Berkeley Native Americans celebrating Indigenous People’s Day Saturday say they don’t have to look far to remind themselves that their struggle for respect is not yet won.
The Emeryville Shellmound – considered one of the 10 most sacred Ohlone Indian burial sites in California – is being ravaged by a new commercial development, said Kathy Perez, the Native American monitor of the project. She said construction of Bay Street, a new residential and commercial development, is causing the desecration of Ohlone burials, nearly 2,500 years old.
“When you saw the machinery they were using to build the project – pile drivers, crawlers – you knew that the bodies beneath the surface would be crushed,” she said.
The project, just north of Ikea on Shellmound Street, has sparked several Native American demonstrations, calling for the development to cease. But work continues at the site, which will open its first stores in November.
Shell mounds, made from dirt and shells, served as the burial ground and sacred meeting place for Ohlones living in the Bay Area, said Stephanie Manning, who authored the measure that granted historic “landmark” status to a shell mound at Fourth Street in Berkeley.
The Emeryville Shellmound is actually a collection of several mounds nearly all of which were leveled by development during the early 20th century. Since excavations began in the 1900s, more than 1,000 Ohlones have been found buried at the site, Manning said.
The developer, Madison Marquette, did not return telephone calls to the Daily Planet, but Emeryville’s city manager said the city has followed all state regulations and spent additional money to protect the remains at the shell mound.
“We worked as best we could with Kathy to protect the remains,” Flores said noting the city opted to spend money on an archeologist to remove and clean bones so they could be used for further study.
Under California law, Native Americans cannot halt developments above ancient burial grounds. However, they must be consulted on such projects and can have monitors present at the site to safely remove the remains of ancestors to be reburied later.
When Emeryville decided to redevelop the shell mound in 1999, the Native American Heritage Commission, in accordance with California law, assigned Perez to supervise the reburial of the buried Ohlones.
But Perez said there were problems from day one.
The shell mound had previously been home to paint companies that polluted the soil with arsenic, lead and acid. During the initial cleanup, Perez said that bodies of several Ohlones were so contaminated that instead of reburying them at the shell mound, the city had them burnt at toxic waste dumps.
Flores confirmed Perez’ claim, but noted that burning was only done to remains found on the more heavily polluted northern section of development. “It was the only way we could do it,” Flores said. “It was so polluted no one could go there except in a moon suit.”
The site, now being developed by Madison Marquette, continues to generate conflict.
According to Perez, construction workers have used pile drivers to dig 70 feet into the ground, inevitably crushing the remains of Ohlones. She added that Native American overseers had witnessed workers recklessly removing pieces of skeletons without using proper equipment, and disrespecting the site.
“They don’t realize they’re working at a cemetery,” said Perez. “We are not going to accept the disrespect of workers spitting out tobacco or dumping food scraps inside a burial hole.”
Native Americans also remain at odds with Emeryville as to how the Ohlone legacy will be memorialized at the development. The current plan calls for the project to include an Ohlone mural on one of the buildings, a community room with copies of Ohlone artifacts, a city-run web site explaining the history of native Californians, an educational display outlining the history of shell mounds and preservation of a small mound.
Perez characterized the planned testimonials as window-dressing.
“They think they need to do a mural so they appear like they’re working with Native Americans and everything is hunky-dory,” she said. “But they’re not willing to give the Indian community any scholarships or start programs to service the Ohlone.”
Flores, though, noted that the city was not required to build a memorial, but chose to spend roughly $2 million on the project.
Ohlones are divided on the development, according to Manning. Of the several bands of Ohlones in the Bay Area, she said some want to make the site a memorial, others favor using it for archeological research, and others support development as long as the remains are properly reburied.
After what Perez considers repeated violations of trust by the city and developer, she said she would like for the development to stop. “I’d like to see that whole place just vanish off the face of the earth.”