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The fight to save the West Berkeley Shellmound

The fight to save the West Berkeley Shellmound

Despite its status as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country, the last undeveloped portion of the 5,700-year-old West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Ohlone sacred site has been fenced off by developers for a five-story housing and retail project. 

Located in the East Bay on historic Ohlone land, the Save West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site group is a coalition of Ohlone family bands, indigenous organizations and individual advocates who are committed to historic preservation, indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice in the fight to maintain this sacred site. 

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They have traced the site’s history to its inception 5,000 years ago; as the first human settlement in the San Francisco Bay Area. The cultural preservation of this sacred burial site has been under threat for centuries through the violence of Spanish and British colonization, most recently from the private real estate building group Blake Griggs Properties (In August 2018, Blake Griggs Properties pulled out of the project, but the project was resumed by property owners Ruegg & Ellsworth). 

Despite this site’s history, the Shellmound has been built over into retail and housing developments. The West Berkeley Shellmound is a place where the Ohlone people practice their ceremonies, traditions and have buried their dead for thousands of years. Located on 1900 Fourth Street, this housing development threatens the last 2.2 acres of the Shellmound, a place of ceremony and prayer that remains a crucial site in need of cultural preservation.

Hundreds of people joined the Lisjan Ohlone people tonight in a mural painting and candlelight vigil to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound Sacred Site, one of the earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay currently fenced off by barbed wire as commercial developers seek to excavate and build on the site. Photo: Brook Anderson

In 2018, property owners Ruegg & Ellsworth announced their intention to fast track and expand the development of the property under Senate Bill 35, where the Shellmound, now covered in asphalt, is located. This request was denied by an Alameda County judge, who ruled against an appeal filed by the Ruegg & Ellsworth and the Frank Sperger Company. Their attempt to develop the property under Senate Bill 35 would allow them to expand the proposed project to a larger sphere than originally proposed, under the guise of adding in affordable housing units. 

Under this false guise of affordable housing and community development through retail employment, Ruegg & Ellsworth would be doing the opposite of community building, desecrating sacred sites that continue to be sacred despite being covered by concrete. In October 2019, Judge Frank Roesch ruled that “A historic structure does not cease to be a historic structure or capable of demolition because it is ruined or buried.” Despite this, property owners Ruegg & Ellsworth and Frank Sperger Company have appealed the ruling to the State court and have barred all entry into the sacred site. 

Hundreds of people joined the Lisjan Ohlone people tonight in a mural painting and candlelight vigil to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound Sacred Site, one of the earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay currently fenced off by barbed wire as commercial developers seek to excavate and build on the site. Photo: Brook Anderson

This barred entry comes in the form of 6-foot tall chain fences with barbed wire and mesh screenings preventing entrance and sight into the Shellmound. As well, the property group has installed 24 hour cameras and hired a security patrol preventing access to the sacred site at all. 

This denial of access to such a sacred and important space for the Ohlone people is a retaliation to their continued campaign to preserve what little space has been left undeveloped. In response to the fences’ construction, the Save West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site have held candle light vigils to defend the sacred, both in person and virtually. As well, they have asked community members in Ohlone territories to come to 1900 Fourth Street, the sacred site to tie prayers, offerings, intentions and other gifts to the fence and space surrounding it to support the continued efforts to preserve this sacred site. 

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Hundreds of people joined the Lisjan Ohlone people tonight in a mural painting and candlelight vigil to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound Sacred Site, one of the earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay currently fenced off by barbed wire as commercial developers seek to excavate and build on the site. Photos: Brook Anderson

“The barbed wire, chain link fence, and surveillance cameras enclosing the Bay’s oldest Shellmound are nothing less than settler colonial aggression and violence and part of a long history of the criminalization of Indigenous religion and spirituality,” the group wrote via an Instagram post on March 9, 2021. 

This sacred ceremonial space, the last remaining part of the West Berkeley Shellmound is under threat of development. This attack on this sacred site follows the long legacy of colonization, desecration and demolition of Indigenous sacred sites and ceremonial places. To remain updated on their struggle, the Save the West Berkeley Shellmound group can be found on Instagram @savetheshellmounds and their website shellmound.org

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