Native American Activists Save Sacred Burial Ground From Bulldozers

Native American Activists Save Sacred Burial Ground From Bulldozers

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VALLEJO, Calif. – Hundreds gathered at Glen Cove, Calif., last weekend for a closing ceremony to celebrate what Native American activists and their allies are declaring an historic victory.

It was a victory over a city-park development that would have bulldozed the area for parking lots, plumbing and paved paths -- on one of the last undeveloped ancient burial sites of indigenous people remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Although their 108-day occupation of the land the Ohlone people called "Sogorea Te” had ended, the protest group hoped the action marks the beginning of a new chapter for the 15 acres of land surrounding an inlet of water now known as Glen Cove along the Carquinez Strait. The cove connects the Sacramento Delta to the San Francisco Bay.

“Sacred Fire”

Just beyond the “sacred fire” -- built on the first day of the occupation and burned continuously until it was allowed to extinguish last Saturday – activists here had erected two large tepees. Rising 20-feet tall, they stood in contrast to the modern homes and apartments perched on the hillside above, the closest ones only yards from the camp.

During their occupation, camping tents and teepees lined up in an open field of tall grass overlooking the calm waters of the cove.

Dozens of people had been sleeping in these tents as long as the fire burned, occupying the land in a last-ditch effort to protect it from a city-park development. That project would have bulldozed hillsides to build the park, with bathrooms and modern conveniences, on top of and through the land where Bay Area tribes had buried their ancestors for nearly 4,000 years.

The occupation of the land at Glen Cove began on April 14, and lasted three-and-a-half months, but the seeds of the struggle were planted years ago. Occupation was not the first path chosen, but the final card played by a group of people who had nothing more in their hand.

“It’s been a 12-year and 7-month battle with the City of Vallejo, and with GVRD,” explained Wounded Knee De Ocampo, an elder and a veteran of American Indian activism. According to De Ocampo, officials from GVRD (Greater Vallejo Recreational District) first approached the Vallejo Intertribal Council in 1999, asking for approval to raze the land and proceed with their park development.

Although GVRD and the city hold title to the land at Glen Cove, the area had long been verified as an ancient Native American burial ground by surveyors and anthropologists from the University of California, Berkeley. Over the years they have unearthed a number of ancient remains and cultural artifacts of the numerous tribes who once used the area.

“Twelve years ago, the GVRD approached the Vallejo Intertribal Council, a community group of people from different tribes, asking them permission if they could come in and do this work,” said Corrina Gould, a Karkin and Chochenyo Ohlone.

One of several lead organizers of the Committee to Protect Glen Cove, she continued, “That just wasn't the right process to go through. There are actually laws that protect burial grounds, and what they needed to do was to contact those who were most likely descended from this area.”

“Likely Descendants” of Those Buried

The problem, according to GVRD general manager Shane McAffee, was that the activists who were most vocal about opposing the park development lacked that official designation as “Most Likely Descendants” -- despite their Ohlone and Miwok ancestry, two tribes that historically were present at Glen Cove.

“On one side, even if we wanted to talk to the protesters, they are not an organized, official group with authority,” said Shane McAffee, general manager of GVRD. “They weren’t organized enough to sign a binding agreement.”

In 2003, GVRD began discussions with the Yocha Dehe and Cortina band of Wintun Indians, two federally recognized tribes, who the Native American Heritage Commission of California had designated as the people “most likely descended” from those buried at Glen Cove.

Those tribes however, were not immediately involved with the Native American activists who originally took up the cause of protecting the cove, and plans to move forward on the project stalled.

Inaction was the status quo until last April, when, according to Gould, the activists learned that GVRD had abruptly decided to end discussion on their master plan and move forward. GVRD would bulldoze the site, said Gould, beginning on April 14, only one week after having spoken to the activists and mentioned nothing of this plan.

Gould stated, “After discussing with them for 12 years how we didn’t want them to desecrate this area by putting parking lots and grading hills and doing those things, they decided they were going to go ahead and do the work anyway. They treated us basically like we had no rights. Collectively, we decided it was time for us to be on the land.” She added, “This was the last option.”

The number of activists occupying the site quickly grew to scores of Native and non-Native people as word of the action spread from coast-to-coast, by word of mouth and with the help of a website set up by volunteers.

“It was time for indigenous people across this country to take a stand and say ‘no more’ to desecrating the sacred sites of our ancestors,” said De Ocampo. “No more digging up our ancestors and putting them in garbage cans and in garbage bags, no more digging up our ancestors and putting them in museums and leaving them in cardboard boxes and gym lockers and taking their artifacts and their sacred objects.”

