West Berkeley Shellmound controversy inspires lecture on archaeology of shellmounds

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Paige Hagerman/Staff

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In light of recent controversy surrounding the West Berkeley Shellmound, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, or BAHA, presented the first of a series of lectures on the archaeology and mapping of Bay Area shellmounds Thursday.

Shellmounds are thick, human-created deposits that serve as an “artificial hill” where various cultural activities took place, said Brian Byrd, a prehistorian and archaeologist who specializes in the Bay Area shellmounds, at the event. BAHA aimed to use the lecture to help educate the community on shellmounds, according to BAHA’s press release about the event.

At the event, speakers and community members also addressed the West Berkeley Shellmound at 1900 Fourth St., which Ohlone community members consider a sacred site. Controversy has risen over the site, however, because West Berkeley Investors want to develop the property, while the Ohlone people want to preserve the land.

“It was fascinating, and it helps to clarify about the shellmounds for everyone in the community, to bring awareness of it,” said Janice Gloe, an Oakland resident who has been involved in efforts to preserve the Bay Area shellmounds with the Ohlone tribe. “Hopefully that’s going to bring more people to … help preserve the shellmounds.”

Corrina Gould, an Ohlone activist and co-creator of Indian People Organizing for Change, led a remembrance of the Ohlone presence and a prayer at the event.

Representatives from several co-sponsoring organizations were also invited to speak briefly.

Toby McLeod of Earth Island Institute’s Sacred Land Film Project said he was collaborating with Indigenous people to make films about their sacred lands being threatened and destroyed.

“The West Berkeley Shellmound site, for Corrina and Lisjan people, really fits the definition of a sacred place,” McLeod said at the event. “We’re here tonight to think about and feel the importance and cultural significance of that place, which is now proposed to become a five-story condominium.”

At the event, Byrd spoke about how Indigenous people alone occupied the Bay Area until Spanish colonization began in 1776. The Spanish targeted five major groups, including the Ohlone, Bay Miwok and Patwin. Scott Byram, archaeologist and author of “Triangulating Archaeological Landscapes,” added in his presentation that shellmound destruction increased as automobile use necessitated paved roads.

In response to a question from an audience member with regards to how to document sacred Native sites respectfully, Gould said many Native people don’t want the locations of sacred sites to be disclosed publicly because of a lack of laws that protect those sites from being damaged.

“Some places should not be told to people for that reason, but there should be documentation for my grandchildren to know where those places are,” Gould said. “The thing is that if we don’t know in this generation where all of our ancestors are and all of those sacred places are, we cease to exist as people.”

Contact Naira Khalid at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @nairakhalid.