Paving over an ancient burial ground
15-acres of undeveloped landscape sits as an oasis among the undulating, cookie cutter housing developments that crowd the edges of the Carquinez Strait, a natural tidal channel in Vallejo, California.
At this spot, known as Glen Cove Waterfront Park, a swath of yellow grass, dappled with the woody stems of wild fennel, leads to the water’s edge where Eucalyptus trees tower above marshy banks. The occasional clatter of trundling trains across the strait is the only sound that breaks the peace.
For many local residents, it’s a calming place away from the sprawled-out landscape that expands from the Bay Area.
But for Corrina Gould, a Chocheny/Karkin Ohlone tribal member) and other Native Americans, it’s more than that. Glen Cove’s Ohlone name is Sogorea Te. It's a former village site of Gould’s people that dates back to at least 1500 BC, and it was once a vibrant trading outpost used by many tribes for commerce, intermarriage and burials. It was this area where her great-great-great grandmother was born, and it was here where the Ohlone held their last stand against the missionaries who would forcibly baptize and enslave them.
Today, Glen Cove and the shellmound burial ground it contains represent one of the last connections Gould and her people have to their traditional land, the land, she says, that is as much in her DNA as a spawning stream is in a salmon’s.
Shellmounds are layers of shell and soil that were used to bury the ancestors of the Ohlone and other coastal tribes who considered them monuments and vital to the spiritual life of traditional villages.
But the shellmound has been threatened since the April 14 approval of the Greater Vallejo Recreation District’s plan to build a 15-car parking lot, erect a bathroom and shred the top of the shellmound by 7 to 8 feet to improve homeowners’ views of the waterway.
For more than 57 days, members of the Indian People Organizing for Change (of which Gould is president), a contingent from the American Indian Movement, native people of many tribes and a variety of supporters have occupied Glen Cove in a peaceful spiritual encampment in order to stymy the bulldozers that would raze the sacred ground.
“It feels like another form of genocide,” Gould said of the development plan. “If we can’t pray for our ancestors, if we can’t practice our culture, how can we continue to exist?”
The impasse doesn’t appear to have a forthcoming conclusion, despite the fact the encampment has received many statements of support and a Bay Area non-profit recently suspended a $200,000 grant for GRVD over concerns about the desecration.
Many assume GVRD is preparing the site for a sale to realtor, especially since Vallejo is bankrupt. Otherwise, it’s hard to comprehend why the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD’s) would pursue such a modest development despite 12 years of vigorous opposition from tribes, Indian organizations and local residents, especially when it seems so unnecessary.
At Glen Cove School Park, a few blocks away, there's an easily accessible bathroom with more than 165 parking spaces sit -- within 1,000 feet of the waterfront park's entrance.
GVRD states that all of the culturally relevant artifacts are isolated in a small portion of the site, even though an archaeologist who studied Glen Cove concluded it would be impossible to know the boundaries of the shellmound based on current data. The archeologist also concluded no existing data could predict how the shellmound would be impacted by the development plan.
“They created this artificial border, and act as if once you cross that line, the cultural relevance of the site suddenly stops existing,” said Mark Anquoe (Kiowa) of AIM. “They are essentially ignoring the feelings of a community or the cultural memory of a decimated people.”
The Glen Cove shellmound, layers of soil and shells that was used a tribal burial ground is visible through the grass, is visible through the grass near where a proposed parking lot would be built. Courtesy Marc Dadigan
Of the 425 shellmounds that once existed in the Bay Area, according to a 1909 survey, only about 30 remain, the rest having been destroyed to build shopping malls, factories and other developments. Others were “capped” with several feet of soil to “protect” the archaeological resources within them, a practice that seals off cultural relevant sites to the living people who need access to them.
“My job is to make sure the ancestors have a place a rest and leave a place for my children to feel they are from and connected to,” Gould said. “But it’s hard to pray at the places that our own without feeling a sadness or a sense of powerlessness for the destruction that was no fault of our own.”
GVRD acts as if the site’s connections to the Ohlone, Patwin, Wintu, Miwoks and other tribes are simply a vestige of the past, not essential to the practice of living cultures. For more than a decade, Bay Area natives have told the GVRD that the shellmound is a spiritual monument deserving of no less protection than any church or graveyard. Rather than listen, GVRD seeks out other opinions, and then accuses the Indian people of causing discord.
By ratifying the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, President Obama asserted the Indians rights “to maintain and strengthen a distinctive relationship” with their traditional lands.
Of course, there is no way indigenous people can enjoy that right if their lands are destroyed, and the Glen Cove case is emblematic of the various methods that developers, government agencies and other organizations employ to circumvent the rules at the expense of tribal religious freedom.
What if a recreation district wanted to tear up Arlington Cemetery to make it more conducive to dogwalkers and rollerbladers? Wouldn’t the community’s protests be taken seriously? Wouldn’t the recreation district be stopped?
For a variety of reasons, the potential desecration of Glen Cove is not seen in the same light. This is something that must change to honor the U.N. DRIP, to protect sacred sites and to ensure people like the Karkin Ohlone don’t face an unnecessary extinction all for the sake of a park.
Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Marc Dadigan is an immersion journalist who lives with the Winnemem Wintu and is writing a book about their spiritually guided salmon restoration project. Follow the project at www.salmoncomehome.com and Facebook.
Image of Corrina Gould (Chocheny/Karkin Ohlone), President of Indian People Organizing for Change, courtesy Marc Dadigan