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Ohlone burial site protections planned

By Chris Nichols
Saturday September 28, 2002


For more than a quarter century native American Rosemary Cambra has provided a voice for her people. This week, Cambra, chairwoman for the Bay Area's Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, brought her message to Berkeley, where she urged the city to preserve and protect local burial grounds under University Avenue at the train tracks near Fourth Street. 

“I am here to present the legal, cultural and spiritual concerns over this sacred site,” said Cambra at a West Berkeley Project Area Commission (WBPAC) meeting Thursday. “If we are not mindful of our culture and our language and our history, [the United States] government can eliminate [our culture].” 

WBPAC members hope the meeting will establish a partnership between Berkeley and the Ohlone Tribe in which Cambra will serve as a consultant and protect the tribe’s interests – mainly respecting the dead – during a city development project near the 500-year-old Ohlone burial site. 

The city is looking to build a transit hub at the west Berkeley rail stop, linking bus, ferry, train and taxi services. The purchase and restoration of the defunct Southern Pacific Rail Station would be part of the project. 

While improvements are being made to the area, however, including leveling and paving surrounding roads, burial tombs would need to be protected, according to planners and archeologists. 

A “treatment plan,” designed to preserve the burial grounds during construction, is being put together by city engineers and an archeologist selected by the Ohlone tribe, said Iris Starr, senior city planner. 

To protect the sacred remains, much of the initial paving and leveling “will be done by hand, not by machines,” said Starr. 

With the guidance of Cambra and Alan Leventhal, an ethnohistorian the Ohlone Tribe picked to consult with the city, planners hope paving and preservation will begin by December.  

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Starr said. 

The burial remains will remain undisturbed beneath the new transit hub after it is built. 

In addition to protecting the Ohlone burial site, planners hope to celebrate the tribe’s history and culture by including Ohlone art displays at the new transit hub.  

One such display could consist of a large mural reflecting tribal life or a series of displays located inside a restored train station.  

While she is pleased with the plans for commemorating the tribe, Cambra warns that preservation efforts should not to be taken lightly. Instead, she says, city and tribal leaders must work closely to establish a true partnership. 

“I have a lot of concerns. I don't want to be a part of a lack of understanding when it comes to preservation,” Cambra stated, citing failed efforts in Emeryville to preserve and protect a submerged burial site. “If you don't have integrity, understanding and honesty, we don't want to be a part of it.” 

As the representative of the Muwekma Ohlone, Cambra is all too familiar with disappointment. Having gone 100 years without recognition from the United States government as being an official native tribe, the Muwekma have taken matters into their own hands. 

They have established both a strong legal team and a group of knowledgeable cultural historians to preserve the rights and heritage of the tribe.  

Since 1989, the Muwekma have incurred more than $10 million in legal debt in their fight to gain status as a federally-recognized group. Though a ruling on Sept. 6 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied their latest request, the tribe continues to seek acknowledgment. 

“One needs to defend our bloodline and take on any government when they try to terminate our culture, our history and our existence. We are the symbol and the example of what the U.S. government can do to a group if you let them,” Cambra said.