Tour Stop 9: Yelamu Shellmound

Yelamu Shellmound

For thousands of years, the Yelamu indigenous people lived on this land. Hear how and why they created a gigantic shellmound, which was a sacred place of burial and a repository for activities of daily life.

Audio file


Chapter 1

Markers of Indigenous Life

Gregg Castro, a T'rowt'raahl Salinan and Rumsen-Ramaytush Ohlone, on the significance of shellmounds.


Shellmounds are the markers for our ancestors and where they lived for a very long time. So they have an emotional, spiritual, cultural context to them. They're very important to us because they identify places where our ancestors lived and worked and loved and had families and died and passed on their knowledge for many, many generations. So they're landscape markers that identified our presence, since the beginning in some cases. 

If you were to look into one, it's basically all the life of a village place. And that includes the things that they didn't need, the things that got left behind, the things that were not usable anymore. But other things as well, including burials are often associated with shellmounds, because, again, shellmounds are markers for a place where people lived for a very long time. And especially the bigger ones, obviously, people—a lot of people—live there for a very long time to create something of that size, and a lot of them will then have burials associated with them. So that to me, tells me automatically, we had a different idea, it wasn't a dump, because we wouldn't put our ancestors in a dump. 

And when the newcomers came, at first, they were described as basically trash heaps. And again, that comes from a lack of understanding our culture and our belief system. First of all, to us, we wasted little, we had different concepts about waste, we kind of honored, respected everything we used. And for instance, when we gathered, we used all parts of the plant, all parts of the animal, we gathered and didn't waste anything and found some use for every part of it, so that when something was not needed anymore, it would be either recycled, passed along to somebody else who could use it, or, you know, part of that shellmound. And what they're seeing now is that there were lots of them, more than 400 by contact. And actually, up until the beginning of the 20th century, there were still over 400 of them that were visible. Four hundred, just in the San Francisco Bay Area. So it's only been in the last basically 100 years that they've been all annihilated. They're not visible anymore, but a lot of them are still underground, they've been covered, buried, built over. And even archaeologists understand that a site that has been built over doesn't mean the site is gone. And even modern law is supposed to protect that site, because it can yield scientific information about the people that lived there. And in the case of the shellmounds, way before the laws kicked in, most of the shellmounds are gone. 

And the last big one that got destroyed is the Emeryville one, probably the biggest one, that they built a shopping center on top of the shellmound and took out a very large amount of cultural material. But burials were there, burials are associated with shellmounds. And so burials by the hundreds were disturbed, taken away from that area. The offer was that they would put up a little tiny area of a replica shellmound with a little plaque. And then they also were going to name one of the streets Shellmound Street. It's a mockery to me. And it also allows them to justify it and feel a little bit good about it. But for us, it's like, you know, you don't see anybody going to Forest Hills and digging up those cemeteries. Would you do it to your own graveyard? Well, no they wouldn't, but they do it to our shellmounds. 

And that's what's happening with the West Berkeley Shellmound. It's been threatened with development. We're not talking about a hospital, we're not talking about a police station, we're talking about an apartment business complex. Berkeley doesn't need another one. I believe the stubbornness of the current owner, you know, the original owner, they're just like, "Know what I'm not gonna give him. I'm gonna, you know, you're not gonna tell me what I'm gonna do with my land that I've only owned for 120 years," or whatever it is their family had it versus the people that were there for 1,000 years. But that's part of a society that doesn't see balance the same way we do. One hundred twenty years versus eight thousand. 

We're not talking about trying to save a huge amount of our culture. We're trying to save what very, very, very little is left of our culture. And that's the issue now.

Audio file


Chapter 2

Shellmounds of the Bay

Kanyon "Coyote Woman" Sayers–Roods, an Ohlone and Chumash Native woman, reads a poem about the relationships between shellmounds and Ohlone history and culture.  



