‘The true birthplace of Berkeley’: Ohlone tribe defends sacred Shellmound site

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Erin Haar/Staff

For Corrina Gould, a member of the Ohlone tribe, the site at 1900 Fourth St. is more than a parking lot — to her, the site is a sacred burial land and the first inhabited village of the first people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The West Berkeley Shellmound has been the subject of ongoing controversy in Berkeley, as many people have argued over who has rightful ownership of the land.

Although the Ohlone people are not a federally recognized native tribe, the Shellmound, which is currently a parking lot for Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, is a city-designated historical landmark and is considered to be a sacred site for the Ohlone people, according to Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change.

“That particular sacred site carbon-dates back to 6,500 years — much longer than the city of Berkeley has been here,” Gould said. “It’s our heritage site. It’s our first site our ancestors had their village at.”

But West Berkeley Investors, a real-estate development company, wants to build residential and commercial facilities on the Shellmound. The company plans to develop a five-story building that will include 155 residential units and 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, as well as 372 parking spaces within a parking garage.

Ron Heckmann, who manages public relations for Blake Griggs Properties — a partner in West Berkeley Investors — declined to comment on the developers’ involvement with the Shellmound.

Blake Griggs Properties Vice President of Development Lauren Seaver, however, previously told The Daily Californian that the Shellmound site is not sacred, citing a set of maps published by the United States Geological Survey website. The maps date back to 1857 and reveal that the Shellmound was a marshland that was mostly underwater, making it uninhabitable.

maps

“While important in the context of being in an area that is culturally important, the 1900 Fourth Street site has proven to be void of being culturally rich with artifacts and of culturally important discoveries that will have an adverse impact to the historic resource,” Seaver previously said to the Daily Cal in an email.

In March and April 2016, human remains were found at 1919 Fourth St., which is across the street from the Shellmound. The city conducted an investigation, and a report released in November 2016 by the Native American Heritage Commission found that the remains were of Ohlone ancestors.

According to Gould, community members sent about 1,779 letters to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board, or ZAB, in opposition to the proposed construction on the Shellmound.

“(The Shellmound) is the true birthplace of Berkeley,” said community member Adelita Gonzales in her letter to ZAB. “It continues to be of utmost significance as a ceremonial center to the Ohlone people today.”

Because of the community’s support for the Shellmound, Gould said she and her lawyer have been consulting with the developers all summer to try to reach a compromise. Until then, the proposed project for the site is on hold.

In November 2016, the city conducted a public environmental impact report, or EIR, in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, to determine the potential environmental consequences of the proposed development on the Shellmound.

The report states that, to date, four burial locations and the bones of five people have been identified during the archaeological recovery project at 1919 Fourth St. According to Gould, the remains were later returned to the Ohlone tribe for reburial.

The EIR also states that the original conditions of the Shellmound’s exact boundaries were never properly defined.

The report concludes that the proposed development “would not result in significant impacts” related to cultural resources, among other topics, including aesthetics and greenhouse gas emissions. It adds, however, that there may be some unidentified fossils in the area.

“There are no unidentified paleontological resources or unique geologic features or sites within, or in the vicinity of, the Project site,” the report states. “However, demolition, site preparation, and construction of activities associated with the proposed Project could adversely impact previously unidentified fossils.”

To combat this impact, the EIR recommends Mitigation Measure CUL-1, which states that if any fossils are encountered during construction, all ground-disturbing activities within 50 feet must be stopped so a paleontologist can assess the situation. If the fossil is found to be significant and construction activities cannot avoid the fossils, a report will be submitted to a paleontological repository and the city for review.

Despite the findings of the EIR, Gould emphasized that the proposed construction would have a severe cultural impact.

“I implore Berkeley to take a stand against this construction that will benefit wealthy developers at the expense of the five thousand years of history.”
—community member Adelita Gonzales in a letter to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board

“This is part of a inclusive landscape that is part of living. They’re trying to isolate a block, saying because there was water there at some point. … (But) this is the first place our ancestors lived,” Gould said. “They’re trying to conclusively say there is no cultural impact — there is clearly cultural impact.”

According to the EIR, the proposed development would have significant irreversible changes on land use for future generations, environmental accidents and consumption of nonrenewable resources.

The EIR concludes that the option that would have the least environmental impact would be either to have no project on the site or to reduce the planned construction for the site.

