SF Bay Area Shellmounds Are Some of the Most Endangered Cultural Resources in the World

Save Shellmounds Not Parking Lots campaign image of archaeologists sifting through soil in a cemetery. Title reads: “You wouldn’t let them dig up your grandma. Why would you let them dig up ours?”

The San Francisco Bay Area had well over 425 shellmounds.

Gabriel Duncan, from the Alameda Native History Project, estimates the true number of shellmounds around the S.F. Bay Area’s shoreline is closer to seven or eight-hundred shellmounds, which existed before European invasion and colonization.

Shellmounds are ancient burial grounds used by the First People of the San Francisco Bay Area for over 10,000 years. Shellmounds form ancient mortuary complexes created by Ohlone, Miwok, and Karkin people. Shellmounds were not village sites; but they were places where ceremonies dedicated to indigenous ancestors were performed; and large seasonal gatherings were held nearby to celebrate the unity, harmony, and balance indigenous people share with the earth, each other, our ancestors, and all creation.

Grave robbing by universities and treasure hunters; as well as desecration by railroad companies, oil refineries, and quarry operators, has made the remaining San Francisco Bay Area Shellmounds one of the most endangered cultural resources in the world.

One of the chief defilers of shellmounds are quarry companies. These companies are still operating today, at places like the San Rafael Rock Quarry–which is home to no less than five shellmounds; and Dutra Materials Quarry, in Richmond, California–an area dotted with the highest concentration of shellmounds in the East Bay.

But not much is being said about the historical and ongoing desecration and defiling of indigenous bodies to build the infrastructure and institutions all around us.

This is surprising, considering the amount of time, effort, and fundraising which has gone into “preserving” a parking lot in West Berkeley, and protesting a thriving and established shopping mall in Emeryville, California.

While other cities and corporations used shellmounds to level their train tracks, and pack for roadways: the Angel Island Immigration Station is one of the best surviving answers to the question of “What Happened to the Shellmounds?”

Angel Island was home to about four shellmounds. All of which were quarried and used as a base for the concrete to construct the immigration buildings now standing as Angel Island State Park. However, there is no mention of this fact in the park brochure, or uttered by any tour guide on the island.

The historical and continuing desecration goes unspoken, and right before our very eyes; all over the San Francisco Bay Area.

Instead of directly addressing and challenging the corporations and cities responsible for the desecration of Ohlone, Miwok, and Karkin burial grounds, and sacred sites: advocates and allies are being fooled into believing these parking lots (in West Berkeley), and post-industrial waste sites (in East Oakland) are the priority for the fight against desecration of indigenous land. This is not true.

“Saving” parking lots is not an indigenous priority over stopping the desecration of indigenous sacred sites today.

Optic-driven, PR events, like urban gardens, and cultural easements to use our own land for free, do not address the fact that shellmounds are being quarried into extinction. That these ancient structures are being erased by shoreline development, and urbanization of the San Francisco Bay Area waterfront.

This situation will not change; the desecration will not stop, until our supporters and allies start to critically assess the information being given to them by non-profit corporations trying to fundraise for their money, and compare that with information provided by scholars, experts, and bona fide tribes like the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Save shellmounds. Not parking lots.