There are medicine wheels painted on the sidewalk in my city of Oakland, California. During the 50 years that I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve repeatedly tried to trace my native ancestry and identify from which nation my paternal grandfather came.
I began the search relying on government records and the memory of family members. My paternal uncle knew only that his grandfather died suddenly in the middle of Weehawken, NJ. I found my great grandfather’s obituary in the Jersey Journal. I was able to add his name, William J. Diehl, to the family tree. My birth name is Eunice M. Diehl. It is still not determined whether William J. was a native person. As the search continues, my interest in native people and culture also grows.
I lived on the East Coast originally, so I reached out via the internet to Eastern Woodland native communities. I took lessons via email from a Lenape man in Pennsylvania who taught me how to make a turtle rattle. I visited his people when they had a powwow and met many community members. How important reconnecting with ancestry and native identification was to these people, and their dedication to bringing back their language, crafts, and spirituality deeply impressed me.
In an event I hosted I was impressed by how much the Lakota women attending resembled each other. The full-blooded Lenape that I met did not resemble my grandfather. The turtle rattle I made was different from the one I received as a child. At the Vallejo Powwow in California, I saw some Cherokee turtle rattles like my the one from my childhood. I wanted them to be my folks, but the Lenape were not. It took me a year to admit it.
Indian Relocation Act lures many native people to the Bay Area.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are many native people and cultures. In the latter half of the 20th century, in partial implementation of the Indian Relocation Act, the federal government relocated many different tribes to the Bay Area. They promised but did not deliver training, housing, and jobs. Now the area is home for the largest group of intertribal Indians in the U.S. That means the group has people from different tribes or nations, rather than just one,
Bay Area Equity Atlas tells that native people from:
the Southwest, Great Plains, and Eastern Woodlands areas. Now, California is home to close to 200 tribes with only 109 of them recognized by the U.S. federal government. The displacement of Native Americans from their reservations into the region led to the creation of the oldest urban Indian community center, Intertribal Friendship House which provided a community for Indigenous people to seek each other out and access social services.
In the move from ancestral lands, these people lost contact with their ancestral languages and cultures. Together they rediscover, learn again, and teach each other what they can. They work to preserve sacred sites and educate the public. They occupied Alcatraz Island from November 20 1969 to June 11, 1971, and started the annual celebration of Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony there on Thanksgiving (or Unthanksgiving as they prefer). The celebration in 2019 was its 50th year.
Meeting people and enjoying powwows.
I attended the Vallejo powwow for the first time in the mid-1990’s. I went alone. Nobody goes to a powwow alone, except for other elders and me. Groups travel together in vans, erect canopies for shade, bring chairs, water, food to share, and regalia for those who will dance. Choctaw people had a booth there for their language classes. I signed up and attended the Choctaw language class in Vallejo for several years. I first heard about the Emeryville shell mound, an Ohlone burial site, when I attended those language classes. We were invited to attend the protests against building stores and condominiums on top of that sacred site.
The Choctaw people in California, Okla (people) Chahta (Choctaw) in the Choctaw language, have an annual powwow in Bakersfield on or close to Mother’s Day weekend. I attended for years. It opens with a traditional Choctaw wedding ceremony. According to the couple’s wishes, these vary in complexity, but they end with the newly married couple wrapped in one blanket.
A bright blue bus from the Mississippi Choctaw filled with dancers, language books, and teachers travels to bring the culture to California. The bus riders teach stickball to the children, beaded necklace making to the girls and women, and traditional social dances to everyone.
Other native nations teach language and traditional arts and culture in people’s homes and community centers. For example, the Cherokee Society of the Greater Bay Area has a private Facebook group, language classes in people’s homes, a gathering on ZOOM called Pecan Topics to learn about growing pecan trees. It is taught by folks from Oklahoma State University.
On Mother’s Day weekend every year for the past 48 years the Stanford powwow and its large money prizes draw the best dancers from across the U.S. This year, the 49th Stanford powwow was canceled due to COVID-19. Thanks to my attendance at the Bakersfield Choctaw powwow, I have yet to enjoy the Stanford event.
Defending sacred sites in Emeryville and Berkeley.
Not far from a popular food store I frequent in Emeryville is the largest American Indian shell mound. U.C. Berkeley archaeologist N.C. Nelson mapped 400 shell mounds along the San Francisco Bay at the beginning of the 20th century. Five or six remains. The Ohlone people used them for burial grounds since the Ice Age.
Corrinna Gould is Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone woman, born and raised in Oakland, CA- or the ancient village of Huichin. She has three children and two grandchildren. She is the Co-Founder and a lead organizer for Indian People Organizing for Change, a small Native run group that works on Indigenous peoples’ issues. For her, saving the shell mounds means saving the burial place of her ancestors.
By the time Corrinna Gould and Johnella La Rose filed papers to object to building a mall on top of this burial ground, it was too late. The developer and builder had approvals from the city and were ready to build. More important than the time sequence, to the majority culture, a shell mound was just too different from a cemetery to call up strong opposition.
The site had been used and abused several times since the 19th century. In the 1870s an amusement park and dance pavilion were built there. In the 1920s a pigment plant began and continued to saturate the land with toxic chemicals until 1990. How could anything be left of a burial place? So people thought.
Two million dollars was set aside for an archaeological exploration of the site. The unexpected discovery of hundreds of intact burials was shocking and emotional. Three hundred bodies were reburied on the site. About 100 were taken from the metered parking lot behind the Victoria’s Secret store.
Some were taken to museums like the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley. In keeping with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), the museum has returned remains to some native groups. Whether these include remains of Corrinna Gould’s ancestors is unknown.
Bay Street Emeryville was built on the shellmound site. It includes a hotel, movie theater, luxury condominiums with a swimming pool, a large multi-level parking lot, and many stores. Needless to say, I do not patronize movies or shops there.
There also is a round memorial park, a goodwill addition, and minor acknowledgment. In 2005 Shellmound, a short documentary, was made by U.C.Berkeley School of Journalism alumnus Andres Cediel. It tells the story from the point of view of the City of Emeryville.
Every year on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, Bay Area native people and supporters gather at the memorial to protest. Along with other members of my Choctaw class from Vallejo, I have stood with them too. This action continues public education. It demonstrates that native people are still here. They live here, work here, and pay taxes. Their unique cultural heritage enriches the San Francisco Bay Area and helps grow empathy for people and ways different from those of the majority.
The struggle for the Emeryville Shellmound prepared for the victory in the West Berkeley Shellmound case. In October 2019, the court rejected a housing project there. Judge Frank Roesch wrote that “a historic structure does not cease to be a historic structure” simply because “it is ruined or buried.”
That campaign continues, however. Gould and Shellmound, her nonprofit advocating for the preservation of sacred sites, speak for West Berkeley shell mound preservation in a lawsuit brought by the real estate developer 1900 Fourth Street. There is a well-known need for affordable housing, and there may not yet be a complete public understanding of shell mounds as native burial sites. The court will decide.
Donadagohvi (“until we meet again” in Cherokee) For more by Aikya Param, click here.
Aikya Param is a minister, visual artist, editor, and writer. She has written a three-act play in poetry entitled Promise. Her book of poetry, Cityside and Shoreline, will be released July 15, 2020.