Because the EIR is now public, the Ohlone tribe and the developers will be able to provide their responses to the report. Both the report and their comments will be presented to ZAB, so the board can either approve or disapprove the proposed development, according to ZAB chair Igor Tregub.

“This is a clear opportunity for the City of Berkeley to follow through on its resolutions to honor and protect sacred sites and the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Gonzales said in her letter to ZAB. “I implore Berkeley to take a stand against this construction that will benefit wealthy developers at the expense of the five thousand years of history.”

There will be several lectures Oct. 26, Nov. 2 and Nov. 9 at the Hillside Club by historians, archeologists and Ohlone people to educate the public on the issues surrounding the West Berkeley Shellmound.

Gould said the Shellmound is not just important to Ohlone people, but to everyone on Ohlone land.

“It’s the first site that was inhabited and everyone should be aware and respectful. We all should be trying to preserve and protect its history,” Gould said. “(The Shellmound) is the best place to learn about this land and we should respect it and the Ohlone people who inhabited this land who are still here today.”

Jessíca Jiménez covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected] and and follow her on Twitter at @jesscajimenez_dc.

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  • California Defender

    “(The Shellmound) is the true birthplace of Berkeley,” said community member Adelita Gonzales in her letter to ZAB.

    Well, if you ignore the Esselen people who were living there for 6,000 years before the Ohlone arrived and kicked them out.

    But let’s not confuse this virtue signalling with facts.

    • s randall

      If you look at the information in the Draft EIR, it says that the site was inhabited prior to 2000 BCE. That would include the Esselen period.

      https://www.cityofberkeley.info/uploadedFiles/Planning_and_Development/Level_3_-_ZAB/1900%20Fourth%20St%20EIR%20Public%20Review.pdf

      • California Defender

        I see no mention of the Esselen. Instead, the complainants are either members or supporters (can’t tell which) of the Ohlone who continue to claim they were here first when clearly they were not. Frankly, the Ohlone did to the Esselen exactly what the Spanish did to them centuries later. Nobody is innocent but they all were just being human.

        • s randall

          I’m sure any Esselen descendents would side with the Ohlone on this.

          • California Defender

            Probably, as they have merged with the Ohlone into an unrecognized tribe.

            That doesn’t change the fact that they were a distinct tribe. They had their own distinct language and culture for 6,000 years until the more aggressive Ohlone arrived. Most fled to the south while those who remained were assimilated.

            But none of that matters to hypocritical Berkeleyites who want to keep their land and virtue signal at the same time.

          • s randall

            You are making a distinction that doesn’t exist. You are saying that current Ohlone have Esselen ancestors. If that’s the case, then you are saying that current Ohlone have ancestors that have lived in Berkeley for 6,000 years.

            There are State laws that protect Native American sites. To me the issue isn’t virtue, it’s compliance with State Law. The side that makes the best case will hopefully prevail. My sense from reading the draft EIR is that the developer will have to do a better job making its case. I’m not a lawyer, so FWIW.

          • California Defender

            Many Americans have native blood, as do I. Does that mean that I am entitled to a particular plot of land just because I have a distant relative who lived there? You’re actually making an interesting point that destroys entire concept of native land and rights. Some tribes have already countered this by requiring a percentage of blood to “validate” a connection. Would they ignore the rule if it meant obtaining more land?

            Also, which state law is being violated? To my knowledge, all tribal land is administered by the federal government. Ultimately, I agree with you and hope the tribes will be successful in this case. But that draws into question the rest of their land, much of which UCB and the City of Berkeley sits on. This is the hypocritical virtue signaling I’m referring to.

          • s randall

            This was in the draft EIR. It’s the biggest bone of contention. (pun intended)

            Potential Impacts to Historical Resources. The proposed Project would occur
            within the boundary of City Landmark #227, the West Berkeley Shellmound. As a
            designated City Landmark, the Shellmound qualifies as a historical resource under CEQA
            (CEQA Guidelines Section 15064.5(a)(2)).

          • California Defender

            This makes much more sense as it has nothing to do with tribal land and everything to do with the city’s landmark designation.

  • tjimmel

    That land isn’t sacred to you because, you know, we say it’s not.

  • William M Popper

    Remove asphalt pavement.
    Plant native trees, grasses and plants in area.