San Bruno Mountain Shellmound

Dan Lewis


San Bruno Mountain Shellmound


San Bruno Mountain (SBM), located just south of San Francisco, holds the site of one of the largest shellmounds in the California Bay Area. The shellmound is considered sacred land to the indigenous Ohlone tribe, who has wished to keep the site untouched. This, however, has come into contention with two seemingly opposite groups of non-indigenous peoples: real estate developers, who want to build on the land, and ecological conservationists, who value the rare species on the land more than the indigenous value of sacredness. Although the land was preserved, the story of the SBM shellmound reveals how the indigenous value of sacred land is rarely acknowledged or understood by non-indigenous people.

Although difficult to sum up entirely, an important aspect of sacredness for present-day Ohlone seems to relate to feelings of connection with Ohlone ancestors who lived on the land and/or were buried in it. Both Ella Rodriguez and Patrick Orozco, Ohlone who each spent extended time at SBM, described experiencing important connections to the people of the past from being on the land. For Rodgriguez, “the past feelings were there,” and Orozco reported feeling that “much praying was done” at the site (Dury & Townsend). Orozco also commented on the significance of the physical burials in the shellmound, saying “the spirituality that is there, [is there] because the ancestors are still there” (Ragir).

The sacredness of the SBM shellmound, then, is tied to the physical and emotional presence of Ohlone ancestors to modern-day Ohlone. However, the continuation of this presence requires respect of the land, articulated by Orozco as, “any disturbance of [the ancestors] resting place would release the sacredness of the mountain.” And for Orozco and many Ohlone, “it is desecration to remove even a flower from a grave” (Ragir).

This value of respect for sacred land sets the stage for conflict between the Ohlone and SunChase GA, a company whose business was to develop a three-part project they called TerraBay on SBM land. In 1994, SunChase acquired ownership of the land completed Phase I of the TerraBay plan, creating 286 homes on the southwest side of San Bruno Mountain (Dury & Townsend; Hwang). Plans for Phase II were put underway, and the proposal for Phase III included turning the shellmound site into a parking lot for a commercial complex. The Ohlone protested these developments being made, and it is SunChase’s actions and lack of response to this protest that shows a lack of acknowledgement to the value of sacredness.

In the late 1980s, the former owners of the SBM land, WW Dean, hired archaeologist Matthew Clark to draft a report on the significance of the property, as was required by law before a site can be developed. Clark evidence of a unique ecological and human history in the shellmound, and his report stated that the development of the site would “necessarily disturb possibly dozens or hundreds of human burials,” and concluded that development required “coordination and cooperation with the Native American community by all parties involved in the work” (Dury & Townsend).

However, before the report was released, WW Dean’s financial source was shut down by the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), which put WW Dean into massive debt, leading to the mortgaging of the SBM property. According to an anonymous source, the RTC sold this mortgage to SunChase, who then foreclosed on WW Dean’s debt. After this, the RTC refused to release Clark’s report, “claiming it was private property.” The other holders of the report could not legally release it because it was in draft form, so it was never submitted to the public. SunChase denied opportunities to comment on their own position on this story or their position on their development plans (Dury & Townsend).

That the RTC and SunChase refused to release the archaeological report shows a lack of consideration for the sacred value of the SBM site, and also suggests that the systems of law and governance around land development were not functioning to ensure indigenous values were acknowledged. There was no government authority that prevented the RTC from claiming that the archaeology report was private property, even though the laws in place requiring developers to publish a report before building on a site never changed. That SunChase refused to comment on this legally questionable history that was published by FoundSF hints at it the story’s validity, and suggests the company did not feel the need to defend its position because there are no forces of authority functioning to regulate their legal and ethical actions.

However, in 1997, Clark’s archeological report came into the hands of an organization of ecological conservationists known as San Bruno Mountain Watch (SBMW). The organization began voicing concerns for the preservation of the shellmound site, as well as the rare and endangered species unique to the mountain by protesting SunChase’s Phase III development plans alongside the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council (PVOIC). The protest did not change development plans, so SBMW sued the government authority, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, for inadequately analyzing the impact this development would have on the endangered butterflies, and therefore not abiding by the laws of the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The case never went to court though, because SunChase settled and agreed to remove the shellmound from its development plans (Hwang).

SBMW seemed to have many similar intentions and goals as the indigenous Ohlone, and even worked beside them toward preserving the shellmound site. Patrick Orozco, the head of PVOIC, and David Schooley, the head of SBMW, are in fact friends, and share a knowledge and desire to save the sacredness of the SBM shellmound (Dury & Townsend). However, because SBMW settled out of court over the dispute of land use with SunChase, the legality surrounding the value of sacred land was not debated. This means that although the land was protected, it was not due to the sacred value of the shellmound, even though the Ohlone had clear, well-supported land rights claims for the shellmound (Hwang). Despite their intentions, SBMW seemed to given away a real chance to change some of the laws surrounding this issue.

The story of the SBM shellmound outlines a real disconnect between indigenous and non-indigenous people’s interest in land, even for the non-indigenous that were intentionally working alongside indigenous groups. The idea of sacredness seemed to be an absent concept, certainly for the SunChase developers, but also for SBMW, whose disservice to the legal acknowledgment of the value likely stemmed from a lack of understanding and connection to it. To provide equitable acknowledgment of the sacred land perspective, it would perhaps be most helpful for non-indigenous to educate themselves on what sacredness means to indigenous people.


Works Cited


Buchanan, Wyatt. “Conservationists buy land in San Bruno.” SF Gate September 10, 2004. 11/4/11


Dury, John and Laird Townsend. “Shellmound at San Bruno Mountain.” Found SF Unknown Date. 11/4/11


Hwang, Janice. “Protecting the Ohlone Shellmounds of Berkeley, San Bruno, and Emeryville.” News from Native California Spring 2004: Vol. 17, Issue 3. 11/4/11


Ragir, Tamar. “San Bruno Mountain: Home to Natural & Cultural Treasures.” Site Saver, Volume IX, Number 1, Fall 1998



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *