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Berkeley and the BHS Community Must Better Recognize Indigenous History and Present Struggles

As the sacred West Berkeley Shellmound moves towards development for housing and retail, it is increasingly important that Berkeley addresses its history and participates in resistance.

Here in the heart of Berkeley, there is a rich and complex history surrounding the Lisjan Ohlone people. The West Berkeley Shellmound, located at 1900 Fourth St., acts as a representation of that history, but has faced a continuous battle over land ownership and development. Now, that land is considered to be one of America’s 11 most endangered historic sites, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When driving past, the public can see a fenced-in parking lot decorated with a mural on the street that reads, “Sacred Site,” and red ribbons tied in the gaps of the fence. There is something deeply moving about this juxtaposition — the coldness of a concrete parking lot and the spirit and vibrancy of the decorations surrounding it. 

These murals and decorations are an act of resistance against the developers who want to build housing and retail space on this sacred land. Ohlone people have presented an alternate proposal for how the current parking lot could become an open-spaced memorial to the centuries of habitation by Ohlone people in Berkeley and a recognition of their resilience. We need the city to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound and satisfy the request of the Ohlone people. We must also include Berkeley High School (BHS) in the healing process by making sure that Indigenous people are appropriately and accurately represented in our curriculum, and honored on campus.  

When talking about reparations and Indigenous cultures in school, there are ways scholars have identified for us to improve the conversation. It’s very important to refer to specific tribes and recognize the over six hundred Native American tribes in the United States, as well as the large linguistic diversity. We must think critically about representation and perspective, because it is often forgotten that there are contemporary Indigenous communities who we can learn directly from. Oral history and traditions are not commonly taught in schools, but in this case, oral tradition is largely how we can involve Indigenous voices in the curriculum. At BHS, we should honor the Ohlone land before schoolwide ceremonies, and we should also create a plaque or dedicated memorial on campus. This would act as a permanent marker to honor the Ohlone land, and also educate those coming to Berkeley on who the Ohlone people are. 

In recent weeks, the developers who own the West Berkeley Shellmound have erected a chain-link fence with barbed wire around the parking lot. This action is reminiscent of how systems of power have often used fear tactics and the falsehood of “ownership” to control Indigenous groups. The official Save West Berkeley Shellmound website described the fence: “The appearance of barbed wire surrounding a 5,700 year-old Ohlone sacred site is a sharp reminder of how settlers carved out Indian territory across the continent, brazenly appropriated land, and erected an apt symbol of Manifest Destiny—exclusive, arrogant, dangerous, vicious.”

Take a second in your own life each day to think about the land that Berkeley is built on. Recognize that the Ohlone people are still here in contemporary times and that we all benefit from synergy and communication. When we honor the Indigenous people on this land, we can create a less vicious community for everyone.