Local Indigenous leaders discuss West Berkeley Shellmound, Ohlone burial site

Xiaoye Yan /Staff

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Local Indigenous leaders held a press conference Friday to provide updates on their continued efforts to prevent development at the West Berkeley Shellmound site at 1900 4th St., which they consider to be a sacred burial site of the Ohlone Indians.

Developers West Berkeley Investors want to use the site, which is currently a parking lot for Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, for the construction of 30,000 square feet of street retail, along with 155 apartment units and 214 retail parking spaces. Indigenous activist groups have been attempting to protect the location from development because they consider it to be the oldest village site in the San Francisco Bay Area and a sacred location for the Ohlone Indians.

“I think it’s interesting for people in the Bay Area that they think of sacredness and maybe not think of a parking lot,” Corrina Gould, Chochenyo Ohlone leader and co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change, said at the press conference. “For us this is the oldest village site … this is a legacy. This is a place that we have always been and we continue to pray on this place. This place is sacred to us.”

Gould said around 1,779 letters were written to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board in opposition to the development project, while five letters were written in favor. Because of the magnitude of statements against development, Gould stated during the conference that the developers have entered into conversation with the Indigenous groups to determine a resolution for both parties. She added, however, that the details of the conversation currently remain confidential.

Although Ron Heckmann, who manages public relations for Blake Griggs Properties, a partner in West Berkeley Investors, declined to comment, Blake Griggs Properties Vice President Lauren Seaver previously told The Daily Californians in regard to the location being considered a sacred site that it had “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.”

Maps found last spring dating back to 1857 seemed to indicate that the location at 1900 4th St. was formerly a marshland that would have been mostly underwater. Although the site was believed to be uninhabitable, the Ohlone Indians still consider the location to be part of the West Berkeley Shellmound.

Following the press conference Friday, Gould and Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk led a prayer around the perimeter of the parking lot, with a procession that included about 50 people. Gould urged community members to continue to come visit the site and pray there.

At the press conference, Gould announced that a series of lectures are scheduled for the coming months on the Bay Area shellmounds, as well as lectures regarding preservation and the native perspective, that will feature Ohlone leaders and other local experts.

During the conference, Sisk said protecting the West Berkeley Shellmound site is vital to her in order to reconnect with the past generations that walked that land and to hang onto the remnants of their history.

“Most of us Indigenous people, we lost our land, we lost our way, we lost our places, and so now it’s time to go back to that because many people are now lost,” Sisk said at the conference. “Many people are disconnected … but it’s places like this that will connect that again.”

Sydney Fix is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.