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Bay Area Indigenous struggle

Ancient shellmound site saved from destruction

Published Aug 14, 2011 10:00 PM

Native encampment at the Sagorea Te shellmound.
WW photo: Terri Kay

Native California Indigenous people have stopped the planned destruction and desecration of an ancient Coastal sacred burial site by the City of Vallejo, Calif. Vallejo agreed to a cultural easement and memorandum of understanding to protect Sagorea Te at Glen Cove.

Ohlone and Miwok shellmound activists set up a 24-hour vigil and encampment on April 14 upon news of imminent plans to destroy the ruins of the Sagorea Te shellmound. Indigenous activists from California Coastal Nations, other Native Nations and the American Indian Movement joined the call to action and faced down the threats of the local government to remove them.

This struggle won support from many: Black and white people in the Bay Area community, Indigenous people and their supporters around the world. A protest outside the Oakland office of Bay Trails resulted in pulling a $200,000 grant away from Vallejo for the city’s project to put bathrooms and a parking lot on the historic site. Recently, the neighboring homeowners’ association passed a resolution telling the city they don’t want a park on an ancient burial ground.

California shellmound struggle

More than 3,500 years ago, Ohone, Miwok, Coastal Me-Wauk and Bay Me-Wauk, Wappo, Yokuts, Wintu and Patwin peoples gathered in sacred villages to meet, trade, intermarry, pray and bury their dead in ancient shellmounds.

The shellmounds are historically like the Egyptian pyramids in age, original size and function. Early U.S. Coast Guard maps of the California coast showed their locations — they were so large. Since the California Gold Rush, however, these burial mounds all suffered attacks and outright destruction, to the point where they became almost visibly unnoticeable.

Native activists have fought for 12 years with the Greater Vallejo Recreation District and the City of Vallejo to prevent the destruction and desecration of the Glen Cove Shellmound. Some 13,000 human remains stolen from this and other California shellmounds are now stored in footlockers at the University of California, Berkeley.

As support for the struggle grew through the 104 days of the vigil, Vallejo finally entered negotiations with federally recognized Wintu and Patwin representatives to discuss a resolution. On July 12, Sagorea Te activists waited for hours to speak before the Vallejo City Council, which had put them last on the agenda. Five had already spoken to a closed session earlier; many more spoke later at the public hearing to support saving Sagorea Te.

Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo/Karkin Ohlone, called on Vallejo to protect the entire 15-acre site and spoke to the history of this struggle. “Over 12 years ago, we became involved in protecting this site that is one of our ancestral burial grounds. ... Before any of the homes were built there, there were actually five shellmounds. Four of them were intact.

“The shellmound at Glen Cove is one of 425 that used to ring the Bay Area. And in the last 100 years, all those shellmounds have been covered over or destroyed.”

The struggle to return the remains of the shellmound ancestors continues. Fred Short, American Indian Movement spiritual leader for California, asks supporters to write their senators and President Barack Obama urging him to sign the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights of Indigenous People. Short also requests letters be sent to California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Native American Heritage Commission, 915 Capitol Mall, Room 364, Sacramento, CA 95814, [email protected], to demand that the bodies stored in foot lockers and even worse containers in Berkeley and Sonoma be returned to the Native communities and the shellmounds.

The day-to-day work and building of record solidarity is documented on the website protectglencove.org. In a website press release, Protect Glen Cove reports a July 25 visit by representatives of the Native Nations who signed the accord with Vallejo. Yocha Dehe Chairman Marshall McKay sent an open letter thanking Ohlone shellmound activists for their “efforts to protect the sacred sites here at Glen Cove in the City of Vallejo.”

According to the July 26 Protect Glen Cove press release, visitors in the last week of the vigil included a contingent from the Oceania Coalition of Northern California, a delegation from “Free Peltier, Free Em All” with Fred Hampton Jr. and a group of Native Hawaiians who stayed late in the evening, sharing songs and stories of Hawaiian struggles. The Vallejo Intertribal Council’s annual Pow-Wow was held in downtown Vallejo, where warriors and supporters from Sagorea Te came out in strong numbers to sing the AIM honoring song and Sagorea Te song.