Desecration of Glen Cove burial mounds reveal blatant disregard for humanity
by Sean Jobst
May 8, 2011
We undertake our life journey holding on to certain inalienable rights, which are instinctively part of our humanity as natural laws. One of these is certainly the right to be buried upon one’s ancestral land. Yet this basic right is currently being violated in broad daylight in the northern California city of Vallejo, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On April 13, 2011, the Sacred Site Protection and Rights of Indigenous Tribes (SSP&RIT), an Indigenous rights organization based in Vallejo, filed an administrative civil rights complaint with the State of California under the state’s Government Code § 11135.
It accused the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) and the City of Vallejo of harming the spiritual well-being of Indigenous peoples through its utter disregard of the sacred burial grounds at Glen Cove. It specifically pointed to desecration in the GVRD’s plans to build a 15-space parking lot and two-stall restroom atop the burial grounds.
“Our ancestors deserve a place where they can rest forever,” Corinna Gould, an Ohlone living in Oakland whose ancestors are buried at the site, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “People everywhere understand that ancient cemeteries are sacred places. But in Vallejo, they want to put a bathroom on one.”
Known to the area’s indigenous people as Sogorea Te, the Glen Cove shellmounds span 15 acres along the Carquinez Strait, in south Vallejo. It has been a sacred site and burial place for the indigenous Ohlone, Miwok and Pomo peoples since at least 1500 BC.
The site has not ceased in its spiritual importance to indigenous Californians. Tribal members gather there two or three times annually to bless the creek, oak trees and rocky beach, all of which they regard as being sacred.
“The history and cultural use of the site has never been disputed,” Mark Anquoe, Indigenous organizer with the Indian Treaty Council, told POOR Magazine Indigenous People’s Media Project. “Native Americans continue to hold ceremonies at Sogorea Te just as they have for thousands of years.”
The area was inhabited by the Miwok, South Pomo, Wappo, Patwin-Wintun, North Yokut, and Ohlone nations. These nations were part of a vast network of trading cultures extending all along the Pacific coast down the length of the continent.
These cultures thrived through a conscious respect for the land, symbolized by more than 500 shellmounds that were located and recorded throughout California by the late 18th century and most of which were determined to be thousands of years old.
The advent of colonization exterminated Indigenous Californians through physical genocide, while most of their sacred shellmounds were permanently destroyed through accompanying cultural genocide. Over the past twenty years, commercialization has further destroyed the few remaining shellmounds and burial sites.
One of the few sites to have remained is Sogorea Te, which historically offered fresh water and shelter from the howling winds of Carquinez Strait. Registered CA-SOL 236, the site was first documented in University of California-Berkeley archaeological records in 1907. Intact skeletal remains and cremations have been documented at the site.
In September 1986, Indigenous human remains from the site were identified by the state Office of Historic Preservation and the Native American Heritage Commission as dating back to 1000 CE. According to a 1988 report by Novato Archaeological Resource Service, Sogorea Te is at least 3,500 to 4,000 years old.
Archaeologists have also found pottery, mortars, pestles, animal bones, eagle claws, bear teeth, bird-bone whistles, spear points, arrowheads, shell fragments, and many ceremonial feather or shell jewelry ornaments.
Rather than being preserved and left alone as a sacred burial ground, Sogorea Te has been archaeologized. Since 1907, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley has illegally housed over 13,000 ancestral remains and over 200,000 sacred objects from the site.
“We are pleading with Vallejo not to desecrate this site,” Miwok elder Norman “Wounded Knee” DeOcampo, who leads ongoing efforts to stop its desecration since April 15th, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So many Ohlone remains are already in boxes at UC Berkeley. We want these ones here left alone.”
Archaeologists have a long dismal record of cultural misappropriation and utter disrespect when it comes to Indigenous sites. Despite their hallowed status as sacred burial grounds, mounds have been labeled “middens” by archaeologists, a derogatory usage of a term that actually means garbage dumps.
Such utter disregard for human remains is a recurring theme at Indigenous sites throughout the continent. At the least its racially insensitive, and at its worst represents a new effort of cultural genocide. To construct a new colonial narrative requires leveling over the Indigenous history, so that the narrative then becomes the earliest record of existence in a given area.
Bradley Angel of the San Francisco-based environmental group Greenaction, which has stood in solidarity with Indigenous groups against desecration, told the Vallejo Times-Herald how he’s “shocked at the injustice and disrespect that the City of Vallejo and the district have displayed toward native people that they would build a toilet and a parking lot on top of where people are buried.”
