Honoring the Ohlone or housing? The fight to preserve the sacred West Berkeley Shellmound

ByMackenzie Stock KGO logo
Wednesday, November 23, 2022
Honoring Ohlone or housing? The fight to preserve a sacred space
The fight to protect and preserve the West Berkeley Shellmound has been going on for years. We have a look at the vision for an Ohlone Cultural Park.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- The fight to protect and preserve the West Berkeley Shellmound has been going on for years. We have a first look at the vision for an Ohlone Cultural Park. Did you know under this concrete lies a 6,000-year-old history?

"The West Berkeley Shellmound is the oldest known archaeological site or historic structure of any kind here in the Bay Area," said Lucy Gill, UC Berkeley Anthropology Ph.D. candidate.

Corrina Gould, the Tribal Chair for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, has been fighting to preserve and protect the West Berkeley Shellmound for the last six years.

"But a private developer wants to own this land and to build on top of it. As Ohlone people, as Lisjan people who have been here since the beginning of time, we also need housing for our own people," Gould said. "But this is not the place for it. This place should be opened up for everyone in the Bay Area to know about our people. This should be a place of prayer that has always been."

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Addressing a crowd of shellmound supporters, Corrina spoke in Chochenyo, "Hore 'uyak, 'kaana Lisjan-ka, 'kaana raakat' Corrina. My name is Corrina Gould and I just spoke to you in the language of our ancestors. The first language that was ever here in the East Bay, Chochenyo. My great-grandfather Jose Guzman was one of the last speakers of the language. And we have been fighting to preserve and protect the West Berkeley Shellmound."

"Save the Berkeley Shellmound now!" the supporters chanted.

Kent Lightfoot is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, who has been looking into the West Berkeley Shellmound's archaeological significance.

"Shellmounds are really an astounding archaeological manifestation here in the greater San Francisco Bay Area," he said. "There were more than 425 of these recorded."

Gill adds, "The mound itself is comprised of shells, ash, pit-houses and various things within it."

According to Lightfoot, "The West Berkeley Shellmound was known as one of the very largest and the earliest. It's about 6,000 years with our most recent radio carbon dates and it goes til about 1,000. So it was used for at least 5,000 years."

Gill notes it holds knowledge about how the Ohlone people were living in the area.

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In recent years, Lightfoot was able to use previously excavated materials to gain a wealth of new information about the West Berkeley Shellmound.

"The West Berkeley site was the first major fishing village on the San Francisco Bay," he said. "They had a fishing technique where they used nets in a very sophisticated way. If you think about it at night, some of them (shellmounds) were 20 to 30 feet in height and they would have had fires on them. If you'd been out in the Bay in one of these boats you would have seen fires all around the Bay. It would have been like a beacon that this place was very, very much occupied and very, very much alive."

Despite City Landmark Status, the developer was granted a permit to build on this site.

Gill worked with Gould and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan to try and protect the site legally, as did the City of Berkeley.

"There was a law passed called SB35 that enables developers that are building a certain amount of affordable housing to sort of circumvent environmental review process," said Gill. "The developer sued the city, the city won in the trial court and then the developer appealed and the developer won the appeal."

Gould explains, "There was an archaeologist that came and found the shellmound and then a few years later the same archaeologist was hired by the developer and then found nothing."

The developer won the appeal and the court forced the City of Berkeley to issue a permit for development.

"The law now does include an exception for the West Berkeley Shellmound and other such resources," Gill said. "But, unfortunately, that exception doesn't apply retroactively and so there was a very small window which sites like the West Berkeley Shellmound were not protected."

"But we have a different vision for the best use of this land, a green space and a cultural park," said Gould." There's not one place in the Bay Area that talks about Ohlone history and resiliency and that this could be that place. Then why not the city of Berkeley? UC Berkeley has decimated our sacred sites and hold 9,000 of our ancestral remains. Why not return them home where they belong? Part of them belong here at the West Berkeley Shellmound. Children should have the ability to play in an open creek again, like we did when we were kids. A place where we can have ceremony, the way we're supposed to. Not on asphalt but on a place that's green that has trees growing. And that's not only good for us, that's good for everyone that lives in the Bay Area."

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Chris Walker is the landscape architect who worked with the Confederated Villages of Lisjan to design the park.

"We're trying to reconstruct what it was like to be here," he said. "Which would include a dome, a covered dome, that has poppies all over it. And it's planned to be a museum, a welcoming center, a community center for the Ohlone themselves, a digital theater that would help visualize what this place looked like 200 years ago," said Walker.

Gould adds, "You could hear and smell and see and feel what it was like to be at a shellmound. To talk about the history, and it's a painful history, but also to uplift the resiliency of language coming back and ceremony and dance and a place for culture to be shared."

Claire Greensfelder is on the Steering Committee for the West Berkeley Shellmound and explained, "This gives us the opportunity to reteach the history of California. As someone whose family came here 150 years ago, it's our responsibility to make amends to the Native people who where here before."

"In order to understand these sites properly, we really need to protect them," said Gill.

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"Archaeology's changed dramatically since the days that this was excavated. Back then they didn't really work with tribes at all," said Lightfoot

"Working on a new kind of archaeology that instead of digging up sites, preserves them in place and really integrates that Indigenous perspective that the old interpretations really lack," added Gill.

Against a backdrop of the parking lot and Berkeley's Fourth Street shoppers, dancers put prayers down. "This is not a parking lot! This is the home of a sacred Shellmound."

"We are asking the general public to dream with us what this could be, to put pressure on the city council in a loving way to do whatever they can to think outside of that box," Gould said. "I believe in miracles. In my lifetime I've seen miracles."

If you would like to get involved you can go to shellmound.org for ways to help honor the Lisjan Ohlone and their sacred site

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