms include elimination of a previously planned restroom facility and relocation of a “downsized” parking lot to an area tested to confirm that it contains no human remains or cultural artifacts
The Sogorea Te shellmound is just one of what used to be over 400 shellmounds clustered along the estuaries and inlets of the region, some acres wide and several stories high. The shellmounds were left by peoples of the Oholone, Patwin-Wintun, Bay Miwok, Coast Miwok, North Yokut, Wappo and South Pomo nations, a busy community of people who lived, traveled and traded all along a coastal landscape that provided plentiful resources.
Over time, the activities of daily life — eating shellfish, making tools, cooking, butchering animals, building shelters — led to the accumulation and compaction of tons of shells and other material in sloping mounds of rich soil. Generations of coastal dwellers returned to these shellmounds again and again, using the sites to bury ancestors — a way to intertwine their daily lives with the afterlife.
When European colonizers first came to the Bay Area in the 18th century, the shellmounds had been abandoned for hundreds of years, likely the result of an extended drought. But the shellmounds still retained their cultural significance and were visited and revered as sacred ancestral burial grounds.
As the San Francisco Bay Area urbanized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most shellmounds were razed for development, dug up for their rich topsoil, looted by artifact seekers, and excavated by archaeologists who catalogued the relics in museums or university archives. Today, there are no shellmounds in the area that haven’t been desecrated in some way.
The Emeryville shellmound, north of Oakland, is perhaps the most publicized example of how these burial grounds fared as the Bay Area developed. Associated with the Ohlone people, it was one of the largest shellmounds in the region. In 1876, the site was partially leveled for an amusement park; when the park closed in 1924, archaeologists excavated more than 700 indigenous graves. The site was then razed to build an industrial plant that occupied the site until the late 1990s, when the city demolished the buildings and started cleaning up the toxic soil left behind.
During that process, hundreds of human remains were found, some of which were reburied while others were taken to landfills or incinerated as part of the cleanup. Activists attended city council meetings to ask that the site be cleaned and allowed to remain open space and a place to honor ancestors. Construction continued, however, and was protested by groups like Indian People Organizing for Change, which now organizes the annual shellmound prayer walk.
The site was ultimately developed into the Bay Street Mall, a mix of retail and residential buildings. An unknown number of bodies are still interred under the three blocks of stores and apartments. Tucked in the rear of one of the stores is a small monument to the Ohlone shellmound. Every year on the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, the annual shellmound prayer walk ends at Emeryville, where activists hold a protest to educate consumers about the burial grounds beneath their feet.
Hidden Shellmounds, Hard-Fought Protection Efforts
All across the Bay Area, many shellmounds are now hidden underground, with nothing to identify the significance of the sites. Some, like the West Berkeley shellmound, which is beneath parking lots and commercial businesses, have received historical landmark recognition or some other form of identification. A few others, like the shellmound at the base of San Bruno Mountain, just south of San Francisco, or the shellmound in Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, are protected from commercial or residential development by land-use designations.
But these protections are hard-fought and take years to resolve. In the case of the San Bruno shellmound, it took a legal suit by environmental groups and a coalition of funders to stop commercial development on the site and raise the $1.3 million necessary to purchase the 25-acre property through a land trust.
At the Sogorea Te shellmound at Glen Cove, activists and organizers have staged several peaceful protests, hoping to stop the arrival of the first bulldozer. They continue to negotiate with the city to halt development plans so that the spirits buried there can be granted the respect and peace appropriate to ancestral burial grounds.
What You Can Do
- Review the history of activism at the Sogorea Te shellmound at the Protect Glen Cove website.
- Join the annual Shellmound Peace Walk or make a donation in support of the walkers. Learn more at Indian People Organizing for Change.
- Shellmound activists continue to seek an attorney with expertise in Native American federal law to help preserve the Sogorea Te shellmound. For further information or to contribute to the legal fund, contact:
Wounded Knee DeOcampo
400 Keats Drive
Vallejo, CA 94590
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Becker, Leonard. “San Bruno Mountain Shellmound.” Sacred Sites International.
Buchanan, Wyatt. “Conservationists buy land in San Bruno.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 10, 2004.
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Del Vecchio, Rick. “Emeryville: Filmmaker tells story of forgotten Indian burial ground disrupted by quest for retail.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 2005.
Dury, John and Laird Townsend. “Shellmound at San Bruno Mountain: Historical Essay.” Found SF.
Greater Vallejo Recreation District. Final Glen Cove Waterfront Master Plan. August 2007.
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