The GVRD’s unnecessary project would effectively desecrate the site and degrade the environment around it. A paved parking lot would diminish the land’s ability to absorb rainwater. Bulldozers would obviously harm the graves and at the same time disrupt the land around it. Their project calls for the spraying of a herbicide called Garlon 4, which would saturate the air around Sogorea Te with synthetic chemicals. This herbicide is known to potentially harm any woody or broadleaf plant in which it comes into direct contact.
In addition to archaeologists, the shellmounds are also being desecrated through the permits given to “developers” to build over them in direct contravention of various laws dedicated to the preservation and protection of such sites. Even Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s their burial ground and they don’t want to see it desecrated. I think we ought to be sensitive to that.”
To destroy or inhibit access to such sites, as the GVRD is doing right now in its “development” project at Sogorea Te, is in direct violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Spiritual ceremonies continue to be held there. It also violates the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979, which states “archaeological resources on public lands and Indian lands are an accessible and irreplaceable part of the Nation’s heritage.”
The desecration of burial mounds such as Glen Cove and the theft of human remains, is a criminal act that seems to be tolerated when it comes to Indigenous remains. Yet this is in blatant disregard of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which mandates Indigenous human remains are to be afforded the same protection as other human remains, in recognition of the federal treaties that acknowledge sovereignty.
The willingness of city officials to violate their own stated objectives is brazen, such as with the mission statement on its website. “The City of Vallejo celebrates its cultural and ethnic diversity, preserves its history and maritime heritage, cares for its children and their future, and provides cost effective quality services second to none.”
The very meaning of life continues to be devalued, as reflected in the corresponding attitude towards death. To deny this one basic human right means that other human rights are being violated, since there can be no respect for the living without a respect for the dead. And the manner in which human remains are being desecrated indicate a certain lack of humanity on the part of those vicious enough to degrade themselves with such actions.
Vallejo is the most broke city in a state known for its disastrous financial situation. The GVRD is dedicated to a $1.5 million project. How is this even conceivable in a city which nearly filed bankruptcy? Vallejo has laid off public workers in efforts to cut back on its spending. Schools are being closed and homes are foreclosed. Violent crimes are also on the rise in Vallejo. Are there no homeless and poor people in Vallejo on which this money could be better spent, to improve their basic needs?
Even though the GVRD has consistently complained of lack of funds, it somehow has come up with the cash needed for its Glen Cove “development.” Why aren’t these funds being used to renovate defunct housing projects or to improve on existing parks? Even though there’s such a park only four blocks away from Glen Cove, the GVRD stubbornly insists on this project. To meet its costs there would have to be a continual source of taxes, a measure which citizens of Vallejo have overwhelmingly rejected election after election.
The only logical source for such cash can be found in the corporate backers who are obviously funneling money into this project. Profits trump any other concerns at such a site, especially since preservation would dampen their cash-flow. There isn’t as much money to be made in improving existing parks, compared to lucrative construction contracts. To first destroy and then build brings much more money than to simply build.
“Every society needs sacred places,” writes the late Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., in his essay “Sacred Lands and Religious Freedom” which he wrote in efforts to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. “A society that cannot remember its past, and honor it, is in peril of losing its soul.” And the conscience is not the only thing lost in the process.
If there can be no peace without justice, neither can there be true peace without first peace for the dead not to have their bodies desecrated and their graves disturbed. “The Great Law of Peace is our heritage,” Grandma Edna Gordon, Hawk Clan, Seneca Wisdom-Keeper from New York, who has expressed her support for the preservation efforts, told the Protect Glen Cove website.
“To others, it is a commodity. To bury your weapons, you lose a fighting spirit and become extinct. To struggle, you achieve survival. Listen to the crying souls. Let your prayers be heard above the spirit of the wind.”
Simple greed is not a factor that can adequately explain this blatant desecration of a sacred site. The central reason can only be found in the modern tendency to separate the spiritual from the material. It is true the illusionary quest for profits blind people and lead them to harm their fellow human beings. But in desecrating the dead can be found another illusion: that of separating the body from the soul.
You certainly would be outraged if the graves of your ancestors were being disturbed for the purposes of “development” that would harm burial grounds which are universally accepted as hallowed ground within every culture and faith-tradition. All that is expected is that you at least recognize the same sanctity and respect when it comes to all human remains.