Preserve and restore West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site

CITY AFFAIRS: Immeasurable cultural, religious significance of shellmound to Ohlone people should be reason enough to halt plans for development

Illustration of a map of the West Berkeley shellmound, with a hand trying to pull away the map from others
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Crossing the city limit into Berkeley, drivers pass a sign that reads, “Welcome to the City of Berkeley: Ohlone Territory.” Berkeley City Council added this land acknowledgment in 2019 to remind residents — and make it known to new and returning visitors — that Berkeley rests on the ancestral land of the Ohlone people.

It’s clear, however, that many still do not respect the Ohlone claim to this ground. 

Since 2018, a private developer has been vying to construct housing and retail on the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site. After the City Council denied the developer’s request to build, the developer sued. Just recently, the developer enclosed the site with fencing — a move that rightfully upset Ohlone activists.

Covered, in part, by a parking lot, the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site no longer resembles the commemorative monument it once was. But that doesn’t diminish its significance as the oldest Ohlone gathering place and burial ground in the Bay Area. 

Because the asphalt pavement rests atop the shellmound, the layers of soil, shells and human remains that lie below are relatively undisturbed — the only part of the West Berkeley Shellmound yet to be desecrated. As such, Ohlone leaders say this land is sacred, providing a ceremonial place for Ohlone people today to connect with their ancestors. 

We must listen.

Indigenous sites such as this one are dwindling. The West Berkeley Shellmound is just one of an estimated 425 similar mounds that once dotted the Bay Area before centuries of colonialism all but erased them. 

Some years ago, a shellmound in Emeryville was unceremoniously excavated to construct a shopping mall. Other Indigenous sites across the Bay Area have also been destroyed, including one shellmound in Oakland, which is marked today by a Burger King.

In what kind of world does a fast food restaurant take precedence over a significant Indigenous site thousands of years old? 

The developer now claiming ownership of the West Berkeley Shellmound plans to build affordable housing on the site — a worthy cause, no doubt. But pitting advocates of affordable housing against Ohlone activists is unfair. 

Affordable housing can be built elsewhere; a 5000-year-old Indigenous burial site cannot. Given the long and troubling history of persecution of Indigenous people in the Bay Area, knowingly desecrating sacred Ohlone land is simply unjustifiable. Ardent protest from Ohlone activists and allies has made this abundantly clear.

Instead, Ohlone leaders have called for the restoration of the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site as a commemorative natural space with a cultural center. This vision — to recover, in a meaningful way, at least part of what has been taken from the Ohlone people — deserves Berkeley’s support.

Until then, not further destroying sacred Ohlone land already paved over by asphalt, though perhaps the bare minimum by way of reconciliation, is a most important start.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.