Editor’s Note: A dispute over the proposed development of a 15 acres of open space in Vallejo, Calif. – the site of an Ohlone Indian burial ground -- highlights growing tensions between Native Americans and cities over the desecration of sacred tribal lands. NAM contributor Max Pringle has this report.
VALLEJO, Calif. -- A dispute over a 15-acre tract of land in the Glen Cove neighborhood in Vallejo has reached an impasse. Vallejo parks officials want to build a new park along a stretch of open space abutting the Carquinez Straits, while local Native Americans say the area contains their ancestors’ remains and should be left undisturbed.
Protestors have maintained a constant prayer vigil on the land for two weeks to oppose the park plan. They’ve vowed to stay there until the Greater Vallejo Recreation District, the agency in charge of Vallejo’s public parks, agrees to scuttle the idea.
"We've been battling the city of Vallejo for 12 years," said Vallejo resident Norman "Wounded Knee" DeoCampo, a descendant of the Miwok Indians. "We’re saying no more and we’re taking a stand for our sacred land."
The Vallejo Recreation District plans to build a 15-space parking lot, bathrooms, benches and paved trails on a 15-acre park along the coast of the Carquinez Strait. Native American activists say that’s unacceptable. Currently, the site contains unpaved trails and open space that’s popular with local hikers and fishermen. Native Americans say they want it to stay that way.
“They want to turn it into a park with picnic tables”, said Mark Anquoe of the International Indian Treaty Council. “They want to turn it into a place where people come to enjoy themselves and sing and dance and play games. Literally singing and dancing on our graves.”
Activists said placing picnic benches and restrooms at the location would desecrate a burial site containing the remains of Ohlone Indians. The tribe lived on the land for some 3,500 years. The site also contains a native shellmound and various other indigenous artifacts. Work crews excavating the site for a Condo complex in 1984 uncovered human remains and other evidence of an indigenous settlement.
Construction on the new park was scheduled to start in April and finish by late summer. The Greater Vallejo Recreation District first drew up plans to develop the site in the late 1990s. Pressure from Native groups prompted the city to develop an alternative plan that sets aside and protects the burial site by covering it over with two feet of dirt. But activists want the area left unpaved.
“They basically want the right to move graves,” said Fred Short, a long-time Native American rights advocate and California Spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement. “We say leave it natural. Don’t smother mother earth.”
Steve Pressley with the Greater Vallejo Recreation District says the city is open to hearing any alternative plans and ways to compromise.
"We want a park plan that takes in everybody’s concerns from activists to local homeowners,” he said. “We want to come up with the best way to preserve the site and let the community enjoy it as well."
The Recreation District has proposed covering over and preserving archeologically sensitive areas with dirt that archeologists have designated as free of remains and other artifacts. The City plan would also remove invasive plant species and place cultural markers around the park informing visitors of its historical significance.
Native activists say too many other Bay Area tribal artifacts have been removed and sacred lands desecrated for the sake of development and they’re making a stand in Vallejo. “History shows that if we give them a plot, they take the whole mine,” said Fred Short. “Indian land is not a park.”
The overnight vigils at the site have continued with native religious ceremonies and a traditional fire pit that burns constantly. The Greater Vallejo Recreation District says the vigils violate the park's posted 6 a.m. to sunset hours. And camping at the site is also prohibited without a permit.
During negotiations, Recreation District officials agreed not to have police remove the demonstrators. However, park officials warned the campers that they could still face trespassing charges.
But that warning only strengthened the protestors resolve. Many vowed to go to jail to protect the site. They’ve posted signs at the entrance saying such things as: "500+ years of genocide and broken treaties" and "Save the shellmound."
"Police have been parking down here and observing us,” said Corrina Gould with the group Indian People Organizing for Change. “We consider this a form of harassment.”
Native American activists filed a complaint in April with state Attorney General Kamala Harris asking her to investigate whether Vallejo's plan to build a new park on an Indian historic site violates indigenous people’s civil and cultural rights. If the Attorney General’s office finds that civil rights violations occurred, the city could lose state funds to help build the park. The project is estimated to cost $1.5 million.
On April 28, the activists added an addendum to the complaint with the Attorney General’s office, charging the city with police intimidation and harassment.
The Attorney General’s office has referred the matter to the California Native American Heritage Commission for review. The Commission will make recommendations to the Attorney General’s office.
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