A group of Native American activists and allies fighting plans to build on Spenger’s parking lot in West Berkeley has pledged to protect what it says is sacred land, despite newly released maps that show the parcel was largely underwater during “pre-contact” times. No scientific evidence to date has pointed to Indian remains or intact shellmound on the parcel, though these have been found on adjacent lots as recently as last year.
The project team says its research shows the site in question, at 1900 Fourth St., is unlikely to have many of those artifacts because the parcel was historically marshland. An 1856 U.S.G.S. map showing the old shoreline places much of 1900 Fourth underwater, due to the Strawberry Creek tidal marsh, according to a January geotechnical report commissioned by developer Blake Griggs Properties of Danville. Shellmounds were mapped to the east and west, “but not on the project site itself,” according to Geosphere Consultants. The top 4-5 feet of the bulk of the site have been found to be landfill, while “deep estuary/marsh deposits” exist below.
The lack of scientific evidence found beneath the Spenger’s parking lot hasn’t kept the preservation campaign from gathering steam. According to one of its leaders, Corrina Gould, more than 475 letters were submitted to the city by people who want to protect the parcel and turn it into a park featuring a giant mound covered with poppies to recognize the area’s history. California Indians and their allies, who have marched and held ceremonies at the site for years, have said it is sacred land no matter what is found there. They say, if nothing is found, it’s because cultural resources were carried off years ago, which was common practice in Berkeley. Much of the shellmound was used in local gardens and municipal road paving as the city grew, and artifacts were taken by relic hunters and archeologists alike. Supporters of the cause to fight proposed development have raised nearly $10,000 to aid in their legal battle, and Gould is hoping to double that amount.
Earlier this month, the comment period closed in connection with the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project, meaning it will likely be several months more before 1900 Fourth is back before the zoning board for public review. It’s a significant milestone for the project, but there’s still a long way to go. The comment period opened in November but was extended repeatedly after critics questioned the process and demanded more time to review the records and weigh in. The maps showing the historic locations of the two West Berkeley shellmounds — which appear according to the maps to have been beneath modern-day Truitt & White and, ironically, Anthropologie — have not been reviewed before by city officials or the public, or included in prior archeological reports. They were part of a letter written by Chochenyo-Ohlone representative Andrew Galvan, who has served as a project consultant, though activists have questioned his legitimacy to speak for other Ohlone voices. In his March 13 letter to the city, Galvan said he spoke with at least 29 other Chochenyo Ohlone people, and they believe the environmental impact review to date has been thorough and is valid. Galvan says he hopes the city will “vigorously” enforce all rules related to construction to protect any cultural resources that are discovered, and also thinks Berkeley should reconsider and potentially expand the Shellmound boundaries in West Berkeley going forward.
To try to clear up the historical record, Galvan submitted several pages of maps in his response to the project’s draft EIR. A map he submitted from the U.S. Geological Survey (1957) shows 1900 Fourth largely underwater, with a large shellmound to the west, and a smaller one to the east. A dashed and curving line on the left shows the historic shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. If accurate, it’s a potentially significant revelation, because the exact location of the Berkeley shellmounds have been scrubbed and redacted from much of the information collected and posted by the city and in other historical documents over the years.
The 1900 Fourth St. parcel and two other blocks were landmarked by the city nearly 20 years ago as “the West Berkeley Shellmound” in a decision later partially overturned by the courts and marred by a flawed process and questionable data, according to the development team. The shellmound — among more than 400 in the region — was believed to be a 30-foot-high hill of discarded shells, building materials, ash and other debris, from thousands of years of Ohlone Indian activity. It later became a human burial site for the tribe. The block west of Second Street initially was within the landmark boundaries, but property owners appealed the decision and a judge found in their favor, saying it was likely underwater. Proponents of the landmarking process themselves have said it wasn’t clear exactly where the main shellmound was, but it was said to be one of the largest in the Bay Area, and may have been centered below Truitt & White, just across the railroad tracks at 642 Hearst. Nearly 100 skeletons and 3,500 artifacts were removed from the shellmound by UC Berkeley in the 1950s, according to reports posted on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association website and well documented elsewhere.
In January, dozens of activists demanding the preservation of Berkeley’s Indian history and culture flooded a Berkeley zoning board meeting to plead with officials to protect the land. At least one person promised to occupy it should the project be approved. And they painted an unflattering picture of Galvan, who helped arrange an agreement that would bring $75,000 to a historic Indian cemetery he manages in Fremont should the project be built. He and his family have been officially recognized by the state for decades for their work to oversee projects on land that may feature Native American remains or other “cultural resources.” They have a well-documented genealogy and a governing board, of which Galvan is president. But that hasn’t stopped his detractors — who lack official recognition and the formal structure the state requires — from questioning his motives. During that city meeting Jan. 12, two factions seemed to emerge, as a central question was repeatedly raised: Who has the right to speak for this land, and to shape its future?
Thousands of years of history are under discussion, and emotion is high among supporters of the fight to protect the land. In January, and at other city meetings, activists have compared their fight to the battle at Standing Rock, and say the issue is about prioritizing indigenous self-determination over capital interests. Numerous white speakers introduced themselves as “white settlers on Ohlone land” and others said the project represents the “colonizer mentality and approach.” Speakers repeatedly said the project would desecrate ancient burial ground, though no remains or intact shellmound have been found there. There are competing narratives and disputed facts about everything from the history of the land to the meaning of the existing data.
Vocal opponents of the plan to build 155 housing units, a large parking garage and 30,000 square feet of retail, have said they consider the land sacred due to the presence hundreds of years ago of Native American shellmounds along the shores of San Francisco Bay. There was a village in West Berkeley, and extensive evidence has placed it in the area near present-day Fourth Street.
In January, a group calling itself the Emergency Campaign to Save West Berkeley’s Indian Village and Historical Site, which had members of its steering committee and dozens of allies in attendance, demanded of the zoning board that the city grant Gould, a Chochenyo Ohlone woman who says she represents The Confederated Villages of Lisjan, a seat at the table as the discussion about environment impacts moved ahead. (The city ultimately did that, and has met repeatedly with Gould.) State law requires developers to consult with California Indians — who are vetted and placed on an official list — when their historic lands could be disturbed. Galvan was the only person on that official list to respond when the city sent out letters soliciting consultation on the project last year. In January, many speakers said Galvan, though he’s on the list, has a conflict of interest because he has been paid by the project team, and the cemetery he oversees will benefit if the project is built. Since then, the activist group has continued to organize, using a Facebook group and other methods online. Last week, supporters of the effort to protect the shellmound marched through the streets of Berkeley.
Part of the debate relates to official tribal recognition at the state level, which Galvan has, and Gould and her supporters do not. The governing body for conferring that status, the Native American Heritage Commission, has not been available to explain the discrepancy. The commission has been the primary agency in California responsible for identifying and cataloging Native American cultural resources since its formation in 1976. Galvan — who estimates there are 2,000 to 3,000 surviving Chochenyo descendants — says it’s because the commission requires an official governing structure for the tribal entity and well-documented genealogy, and that Gould has neither. Gould has not responded to multiple interview requests. But Chris Oakes, who is working with Gould on the effort to protect the shellmound, said the process is still underway because the commission lost Gould’s paperwork in 2016.
Oakes said the commission’s work is valuable but that it may be lacking in terms of Ohlone history, due to the tribe’s complexity.
“California has a complicated history, the Ohlone people have a complicated history, and that’s where some of this stuff fits in,” he said. “Generally, dealing with California tribes, it does a good job. But with the Ohlone, it’s problematic for sure.” Of Gould, he added, “Her whole life is defending sacred sites. She doesn’t get paid for it. It runs her into the ground, but that’s what she believes in.”
The Gould-vs.-Galvan disagreement is not the only issue under dispute, not by a long shot.
Gould, in a January statement co-written by herself and Oakland-based Choctaw Nation representative Oakes, described 1900 Fourth as “a 5,700-year-old burial ground in the heart of Berkeley that archeologists say is the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest known human settlement.” While some historical reports support that idea, other recent data may call it into question.
The Berkeley shellmound has been called “the first example of mound building in the San Francisco Bay Area” and “the earliest known village site on San Francisco Bay.” The site is believed to have been abandoned “during a period of drier conditions and ecological change” in 780 A.D., according to a 2001 assessment of the area undertaken on behalf of the city by San Anselmo-based Garcia and Associates.
“How can they even consider a city landmark for development,” Gould asked in January. “This makes a mockery of resolutions the Berkeley City Council passed … honoring the shellmound as a sacred site of the Indigenous Ohlone people.”
Berkeley author and historian Richard Schwartz has spoken many times publicly, and written extensively, about 400 Native American burial sites found around the project area as evidence of the need to protect 1900 Fourth itself. Members of the development team said they looked carefully at his data and mapped those discoveries (at left), and found that none were on 1900 Fourth itself.
And Galvan says the known facts and evidence don’t support the description of 1900 Fourth as a historic burial site at all. No remains have been found there, though five sets were recovered last year across the street on a parcel never landmarked by the city. That discovery prompted minimal public outcry, though some community members did raise alarms when the bones were discovered. Because that construction was outside the official shellmound landmark boundaries, much less environmental review or cultural oversight was required.
As to the question of the age of West Berkeley’s Indian village relative to others in the region, Galvan said the oldest Native American sites are actually at the bottom of the bay now. And carbon dating of bones found in San Francisco in 2014, during construction of the Transbay Transit Center project, were shown to be 1,800 years older than the bones found during last year’s Spenger’s construction work in Berkeley, he said earlier this month. Galvan said, ultimately, he’s not against development as long as it is approached with care and respect.
Those on the other side of the debate remain unconvinced. Oakes, for one, says too much data, including the Richard Schwartz research on nearby burials, was left out of the project’s draft environmental impact report. For the activists, omissions like that call into question the legitimacy of the entire process. Oakes said the draft EIR was “wildly insufficient.… due to its misleading nature, omission of data, lack of archaeological context, and the fact that it is incomplete.” He’s written a lengthy letter to the city outlining those perceived deficiencies. All of the community comments will be compiled and published as part of the final EIR, and written responses to those comments will be prepared by the EIR team and published as well.
Oakes says, for him, the Berkeley shellmound boundaries are undisputed, and the lack of cultural resources at 1900 Fourth can be explained in various ways. Maybe they were taken decades or a century ago, or maybe they simply haven’t been found yet. The site, he added, has long been recognized for its history and continues to be a regular place of worship for local Indians.
“There’s been 100 years of … archeological reports that do say that it’s there,” he said, of the shellmound. “It’s still the cemetery of Berkeley for over 5,000 years. That makes it a sacred site.… As long as I’ve been involved, we go there regularly and we pray.”
Oakes says he also doesn’t put much faith in the newly released maps showing that the coastal boundaries put 1900 Fourth underwater, because there have been dozens of maps over the years showing Strawberry Creek changing course, as well as shifting shorelines all over the Bay Area. There are thousands of years of history at play, he noted.
“It’s a changing landscape,” he said. “It’s a selective use of the evidence to prove a point.”
Galvan says he’s not at all surprised at the pervading belief in the presence of burials below the Spenger’s parking lot. When he was first introduced to the parcel, back in 1999 when initial archeological work was being done, he said he and others were certain ancient human remains would be found as soon as digging began. Historically, that was the guiding wisdom about the blocks within the landmark boundaries. Since then, however, despite what he describes as extensive scientific testing of all kinds — digging, core samples, radar and more — no remains have been discovered.
“That whole area has been extensively investigated,” Galvan said. “They made a believer out of me.”
He continued, of the 2014 archeological report commissioned by the developer: “Pastron’s report is up to snuff. It’s as good as it’s going to get.”
Many activists have pointed to the city landmark designation itself as reason enough to stop development. But that’s not the way the city actually set it up. Berkeley requires developers to take special precautions when excavating within the West Berkeley Shellmound boundaries, which are University Avenue to the south, Hearst Avenue to the north, Interstate 80 to the east, and Fourth Street to the west. There must be an archeologist and a native representative on site at all times. And the city set out five mitigation measures — archeological data collection, Native American consultation, collections management, historical research and commemoration — as remedies when “cultural deposits cannot be avoided,” according the Garcia and Associates report.
The city affirmed this position in the 2001 lawsuit where property owners west of Second Street fought, and prevailed over, the attempted landmarking of their block.
“The City’s decision to designate the West Berkeley Shellmound as a City ‘landmark’ does not in itself prevent any development or use of the property affected. Rather, it requires additional review of new buildings or alterations to the exterior of existing buildings, with an eye towards protecting the resource,” the city wrote. “That is, it will require that appropriate further investigations be done — and ‘certainty’ achieved — before … development occurs.”
Mark Rhoades, a member of the project team, said developer Blake Griggs is by no means unsympathetic to the concerns raised by activists like Gould and her supporters.
“In this town and many other places, people are waking up to the horrors perpetrated on Indians in post-European contact. We all feel that,” Rhoades said. “That’s part of what’s happening here: Let’s make sure that we’re not making assumptions and continuing along in those veins, and that’s why this project has done the level of research it’s done to make sure it’s sensitive, to make sure no significant cultural resources are impacted as part of this project.”
Brad Griggs, of Blake Griggs, said the project team is “very confident” 1900 Fourth is “not where the shellmound was located, No. 1.… Our investigation has found no burials on the site.” Still, he said, absolute certainty isn’t an option. “We’re not making a statement that there are no burials on the site. Because at the end of the day, when you get out there and you dig, you never know what you’re going to find.”
Galvan said it’s been sad to see the way the Native American community has been splintered over the project plans, and that the attacks on his character have been hurtful and are meritless. As for the proposed payment by Blake Griggs to the Fremont cemetery, he said it will help improve a historic and cultural resource that’s of value to the Ohlone community overall.
“I’m not buying a new car with this money. I’m not going on an old-fashioned trip to Europe,” he said. “The money will be stretched as far as possible for use at the cemetery, and it needs to be accountable.”
The project team and Galvan both say, particularly due to the passion surrounding the neighborhood’s history, it’s important to separate fact from fiction during the planning process. They say, too, they hope the city will review the new evidence and perhaps launch further discussions about which blocks around Fourth Street should be landmarked to protect the historic shellmound going forward. Expanding the boundaries could be one route to consider.
Said Rhoades, of 1900 Fourth: “We’re not going to tell you whether it’s sacred or not. But, from our perspective, we think it’s culturally important. And it’s not just the site, it’s the area that needs to be discussed here.”