Shellmounds are ancient structures created by thousands of years of indigenous occupation.

Shellmounds are cemeteries, or mortuary complexes. The final resting places of the first people to live in this place we call the San Francisco Bay Area.

There were once over 425 shellmounds in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. In fact, there were many more shellmounds than that.

If you look closely at the distribution of shellmounds in Marin and Sonoma Counties, and apply that density to the rest of the Bay Area, you will very easily top 600 shellmounds.

Despite the fact that shellmounds are cemeteries, hundreds were still destroyed all around the Bay Area.

And–to make matters unimaginably worse–the bodies inside were ground up, and used as overspread to level out train tracks, and build massive infrastructure (like the Angel Island Immigration complex.)

“How was this possible?” (You may ask yourself.)

Wouldn’t someone be able to tell there were bodies inside of these mounds?

Yes. People could tell there were bodies in the mounds.

Even though some news stories feature witnesses who described bones disintegrating, or “turning to dust” as soon as they were handled…. People are still finding skeletons in places like Alameda, California, whenever they dig somewhere for the first time in a hundred years–which isn’t hard to do when many houses in Alameda are 100 years old.

In spite of the desecration, and destruction visited on hundreds of shellmounds here in the San Francisco Bay Area, many still survive. And a surprising amount shellmounds survive intact.

The most well known, “intact” shellmounds in the Bay Area reside in the Coyote Hills Regional Park. They are known as the “Ryan” and “Patterson” Mounds.

They join a long list of shellmounds which have been reported upon and studied over the past 100 years or more.

This list includes (but is not limited to):

  • Ellis Landing (Contra Costa)
  • Emeryville (Alameda)
  • West Berkeley (Alameda)
  • San Bruno Mound (San Mateo)
  • Miller Mound (Colusa)
  • Alameda Shellmound (Alameda)
  • Ryan Mound, and Patterson Mound (Alameda)
  • Burton Mound (Santa Barbara)
  • Herzog Mound (Sacramento)

… Just to name a few.

Excerpts of Illustrations from “Shell midden” surveys in SoCal showing shellmounds in situ:

Many of the ancestors and artifacts exhumed and stolen from these mounds reside in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, on the University of California, Berkeley Campus.

These objects and human remains were taken during a period of “salvage archaeology“. Which was a period of intense extractive and exploitive research into Native American Language, Arts, Culture and Religion under the premise that the “Aboriginal Indians of North America” would soon become “extinct”.

Obviously, much of this work was made easier by the dispossession, missionization, forced internment (on reservations), and annihilation, that Indigenous People endured since First Contact with Europeans.

Just as Indigenx, Native American, First Nation and all First People of this place survived colonization: so did their shellmounds.

It’s up to us to break the cycle of destruction. The cycle of purposely disconnecting people from the places they come from. And then destroying those places (literally) for no other reason than the speculative amount of value or resources the land is worth.

One of the ways we can put the earth back into balance is by letting those who are from this earth gain access to their ancestors; and traditional places (like hunting camps) and resources (like a river) which provide a tribal cultural benefit.

Traditional tribal hunting grounds provide a tribal cultural benefit as source of traditional sustenance…. A river (or certain parts of it) where fish are caught, or plants or other things are gathered, is a natural resource which provides a tribal cultural benefit.

There is an air gap between the idea of land stewardship as a Native American landscaping service; and land stewardship through traditional cultural practices which have shaped much of the natural ecosystems of the Bay Area for over 10,000 years.

Render of a shellmound on the shore of the Carquinez Strait.

The mounds which still exist are not flat; have not been dug out; and are certainly not parking lots, transit stations, or shopping malls.

Parking lots are not “undeveloped” space.

Parking lots are not “open space”.

Parking lots have been levelled, packed, and paved.

…Just because parking lots are flat does not mean the land “isn’t developed”.

You need to know this:

When we talk about saving sacred sites. We’re talking about real sacred sites. Places which have been spared from development, either by ignorance, or by luck.

Render of a shellmound across the bay from San Francisco. Possibly in Albany, or El Cerrito.

Shellmounds are a part of the natural environment.

Shellmounds support the ecosystems they reside in.

Shellmounds are not parking lots!

Aside from the spiritual impact of shellmounds to their surrounding areas: shellmounds today provide habitat for plants and wildlife where that habitat is endangered–and, under constant threat of development.

You can help protect sacred land by protecting the environment around it.

You can help protect sacred land by advocating for its conservation, and return to the San Francisco Bay Area Ohlone Tribe: the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

While support for land trusts,
and ideas like “rematriation” are wonderful….

Fundraising campaigns like “Shuumi Land Taxtake away from the real causes of Ohlone Tribal Recognition, Ohlone Tribal Sovereignty, and Ohlone Ancestral Land Back.

Ohlone people deserve respect and deference. When you give your land acknowledgment or money, do your research first. Don’t confuse non-profit corporations with actual tribes.

*The Shellmounds section of this website has more links to information.