Opinion: Desecrating the Ohlone village site at West Berkeley shellmound won’t solve housing crisis

The land on Fourth Street looks like a parking lot, but it represents what is left of the first village and funerary site of the author’s ancestors and should be left alone.

Imagine if you woke up every morning with the feeling “I am home.” Imagine after breakfast walking over to a place — a known location a few miles from your home — where your ancestors lived for 5,000 years. Well, I am home, and the area now known variously as the West Berkeley Shellmound and 1900 Fourth Street are where my people lived and died for a hundred generations. We pray there still.

Ohlone people are in favor of low-income housing and are aware of the extreme housing crisis we are facing in the Bay Area, our traditional territory. We need smart strategies to solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Desecrating an indigenous sacred site is not one of them. After two years of organizing to oppose an initial housing and retail project on this city-landmarked cultural heritage site, developers created a new plan and are pursuing a last-ditch effort to steamroll their multi-million-dollar housing development at 1900 Fourth Street under the guise of affordable housing by invoking a controversial new law known as SB 35.

Over the past few years, a broad, growing coalition has come together to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound, the oldest site of the human habitation in the Bay Area, and to propose an alternative plan for the site. We were winning the battle of public opinion, so the developers have tried this new tactic, although they are not known for building affordable housing.

The land at 1900 Fourth Street represents what is left of the first village and funerary site of my ancestors and it is still sacred to my people. This place that looks like a parking lot to most people is so much more. The soil under the asphalt holds the sacredness of 5,000 years of continuous prayers. We call on those who now live in our territory to take on the responsibility of standing with us to protect this sacred place, still used by Ohlone people as ceremonial ground.

To explain the history of the site, I’ve been working with local artist Chris Walker and filmmaker Toby McLeod to develop a series of maps to show how the Ohlone shellmound and village Site has evolved over the last 160 years, starting with an amazingly detailed 1856 U.S. Coast Survey map that carefully outlined not one but two shellmounds in the heart of the village.

Click on the photo to activate the slideshow:

The West Berkeley Shellmound – approximately 4,700 years old – is the oldest village site on the shores of San Francisco Bay. The land around the bay was once dotted with 425 shellmounds, burial sites where ancestral remains and other sacred objects such as shells were deposited. Shellmounds were so large that, according to archaeologist Brian Byrd, the West Berkeley Shellmound could be seen from another shellmound across the bay in what is now Sausalito. Through the colonization of California, and periods of Spanish, Mexican and U.S. occupation, those shellmounds have been mostly erased from the landscape, used to fertilize farms and pave the streets. But their size and weight left remains underground.

The West Berkeley Shellmound is a city of Berkeley landmark, has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and is listed on the California State Registry of Historic Places. Most crucially, the Shellmound continues to be a place of reverence for my people today. We gather as Ohlone people have for thousands of years, to pray to our ancestors and the Creator for the blessings of abundance and protection over the coming year.

We need to do everything we can to address the housing crisis, and there are numerous organizations, activists and policy-makers who’ve been working on this issue for decades. It would behoove us to implement the strategies they’ve developed. Though the entire Bay Area was long stewarded by Ohlone people, with the onslaught of colonization we have been made invisible. Our homelands are almost entirely built upon, always at the expense of our sacred sites and each time with the burden of compromising so that one more short-lived building can go up. It’s time for others who’ve come to profit from our land to realize that not everything has a price. Progress has always come at the expense of our cultural treasures and sacred landscapes. Destroying this recognized historic landmark is one desecration too many.

The would-be developers of 1900 Fourth Street, offered what would look like a generous offer to most people. A new Ohlone Cultural Trust would own the land and the building after 99 years. In return we would have to support the project. We deliberated on this offer for several weeks, consulting with numerous Ohlone families. Our response would have to be the best decision for our ancestors, those living today and the next seven generations and beyond. We have spiritual obligations to that site. Our belief systems are tied to place and space, unlike churches and other places of worship that are built and can be moved. The developers would still need to destroy the integrity of the site by digging out ten feet of soil and other cultural objects and burials that lie under the asphalt for the entire two acres they want to build on. This would destroy the sacred site. The entire landscape of our historic village site is more than the shellmounds they insist on focusing on, but they cannot seem to understand that concept.

Ohlone memorial. Rendering Shellmound.org

Ohlone leaders have proposed a powerful alternative for the 1900 Fourth Street site. As of now, the only official recognition of the Shellmound is a mural and small plaque under the University Avenue overpass. Residents of Berkeley and beyond would benefit from working with Ohlone people to develop a major memorial and educational park at 1900 Fourth Street. For over a year, people of all walks on life have been gathering regularly at the Shellmound to envision just, vibrant, and sustainable futures for all Bay Area residents. To get there, we must listen to the very people who have been caretakers of this land for millennia — my people.

Last year, the City passed a resolution supporting Standing Rock Sioux opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is a clear opportunity for the City of Berkeley to follow through on its own resolutions to protect the rights of indigenous peoples here at home and stand on the side of justice.

The pro-developer legislation SB 35 is being used to maintain the continued colonization of Ohlone lands. Due to a brutal history of land theft, imprisonment in the mission system, and genocidal U.S. policies, Ohlone people, along with many California Indians, are federally unrecognized and have no land base. Despite this history, we are still here, in our territories, and we have a vision for a vibrant Ohlone future side-by-side with newcomers to our homeland.

Please support our vision for a cultural memorial park at 1900 Fourth Street and urge the City of Berkeley to say no to a six-story development on our sacred site.

To learn more, please visit “Save the West Berkeley Shellmound” on Facebook and check out our new website at Shellmound.org.

Read how Chris Walker, Toby McLeod, and Corinna Gould made the maps. 

Ohlone leader Corrina Gould is a spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan.