‘This feels cruel, that our sacred site is now imprisoned.’ Ohlones protest new fence around ancestral land

The owners of 1900 Fourth St. want to build housing and retail on the old Spenger’s parking lot, which sits in the middle of Berkeley’s shellmound district.

The Indian Organization for Change hold a gathering to save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound on 4th Street. March 20, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
The Campaign to Save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound held a gathering on Fourth Street on March 20 to protest a fence put up around the old Spenger’s parking lot. Photo: Pete Rosos

Hundreds of people came to Fourth Street in Berkeley Saturday to support indigenous rights and to protest a developer’s plans to build housing and retail on the old Spenger’s parking lot.

People started gathering in the afternoon to paint “Sacred Site” in bright red on the section of asphalt facing the lot, as well as a mural of California poppies and one of the San Francisco Bay with Indian settlements. Dancers wearing regalia from different Native American communities burned sage and danced to drums. As dusk settled in, 183 people circled the lot holding up candles and offering multi-denominational prayers to “re-matriate” the site.

The lot at 1900 Fourth St., part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, which Berkeley landmarked in 2000, has long been contested space and is still mired in court proceedings. But the impetus for the latest ceremonial gathering came about a month ago. The owners of the lot, Rue-Ell Enterprises (made up of the Frank Spenger Company and Ruegg & Ellsworth, a real estate development firm), erected a six-foot-high fence with barbed wire around the lot, which is adjacent to Berkeley’s tony Fourth Street shopping district. Prior to that, the lot only had a low fence, which meant members of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan could access the land that once belonged to their ancestors.

“Our parking tenant’s lease ended recently and therefore we secured the lot as the area is generally closed to business,” Dana Ellsworth, president of Rue-Ell Enterprises, wrote to Berkeleyside on Feb. 19


Photo: Toby McLeod

Corrina Gould, the chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, which includes many Bay Area Ohlone tribes, said the fence was erected the same day the California Court of Appeal was hearing a case that pits Rue-Ell against the city of Berkeley and her people. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which declared 1900 Fourth St. as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic sites in 2020, filed an amicus brief in the case “arguing that this sacred site is an invaluable cultural resource worthy of preservation and should be protected by California state law,” according to a press release.

Rue-Ell Enterprises has been trying to build on the land for years. As the parking lot sits inside the city’s historic shellmound boundaries, the company has done a number of archeological studies to see if Native-American artifacts or human remains lay under the asphalt. Those studies did not turn up any significant signs of Ohlone habitation or items of historic value, according to the developer. Experts said that may be because 1900 Fourth St. was the terminus of Strawberry Creek and the land was marshy, so the Ohlone people gathered elsewhere.

“How do we not have access to one of our most sacred places?” —Corrina Gould, chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan

Many members of the Ohlone have objected to these findings, arguing the focus on just 1900 Fourth St. is too narrow. The lot sits in the center of the shellmound area and the entire area needs to be considered. Using that perspective, it doesn’t matter that no items of historic value were found, contend supporters of the shellmound. Gould and others also point out that the lot is the only part of the shellmound that doesn’t have a building on it, another reason it should be preserved.

Based on the archeological study stating the lack of historic resources, Rue-Ell contracted with a developer who proposed building a 260-unit complex on the site. Since 50% of the units were affordable to those with a low income, the developer filed to have the project fast-tracked under state law SB35. That allows for quick approval of a housing project.

But the city of Berkeley turned down the SB35 application, prompting the developer to pull out of the project. Rue-Ell Enterprises stepped back in and sued Berkeley for its decision. Jennifer Hernandez, the attorney for Ruegg & Ellsworth, told Berkeleyside the state law “usurped” Berkeley’s authority to nix the 1900 Fourth St. complex. Berkeley argued that it had the right to deny the SB35 application because of the parcel’s landmark status.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Berkeley in October 2019. Rue-Ell Enterprises has appealed that decision and the Court of Appeal held a hearing on Feb. 18. The parties are still waiting for a decision.

The Indian Organization for Change hold a gathering to save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound on 4th Street. March 20, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Corinna Gould, far right, stands with others in front of the newly fenced-in former Spenger’s parking lot. They are holding candles to highlight that the lot, part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, is sacred land. Photo: Pete Rosos
The Indian Organization for Change hold a gathering to save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound on 4th Street. March 20, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
A Native-American dressed in traditional clothing dances in front of a parking lot as part of a ceremony to protest development on land they believe is sacred. Photo: Pete Rosos
mural on ground
Mural of the West Berkeley Shellmound on Fourth Street on March 20. Photo: Staci Prado

Ever since the fence went up, members of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan have been coming to the lot and hanging up colorful prayer ribbons, according to Gould. And each morning, people hired by Rue-Ell Enterprises have been taking them down, she said.

The large ceremony on Saturday was aimed at bringing increased attention to the new fencing. It was organized by the Campaign to Save the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound & Historic Village Site. Gould sits on the steering committee, as does Stephanie Manning, the force behind the city landmark designation, Malcolm Margolin, author of The Ohlone Way and executive director of the California Institute for Community, Art & Nature, Toby McLeod, founder of The Sacred Land Film Project and others who have long been interested and concerned with the preservation of the shellmound.

“This is a sacred site of the Lisjan Ohlone people and all through COVID we have been coming here two to three times a week and praying and walking the 2.2 acres of land,” said Gould. “And it wasn’t just us. When I came here, I noticed there were families with small children on scooters and on bicycles because it was open space. And for me, this feels cruel that our sacred site is now imprisoned, that we don’t have access to it. I look back to the 1978 law, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and say what’s going on? How do we not have access to one of our most sacred places? There is nothing to destroy. There’s nothing built on here. So, there’s really no reason for this (a fence) to be put up except cruelty.”

Ellsworth did not respond to a Berkeleyside request sent March 15 to discuss the fence.

Kazu Haga and Katie Loncke of Oakland came to the ceremonial protest on Saturday. They were part of the crew that painted a mural and image of a poppy on the street, as well as the words “Sacred Site.” Loncke said she supports the vision of the Ohlone people to re-patriate the land. We are living in a time of grief, and if the lot is returned to the Ohlone, there will be less trauma, which will be good for everyone, she said.

“I want to support a movement where resistance is beautiful,” said Haga, a can of paint in one hand. “Given the state of the world, repatriating land back to indigenous people is good.”

Many others in the crowd talked of “re-matriating” the land.”

Inez Ixierda of Oakland designed the street mural, the first time she had ever taken on a project like that, she said. The Ohlone have a vision for what the lot would look like if they gained control, and it would include a hill covered by California poppies. That’s one reason she included poppies in the design, she said.