Shellmounds of the Bay, by Kanyan Coyote Woman Sayers-Roods

From an Indigenous heart
of the layers of truth we see 

Shell mixed with midden. 
Could this just be simple refuse, 
just to get rid of them? 
So many times this happens again and again. 
Outside colonial minds 
- dismissing - interpreting - projecting - assuming 
greedy, destructive fingertips 
scratching, and noses excited for new finds. 

Heavy is my heart 
to see mere acknowledgments 
like "Shellmound Street" or "Ohlone Way" 

with one sided narratives of the "Mission Curriculum," 
Shared widely to our public education system. 

So painfully sad
... looking across the landscape
so drastically impacted
... molded by Convenience TM, and Entitlement Copywritten. 

I dream of a time 
when the community makes accountable decisions, 
to include and encompass all community members.
Never forgetting our animal and plant kin, 
recognizing how our actions and decisions 
not only impact our environment, but 
our community, and in the short term, the next 
seven generations. 

I feel as though I walk into worlds 
connected to the land, dreaming, 
and seeing it as it is and prayers of as it was, 
with dreams of what can be 
honoring the past to shape the future. 

Ceremony, songs and dances 
should always happen on sacred land. 

The shellmounds are still here, 
though not thoroughly "disappeared." 

425 plus shellmounds 
now the remnants 
signs of miniscule interpretation 
to convey the brevity, it's painfully limited, 
insulting by appropriating the sacred 
while "whitewashing" for the consumer palette.

A shopping mall—
a tacky sculpture and a mini mound 
does NOT convey the vast wisdom that the 
land carries. 

The epistemology of the colonial mindset 
is limited and negligent, 
dare I say primitive? 
"Unlearning the language of conquest" 
Poignant phrasing to observe—in the journey 
of research. 

The exclusivity of the interpretive design 
Has been the dominant presented narrative, 
retribution and undoing the wrongs, 
acknowledgment and awareness is one step. 

Now is the time 
more than ever. 
It is the best time 
to take action. 
I say how happy I am 
to be alive today. 
And I truly must say, 
in seeing more efforts of collaboration 
strategic approaches to respectful reciprocal 
of consultation and mitigation. 
Over destructive analysis and eradication. 

My mother Anne-Marie Sayers, has always said, 
is the best day to be alive,
as a California Native . . . since contact."

Augmented Reality (AR) Feature

See and Hear an Ohlone Rattle

Explore an interactive 3-D image of a traditional Ramaytush Ohlone deer hoof rattle, made from deer bone, hoofs, and sinew. 

To see this feature:

  • Download and print this map. It has icons needed to activate all the AR features. 
  • Click the button below to open the AR viewer. (Works in Firefox and Safari browsers.)
  • Allow the viewer to access your camera.
  • Point your camera at the “Rattle” icon on the map.
  • A bone rattle should appear on-screen.
  • With your fingers, rotate the object and zoom in or out.

Open AR Viewer

someone pointing a camera phone at a QR code
Going Further

Discover More about Ohlone Shellmounds

Other resources about the Ohlone people and shellmounds:

  • Yelamu: The Native Peoples of San Francisco (website): From the San Francisco Estuary Institute, an interactive portrait of the original people of San Francisco
  • The Association of Ramaytush Ohlone (website): The online home of the original people of the San Francisco peninsula
  • Ohlone Curriculum (curriculum): Developed for classroom teachers by Beverly Ortiz and the East Bay Regional Parks District, in consultation with Ohlone peoples of the East Bay
  • Conversations About Landscape: Hidden Nature SF (video): A discussion about the city’s past landscapes featuring Rumsen-Ramaytush Ohlone Gregg Castro, and landscape ecologists from the San Francisco Estuary Institute
  • Cafe Ohlone mak-’amham (website): An Ohlone cultural institution empowering their community with tradition, and teaching the public—through taste—about their unbroken roots
  • Sogorea Te’ Land Trust (website}: An urban Indigenous women-led land trust that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people