De Ocampo stressed that UC Berkeley has 13,000 remains stored, “and some of those remains came right from this sacred site called Sogorea Te.”

A Cultural Easement

After three months of occupation, things were at a virtual standstill on July 14, when 30 activists and supporters went to Vallejo City Hall to speak about their cause at a council meeting. The stream of testimony that night caused Mayor Osby Davis to declare, “We’re either going to have an easement, or we’re going to give staff direction to enforce the law. That’s the bottom line.”

On July 20, after 98 days of occupation, GVRD and the City of Vallejo opted for compromise over conflict, agreeing to a “cultural easement” proposed by the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes to end the standoff.

The legally binding agreement established a committee consisting of GVRD, the City of Vallejo and the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes, to jointly govern the 15 disputed acres. Any future decisions regarding development on the land will now need a unanimous vote from all parties to proceed.

Although the activists’ occupation and protests pressured the city to agree to the cultural easement, it was money – $100,000 that the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes paid to the cash-strapped City of Vallejo – that may have forced the final settlement. The two tribes agreed to pay the city $100,000 to be included in the "cultural easement" agreement, allowing them to have a say in the project.

“Both of those are gaming tribes, and we know that the City of Vallejo is in dire straits for financial help,” said Gould. “So one of the key things is, [the city] said, ‘If you want to partner and be a part of this, then you need to also pay into it.’”

According to McAffee, the $100,000 payment was also an insurance policy of sorts, just in case GVRD was faced down the line with legal fees to give the protesters an injunction to get them off the land.

Luckily for all involved, it never came to that.

In addition to accepting the cultural easement, McAffee said city officials have already agreed to change four things in their master plan to appease the protesters: 1) The elimination of permanent bathrooms, 2) a downsizing of the proposed parking lot, 3) changes to the paved trail plan for a more water-permeable pathway and 4) an agreement to not tear up an existing concrete driveway that the activists fear will disturb buried remains.

Even though parties to the settlement are yet to work out some details, such as how much the city will scale down the parking lot, McAffee commented, “From our perspective, we’re still achieving what we wanted to do.” Especially important, he said, will be preserving the site, while also providing people a park with access to the water.

Setting a Precedent

At the closing ceremony, the activists who held peaceful vigil at Glen Cove since April expressed an even greater sense of victory, emphasizing that the cultural easement brokered between Native Americans and a city government might have larger implications, beyond Vallejo.

“This is a landmark decision. It sets a precedent,” said Gould, “because something like this has never been done within city limits or with a park district within a city.”

In the past, she went on, California merely allowed American Indians to make recommendations that developers could ignore. “This particular document stops that from happening all together. Even if the property changes hands, the easement is in place, and so forever the tribes will have that designation,” Gould said.

Gould and her fellow activists hope victory will breathe life into similar struggles for the recognition of indigenous sacred sites and burial grounds across the United States. The importance of protecting such sites from desecration has become a major cause of indigenous peoples across the country and even globally in recent years.

In 2008, American Indian Movement cofounder Dennis Banks and other Native American activists organized The Longest Walk 2, an 8,200 mile prayer walk across the United States, largely to raise awareness about the importance of protecting of sacred ancestral lands.

"There are people all over working to protect sacred sites, who were looking at this to see how it would turn out," said Gould. She explained that only a few of the 425 burial mounds, called shellmounds, that once ringed the Bay Area, and none of them really exist now.

She added, “Sagora Te is one of the last burial grounds still on open land where we can actually touch our feet to the ground and say our prayers the way we're supposed to and pass that teaching on to the next generation.”
Even now, activists are calling attention to another sacred site-protection effort, this time in Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff in northern Arizona -- sacred to the Navajo and Hopi tribes -- are being considered for the construction of wastewater pipelines that would be used to produce fake snow for Arizona’s Snowbowl ski destination.

"If the indigenous people don’t stand up to protect these sacred sites and burial grounds of our ancestors, there will be no more places where we can go and sing our songs and offer our medicine and our prayers to our ancestors, who stood up for us,” said De Ocampo.

The struggle for Glen Cove, he said, represents something deeper still.

“Our ancestors were crying, and the people answered the call. There have been other events, like Alcatraz that happened in 1969. And in 1973 there was a stand at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Now, there is Sogorea Te. It brought light back to indigenous people to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough!’ It was a spiritual gathering here. It was a spiritual victory.”