When we think of the Navajo, we think of the Red Rocks of the Arizona Desert. The Lakota — the wind-whipped, sprawling expanses of the Great Plains. And for the Ohlone? Concrete. The urban Indian landscape is far different than any other part of Indian Country.
The West Berkeley Shellmound has been in existence for approximately 5,700 years. It was the first place that tribes ever lived on by the shores of the San Francisco Bay. It has been hearing the songs and prayers of the descendents of the persons buried there for that entire time. The landscape surrounding it has changed, and so too have the prayers of the Ohlone people who gather to pray there.
The Shellmounds are cemeteries. They are built from burials of Ohlone people, their sacred objects and their two-legged and four-legged relatives in the animal kingdom. Condors and coyotes are buried alongside Ohlone people at these Shellmounds. The Shellmounds are viewed as sacred sites by Ohlone people. They are where they offer songs, prayers, speak to their ancestors and teach their children about their way of life.
When the Spanish arrived in the Bay Area, there would have been more than 430 Shellmounds that would have towered over the shores of the Bay, from the Presidio down to San Jose and all the way up the East Bay to Vallejo. Some were as much as 60 feet high and spanned multiple football fields in width and length. Sailors used them as navigation points, as they would glimmer in the sun because of the reflections coming off of the undersides of the abalone and mussel shells. These would have been an intrinsic part of the landscape, but also to the life of the Ohlone people.
Human beings have changed the landscape of the San Francisco Bay for the past 5,000 years. The Ohlone, who built a unique culture and the stunning Shellmounds, were eventually enslaved by the Spanish under the mission system. While they were enslaved in the California missions, their landscapes were cut up and divided. First by the missions and the Spanish, then by the Mexican government for land grants, and later by the United States and California. Indian lands were grabbed by miners during the California Gold Rush and by homesteaders. Non-Indians slowly gained deeds and titles to Ohlone land, while the Ohlone were surviving the third wave of genocide being inflicted by the state of California.
If you live in the United States, you live in Indian Country. But the vast majority of this land was never ceded by the original inhabitants. Some Indians were converted to a foreign religion and told to abandon their culture; others were marched onto reservations. Some were butchered; others had their rights slowly whittled down by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Senate. In the Bay Area, genocide and concrete were the answers to dealing with the “Indian Problem.” Genocide was the policy from first contact through the 1800s. Concrete and land ownership would be the form of Indian eradication after that.
Indian sacred sites have been covered in concrete, served as the foundations of libraries and bars. In the case of the West Berkeley Shellmound, they were paved as the streets of Berkeley. Pieces were collected as souvenirs by the citizens of Berkeley, by archaeologists and by professors who still keep them locked up in the Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley.
Today, the Ohlone people struggle for access to their sacred sites. Ohlone land has been for sale for the past several hundred years. The Confederated Villages of Lisjan, for instance, have a territory that spans a million acres. Yet they do not own a single acre. Their sacred sites, such as Brushy Peak and Mission Peak, are owned by the East Bay Regional Parks District.
Brushy Peak was so sacred that only ceremonial leaders and medicine people were allowed to climb it. Today, the park district proclaims that the entire public should have access to this site; they invite you to walk your dog there — but they to pick up after your dog when it takes a dump on this Ohlone Sacred Site.
The park district proposes to bulldoze through an Ohlone Village site and through cultural remains on Mission Peak to build a road and allow the public to take selfies on the sacred site. Ohlones have no ownership or control over their land.
What isn’t owned by the park district is privately owned. The West Berkeley Shellmound, or 1900 4th St., is currently set to turn into a five-story building. You might soon be able to order your favorite take-out or buy a condo on top of this Ohlone Sacred Site. While you are eating or looking out on your view of the Bay Area, you might hear the sounds of clapper sticks and the songs of Ohlone people in the courtyard next to you.
Ohlone people have been praying at the West Berkeley Shellmound for 5,700 years. What they prayed for in the past, we cannot know. But in the past 200 years, those prayers have surely changed. Today, when I hear Ohlone people pray at the Shellmounds, it is for the return of their ancestors to the earth. It is for a stop to the destruction of their sacred sites. It is for the strength, endurance and perseverance to teach their children and grandchildren how to pray on parking lots and on top of concrete.
Christopher Oakes is a member of Indian People Organizing for Change and a registered member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.