Emeryville Shellmound

Just North of Oakland, California is the Emeryville Shellmound, a burial ground associated with the Ohlone Indians, some of the earliest residents of the present-day San Francisco Bay Area (http://www.sacred-sites.org/preservation/more_shell.html). Estimated to have been in use from 500 B.C. to roughly 1700 A.D., the site began as a series of about 400 mounds upon which the Ohlone people built their villages and established their lives. The mounds grew in size from amassing animal and human remains, shells, and ceremonial burial objects. The largest mound was 60 feet high and about 350 feet wide, with “one distinctive cone and several smaller cones” (http://www.sacred-sites.org/preservation/more_shell.html). It is thought to be the largest mound in the bay region.

The site was developed into the Bay Street Mall, which spans three blocks and is made up of residential and retail buildings alike. A number of bodies are still buried under the mall, although the exact number is unknown. The original site (not the mall) is undoubtedly threatened, and native people are outraged about the development that has taken place. As Morning Star Gali said, “people are shopping on the graves of our ancestors… don’t shop on our graves. Don’t continue to desecrate these burial sites” (http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2008/11/black-friday-protest-of-emeryville.html). Clearly, people are not happy about what has gone on in Emeryville, and they aren’t afraid to voice their opinions.

The shellmound is understood to hold both secular and sacred functions, and was extremely important in Ohlone culture, establishing genealogies and territorial rights. Even though the shellmound has been altered over the centuries, Ohlone descendants consider the site to be extremely important, especially because it is one of the last cultural and sacred sites remaining today. Preservation advocates argue that it should not have been disturbed, but rather “honored as a place set apart from the mundane world,” as the Sacred Sites International Foundation argues (http://www.sacred-sites.org/preservation/more_shell.html). While SSIF was founded by non-native preservationists, its Board of Directors is monitored and guided by an Advisory Board of Native People. This makes for an interesting case regarding the interpretation of the Emeryville Shellmound by both natives and non-natives; while the founders of SSIF are non-natives, they acknowledge the sacredness of the site. This is intriguing because I think we usually attribute the acknowledgement of a space’s sacredness to its original inhabitants, not to outsiders or non-natives.

Once the largest burial ground in the area, the Emeryville Shellmound has been torn apart numerous times; it was partially flattened in 1876 to erect an amusement park, and when the park closed in 1924, archaeologists discovered over 700 indigenous graves. An industrial plant was then constructed, but when that was torn down in the late 1990s, “hundreds of human remains were found.” Some of these were subsequently reburied while others were incinerated or taken to landfills. Shellmound activists asked that the site be cleaned and remain open so that ancestors could be honored. Despite this request, construction continued, causing widespread ire and indignation among native people. This led to the organization of protests by groups such as Indian People Organizing for Change, the group behind the annual shellmound prayer walk. It appears that as non-natives, the developers had no respect (or little enough that they simply didn’t care) for the wishes of activists and native people; their response to claims of sacredness indicate indifference towards the pleas of others. (http://www.sacredland.org/shellmounds-of-the-bay-area/)

While at Pine Ridge I began to understand just how important respect for elders is in the Lakota community, and I get the sense that this is characteristic of most (if not all) Native American peoples. With this in mind, the sacrality of the Emeryville Shellmound is directly tied to its history as a burial ground. The Ohlone people are presumably so irate (and justifiably so) with developers in Emeryville because they are blatantly disrespecting the Ohlone elders. One could not expect them (developers) to completely halt construction; after all, economic development is a necessary evil in our day and age. But some semblance of respect for sacred rituals of people who lived here long before any of us would have been nice. I am not sure what ceremonies would have taken place on the burial ground (besides those honoring people who passed away), but the primary source of the shellmound’s sacrality was its function as a resting place for the Ohlone dead. If my understanding of the importance of elders in Native American communities is correct, then it is safe to say that the shellmound’s sacrality is inextricably linked to its prior role as a burial ground.

The outcomes of this controversy may shift over time, but right now the most obvious one is a threatening of trust between native people and city developers. This wariness has two sources; the first is the fact that the site was razed at all, and the second is the developers’ lack of respect for native people’s wishes. While the two reasons for distrust took place in different centuries, they both illustrate why mistrust is present. While many people are rightfully upset about the construction of a mall on their ancestors’ burial ground, the city councilmen have tried to honor the site in the way that they see fit. There is a memorial to the original site on the back of the Old Navy store; it is much like a small park, with a concrete pathway and an artsy fence that runs along the creek. At the end of the path lies a mock shellmound, facing a hotel across the street. One section of the mound is cut away, exposing layers of sediment that might have been present when the shellmound was originally in use. There are shells embedded in the bottom of the mound, and a fountain flows from some boulders into a pool lined with rocks. I see all of this as an elaborate attempt on the part of the city to apologize to the native people. Regardless of what happens in the future, any efforts on the part of the city to make amends are futile: as one protester made clear, the mock shellmound is “very disrespectful.”

– Kate Santulli

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