Twenty years ago, the city of Berkeley landmarked the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site a sacred burial site for Ohlone Native Americans. Last year, the site was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States.
Today, protestors tie ribbons on the barbed wire around the property. On Saturday, Ohlone supporters held a candlelight vigil to protest the fencing. About 100 supporters gathered to dance, sing and recite poetry.
The protest comes amid a four-year legal battle after developers Ruegg and Ellsworth and the Frank Spenger Company planned to build a five-story retail and apartment complex on the site, according to a press release from the Campaign to Save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound and Historic Village Site. The complex would have included affordable housing units, according to Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan (Ohlone).
On Feb. 18, while the developers’ lawyers were appealing a decision that protected the site, the developers enclosed the property with a fence and barbed wire, according to the press release. When Ohlone supporters tied ribbons on the fence to offer prayers, workers were allegedly seen cutting off the ribbons.
“It’s imprisoning our sacred space,” Gould said. “(We want) these walls to come down, for all walls to come down. We want access to this land to do prayer as we have for thousands of years.”
Nancy Feinstein, a member of 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations, an activist group that supports the Ohlone tribe, opposed the installation of fences, likening it to colonialism.
According to Feinstein, the promise of affordable housing intentionally divides oppressed peoples by pitting low-income families against the Ohlone people.
“We are not against development. Our own families need housing,” Gould said. “But there are places that need to be saved that are special.”
Before the vigil began, supporters tied ribbons onto the fence and painted “SACRED SITE” in large, red letters along the road in front of the Shellmound. “PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING” signs were covered with posters reading “SACRED SITE NO DESECRATING.”
The vigil started with a performance of an Aztec dance at about 6:30 p.m. Muteado Silencio, a dancer at the vigil, said the dance was to offer prayers for the ancestral spirits who have passed away and show solidarity with the Lisjan Ohlone people.
Gould took the stage later that evening, and in her opening words, she emphasized the importance of protecting sacred lands and called the developers’ actions “shameful.”
The following hour was filled with singers and speakers playing music and reciting poetry. In her poem, Lisa “Tiny” Garcia-Gray called private property a “settler-colonial lie.”
At the end of the vigil, Gould thanked the audience for its support.
“It doesn’t matter how many times they take the ribbons down,” Gould said in the final minutes of the vigil. “Please come and put them back up.”