VALLEJO, Calif. – For Native descendants of the tribes who first inhabited the urbanized San Francisco Bay Area, struggles over the protection of ancestral sacred sites are often devastating.
Even after years of protests to block the excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound to build a mall, 2,500 ancestral bones were removed from the site and handed over to three universities.
A mall now occupies the site. Many of the 425 shellmounds across the Bay Area have been similarly paved over, said Muwekma Ohlone and Yokut organizer Corrina Gould.
Now, Native organizers are fighting to stop development atop a burial site in Vallejo, a region that was inhabited by the Patwin, Ohlone, Wintu, Yokut, Miwok and other tribes.
The Glen Cove Shellmound was paved over long ago and topped by homes and condos overlooking the 15-acre Glen Cove Waterfront Park. Many ancestral bones were removed from a burial site in the park in the 1900s and were last donated to UC Berkeley in 1952, said Judson King, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology interim director.
Next year, the Greater Vallejo Recreation District plans to knock down an old mansion built on the existing burial grounds, and replace it with restrooms and tables. In its plans, the district has adopted language that GVRD General Manager Shane McAffee said considers the concerns of Native people.
“Our whole goal is to preserve the site.”
Gould and other organizers remain skeptical of the GVRD’s plans, and argue that any development of the site is desecration. In November, protestors passed out brochures to residents as crews cleared eucalyptus trees in preparation for development, which includes using herbicides on trees in the sacred area.
“Because they want to seem politically correct, the developers are becoming familiar with the language so it sounds good for them to say ‘protecting and preserving,’ but it’s all a show. If they really were protecting and preserving, they would leave the site alone.”
Native activists began circulating petitions to stop development at the site years ago, and hold an annual Shellmound Peace Walk at Glen Cove Park. The walk stops at sacred sites across the Bay Area.
A coalition of Native groups including Vallejo Inter-Tribal Council, Sacred Sites Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes and the International Indian Treaty Council hold regular rallies at the site and continue to hold meetings to strategize how to stop the GVRD’s plans.
They are considering a court injunction and are searching for a pro bono lawyer, said Norman “Wounded Knee” Deocampo, Miwok, a member of the Vallejo Intertribal Council.
“They want to give us a little area with a cap on top of it and say it’s a sacred site. As indigenous people, we believe our ancestors need to see the sun rising in the east, that’s why they’re always buried facing east, to see the morning star,’ Deocampo said. “They dug up grandma and left grandpa. That’s their ‘compromise.’ There is no compromise on sacred sites and burial grounds.”
GVRD is moving ahead, McAffee said. A restroom is planned for installation “on the edge of the property outside of the sensitive areas” where there is an existing sewer line.
McAffee said GVRD supports efforts by Native organizers to repatriate the remains to the burial grounds, which represents about one-fourth of the development site. He would entertain suggestions that Native contractors lead the removal of the old house.
“I think there would be nothing better than for Native Americans to take control of the site and I would be happy to have them involved in the future. That would be wonderful.”
King said the Hearst Museum has not received a claim for the repatriation of remains taken from the Glen Cove burial grounds, which come from the Ohlone/Costanoans. They are one of more than 50 unrecognized tribes in California, many of which have been displaced from highly urbanized or disputed regions.
The Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act “says they only can be returned to recognized tribes. If there is no such affiliation, then we can’t do it unless they are able to gain an exception from the national NAGPRA which takes a really large case,” King said.
On Black Friday, Deocampo, Gould and other organizers reminded shoppers at Emeryville Mall what lies beneath. Some of the excavated artifacts removed from the site hang in display cases near the mall’s restrooms. Stone monuments along a walkway speak of a Native presence in the past tense.
Deocampo said he does not want to see another burial ground desecrated, and is hoping they can stop the plans for Glen Cove Park.
“I ask Indian people across the country to join us and our struggle to stop developers and bureaucrats from destroying sacred burial land and sites. Our ancestors stood up and they killed them and took their land. Now it’s time for us to protect our ancestors how they protected us.”