Shellmounds and Their Relationship to the Waterbodies of the San Francisco Bay Basin

In the Indigenous Bay Area, water and life have always gone hand-in-hand. It was impossible to tell where the sea truly ended on this coast. Even inland, the San Francisco Regions’s natural aquatic resources are used with reverence, and traded throughout the region (and beyond.) Salmon connect the sea to the rivers, streams, and lakes of California, and they are a living link shared by many Indigenous People in California.

Did the First People of the Bay Area Benefit from the Waterbodies and Waterways through Sustenance Fishing?

It is without any doubt that the First People of the place we now call the San Francisco Bay Area have used, worn, consumed, or cultivated almost all of the things in the pre-contact environment. This includes the natural aquatic resources of the San Francisco Bay Region.

You already know about salmon; edible plants, like kelp, eelgrass; but, think even smaller, like byssal thread–the stuff that holds mussels together in their beds–which was mainly used as an adhesive. These are the Traditional & Cultural Tribal Beneficial uses.

It’s established that Indigenous people engaged in Sustenance Fishing, individually.

As a group, Tribes engaged in Tribal Sustenance Fishing by working together to catch or gather larger numbers of natural aquatic resources like fish, shellfish, and vegetation, to be able to feed their group (or Tribe).

The shellmounds’ very existence is proof that this is true because of the sustained consumption, gathering, and use of shellfish it would take to gather the amount of shells used for the burials, and cemermonies, that shellmounds physically represent, and immortalize [as tangible evidence of this use.]

Consider also, the sheer amount of tools, currency, jewelry, and clothing, which is made from shells proves a continuous Tribal Cultural Beneficial Use for the last 10,000 years.

Surely, the shellmounds are the emodiment of the Traditional, Cultural, and Sustenance, Tribal Beneficial Uses for the WaterBodies of the San Francisco Bay Region?

Yes, Indigenous People have engaged in Sustenance Fishing, and Tribal Sustenance Fishing in all of the waterbodies in the San Francisco Bay Region for at least 10,000 years. And, that Sustenance-based use directly influences the innumerable Traditional, Cultural, [and Ceremonial] uses in First People’s societies.

Natural Aquatic Resources and Indigenous Ceremony

The less opaque “Tribal Beneficial Use” of the waterways and waterbodies of the San Francisco Bay Region (or “Basin”) are their ceremonial uses and connections.

This is because ceremonies for things like funerals, and ancestor worship has not been performed at shellmounds regularly in the region since approximately the 1770’s [which is when the Bay Area began to be invaded, and occupied, by Spain, Mexico, and the United States (in that order.)

But not all was lost. The First People of the San Francisco Bay Area are alive and well.]

Shellmounds, today, exist on private property, and are inaccessible to the Indigenous people whose blood relations are buried there. While it is difficult to compel land owners to grant Easements For Tribal Beneficial Uses… Government Agencies and Departments should create policies granting such Cultural Easements For Tribal Beneficial Uses upon request.

It should be assumed that water, and the proximity to it, played a large role in the selection of the location shellmounds, because shellmounds are found almost exclusively near the shores and riverbanks of the San Francisco Bay Area.

We should also assume that funerary practices included natural aquatic resources (like shellfish, fish, vegetation) which were gathered and used as ceremonial objects, to make special clothing, for the ceremony, or things given to the decedent for use in the afterlife; or, to protect their body on earth; or, for other myriad reasons, including: it was their favorite [object here.]

It’s not surprising then, that the amount of direct influence shellmounds and the waterways and waterbodies of the San Francisco Bay Region have on each other leave almost no corner of the Bay Area untouched.

Composite map of San Francisco Bay Basin Plan Waterbodies shown in lines and polygons.

There are three sets of data here. Just like there are three colors.

The green features show the San Francisco Bay Basin Waterbodies.

Yellow features are part of the wider network of waterbodies to which shellmounds are connected.

Red features show where shellmounds and basin waterbodies are intrinsically linked.

To get these results, I had to:

  1. Find the data.
  2. Import them into my GIS software.
  3. Fix geometries. (It helps to make a spatial index.)
  4. Reproject to NAD83 California State Plane Zone 3
  5. Find features for layers which matched the location of shellmounds within my margin of error, and with consideration to the average size of shellmounds recorded.
  6. You know, then do the cosmetic stuff, as you can see in the picture above.

Consider the Confidentiality of Tribal Cultural Resources

Is this a bad time to point out that N.C. Nelson’s Shellmound Map was hand-plotted, using a completely different geographic coordinate reference system? I think that matters….

Besides that: the confidentiality of Tribal Cultural Resources has now been codified. And, providing shellmound location data to any non-indigenous organization would totally negate the idea of data sovereignty.

Use This Information As Another Reason to Listen to Indigenous Voices

It is an ethical obligation for Indigenous People to be included, respected, and listened to in the planning process. Not just to check the boxes on the Environmental Impact Assessment, or after a burial has already been disturbed.

Tribal Cultural Resources, and Tribal Beneficial Uses must also be taken into account when facilities Water Treatment Plants, Oil Refineries, and Quarries, seek to renew their license to operate.

Especially when those facilities generate large quantities of hazardous waste, endanger nearby communities, and deprive indigenous people of their beneficial use of natural aquatic resources and Tribal Cultural Resources through:

  1. The illegal occupation of unceded land. (No, for real, the treaties were never ratified. Indigenous people in the Bay Area never gave away anything, and never will.)
  2. Destruction of Tribal Cultural Resources to create infrastructure, like levees, landfills, and larger things like water treatment plants, and municipal dumps (many are on the shores of the San Francisco Bay Basin).
  3. Forced Extinction and Endangerment of Native Plants and Animals, especially whales, fish, shellfish and aquatic vegetation.
  4. The spoiling of natural resources through pollution, dumping, and paving.

… Among other things.

The Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Basin are not only Tribal Cultural Resources, they are intrinsically connected with the Tribal Beneficial Uses of this region’s natural aquatic resources.