“Right relationship” with the land: Ohlone regain guardianship of West Berkeley Shellmound

TWH – The years-long struggle over the West Berkeley Shellmound has ended. It will be returned to an Indigenous people, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. On March 13, The Mercury News reported on its US$27 million settlement. At issue is the ownership/guardianship of the parking lot covering the West Berkeley Shellmound.

The Indigenous people of the eastern San Francisco Bay (the “East Bay”) called themselves the Ohlone. More than 5,700 years ago, they built the West Berkeley Shellmound.  It represents the earliest known human habitation in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Don Frew and Anna Korn, of the Adocentyn Research Library in the East Bay, spoke with the Wild Hunt. “We are very glad to see this victory for local indigenous people. It’s been frustrating that, for many years, when people would go to look for the Shellmound, they would instead find a parking lot. We hope that the local peoples’ plans for the site come to fruition.“

Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, spoke about the Shellmound on the radio podcast, EarthIsland.Org. Part of a fishing village, the Ohlone buried their dead in the Shellmound. They also held rites of passage for the dead on the Shellmound. The Ohlone built that fishing village and Shellmound where Strawberry Creek, now paved over, flowed into the San Francisco Bay.

The Lisjan, the Miwok, the Ohlone, and Sogorea Te’

The website of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust describes the Lisjan as “made up of the seven nations that were directly enslaved at Mission San Jose in Fremont, CA and Mission Dolores in San Francisco, CA: Chochenyo (Ohlone), Karkin (Ohlone), Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Delta Yokut and Napian (Patwin).” The living Lisjan are maintaining their cultures in the Bay Area.

KQED Forum radio reported that Corrina Gould co-founded the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and currently serves as its director. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the City of Berkeley bought the property for US$27 million. The Land Trust paid 25.5 million dollars. The City of Berkeley paid US$1.5 million. Importantly, indigenous women run that land trust. The Land Trust plans to develop an Ohlone cultural center and park at the site.

On March 14, the Daily California reported on the living Ohlone and Miwok. They consider shellmounds to be “living cemeteries and places of prayer, veneration, and connection with ancestors.”

Recap of the legal conflict over the Shellmound

In the 18th Century, the Euro-American invasion of the Bay Area began. People can think of that as the start of the conflict over control/guardianship of the shellmounds. About eight years ago, it entered a new phase. While a parking lot is not natural, unlike development, it prevents the disturbance of the land underneath. In the 2000s, the legal owners of the parking lot decided that they wanted to “develop” it. By this time, the modern Ohlone and Miwok peoples had developed effective political coalitions. Those coalitions challenged each move of the developers and “owners.” Those coalitions had also helped to build a sympathetic local government (Berkeley). A critical mass of citizen supporters had also emerged.

In 2000, the site had been designated a historical site. This legal conflict had the effect of discouraging potential buyers/developers. The owners were unable to develop the property on their own. In about a month, the case would have gone to trial for $15 million in damages. If the City of Berkeley lost, it would have to pay those $15 million damages to the legal “owners.” On March 8, the involved parties began a series of “mediated settlement agreements.” The legal ”owners” found the $27 million settlement satisfactory.

The financing of the settlement

The online radio podcast, Earth Island.org reported on the financing of this settlement. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust had acquired a large amount of funding. Annual, voluntary contributions of non-Indigenous people living on Lisjan land provided part of those 25.5 million dollars. While some of the citizen supporters of the Ohlone would have had low incomes, others had high enough incomes that they could afford to make those annual voluntary contributions. Those contributions would go to the Kataly Foundation which transferred that money to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.


Gould described rematriation as the restoration of balance in the natural world. She linked rematriation to indigenous feminist activism.

Alexis Madrigal on KQED Forum radio reported that the Mayor of Berkeley called this settlement as ”the largest land-give back in California history.”

Land-back deals are not unique to the Bay Area. Gould considered this land-back a worldwide land-back movement of rematriation. She argued that rematriation helps the land heal. In the face of climate disaster, this movement marks a step towards “right relationship” with the land. She maintained that the living Ohlone have continued to use the site from Contact to the present day. Throughout this period, indigenous people have come to this site to pray silently. They continued to do so, even after it was paved over.

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust manages other rematriated land in the Bay Area. Gould said that over 425 shellmound sites ring the Bay. Most have been paved over. She believes the ancestors brought people together to create this deal.

West Berkeley Ohlone shellmound as photographed by Nels C. Nelson in 1907 – public domain


Corrina Gould described this settlement as the righting of a historic wrong. She considered this agreement as a “rematriation of our oldest shellmound and village site to its original people.” Gould described the West Berkeley Shellmound as “not only the most challenging urban sacred site victory in California’s history, it’s also among the most culturally significant for the Lisjan people.”

The Shellmound is not only part of Berkeley’s history but also its present. In a busy shopping area, this site sits kitty-corner to an Apple store. The Amtrack train runs nearby. In the future, an Ohlone cultural center will cohabit with Berkeley’s vibrant present. Rematriation can bring the two into dialogue.

Ohlone funeral rites

Gould said the West Berkeley Shellmound functioned as a critical part of the Ohlone rites of passage for the dead. Shellmounds were Ohlone cemeteries. The village was visually aligned with the island in the Bay known today as Alcatraz. That alignment had great significance in the mytho-geography of the Ohlone.

In Ohlone mytho-geography when people died, their spirit went to that island, Alcatraz. Their spirit stayed there for four days after death. Back on the East Bay, the Ohlone would have funeral ceremonies for those four days after a death. They would light fires, sing songs, and say prayers on and around the Shellmound. They aligned those rituals with the temporary abode of the deceased, Alcatraz. After four days, the spirit of the deceased would leave the island. The spirit would depart through the Western Gate (the Golden Gate), where the Bay meets the Pacific. Those alignments had become part of who the Ohlone were, and continue to be, as well as parts of their obligations to their dead.

With the Ohlone now being able to act as guardians of the Shellmound, they can resume those obligations.

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