NAGPRA & Bay Area Shellmounds

Afarensis shared a link to a Nature News piece on a new twist in the NAGPRA issue, which I didn’t catch. So kudos to him for picking that up. The piece, by Rex Dalton, got me to think about another thing I just recently read on the web, a blog post by a person who goes by ‘Bay Radical’ about the issues surrounding some shellmounds made by native Americans that inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area. The two issues have tangents but aren’t directly related.

That’s beside the point. As noted by Bay Radical, the shellmounds were made by Ohlone natives… or so we think. The two most prominent mounds were in Emeryville, California and Alameda, California. I currently live in Alameda, California, just down the street from one of the sites of the old mounds. I bike over the sites when I do my cycling rounds. And have been to Emeryville more times than I’d like to admit. Since I live in the Bay Area and am interested in past human life, I’m very aware of what these sites were and what they are now.

At times, Bay Radical describes what happened to the shellmounds in an a realistic tone. At other times Bay Radical describes the shellmounds in exotified manner. That’s expected. The writer does go by the nom de plume of radical. So here’s a bit of reclarification…

Shellmounds are a form of midden. Midden is known as a dump for domestic waste. In archaeology, midden provides a lot of information. I spent two years sorting thru midden from a site in Moss Landing, California. saw how native Americans did not live harmoniously with nature as often glorified in popular culture. These people obliterated populations of norther fur seals to the point of extinction.

Like all middens, shell middens contain the debris of human activity and remains of their meals. They contain information on how people lived, what they ate, how they ate. As people who study material culture, we can figure out how they processed remains, if they left any tools or artifacts in the debris, etc.

Some middens are tiny, representing a single household’s waste. In the case of the Emeryville and Alameda shellmounds, they were monumental. Bay Radical makes the case that the Emeryville shellmound was largely obliterated in an ignorant and capitalistic manner to pave the way for an amusment park, several factories, and ultimately to what it is now an outdoor shopping mall.

What the hell? The shellmounds were phenomenal. I won’t say they weren’t, they were one of the largest structures known to be made by Californian natives. But they were trash.

Some descendants of natives claim that human remains were or are in the midden piles and that the archaeologists who excavated the mounds as well as the engineers who paved over the mounds caused them great disrespect. They completely skirt over the issue that their ancestors buried their dead in what’s the equivalent of modern day landfills. If their reburial so detrimental to their spiritual well being then why were they buried in trash mounds in the first place? There’s a potential to use science to understand why these people from the past dumped their loved ones in their community trash mounds. I also do not understand how and why archaeologists and engineers who are attempting to make the sites into informative and economically viable areas are now vilified for transforming trash?

It seems like the archaeologists are the ones who completely get screwed over in situations like this, not the natives. I understand that I am taking a completely different change of tone. To many of you this maybe a big surprise. It is not that I’m flip flopping on the issues that come up with research, repatriation, cultural sensitivity and government bureaucracy. But there needs to be a balance.

Sometimes the archaeologists are to blame. In cases where archaeologists mess up, I point them out. Most notably are the issues around Yale’s stealing of Peruvian cultural heritage. In other cases, the natives are to blame. In other words, no one party is completely innocent.

Rex Dalton points out a current event, descendants of natives want to empty scientific institutions of about 120,000 human skeletons currently stored for research purposes. Anyone can claim some remain is their ancestor and remove them even if the remains are not identifiable. What purpose does this serve?

I’ve been at a meeting where academics at UC Berkeley, in charge of the Phoebe A. Hearst Musuem, raised concerns about what will happen to their collection if such a change should occur. The museum has over 10,000 human remains and is in compliance with NAGPRA. But now with discussion that any old Joe with a feather in his head can come and claim such and such humerus and such and such tooth is from their great great great grandmother and take them away raises some serious issues. If this happens it would be counter active to protecting the remains. The remains are under great care and security at institutions such as the Hearst Museum. They are also very useful to understand how humans varied as well as investigating osetopathology. If they are removed, who’s to know that they’d be returned to the rightful relatives?

Furthermore, this may come off as completely naive but I really can’t find a way to phrase it any other way… I don’t understand why it’s so important that remains from people’s ancestors from several hundred to thousand years ago has any impact on their current well being. It seems so far removed, so far detached. Of course that’s awfully ethnocentric, and I admit my athiest upbringing is why I just simply don’t fully understand this problem. But we live in the now, we need to understand how people lived, what they were like, how they varied to figure out how we all got here. That, to me, is more important than whether or not my great great cousin twice removed from 200 years ago is buried according to my cultural traditions or not.

How do you feel about these issues? In the US this is a big problem. For readers outside of the US, do you see similar issues? Also, please feel free to tell me how ignorant I am about the statements in the last paragraphs… or if I am at all.

18 thoughts on “NAGPRA & Bay Area Shellmounds

  1. I think there is a need for balance with these issues, and I fear that that balance is being lost in the hunt for political correctness. Ultimately, if the remains are old enough, they’re everybody’s ancestors so to claim that one group or another has more of a right to decide what happens to them is ludicrous. Living in the same geographical area now does not make them necessarily actual relatives either. I believe John Hawks blogged about this issue only a few weeks ago with a case in, I think, Alaska.

  2. From the perspective of a Native American, you have to look at the issue a bit differently. The history of race relations between Native Americans and European colonists/Americans has been one of murder, lies, theft, and bigotry. Native people and cultures were forced out of their homelands, their livelihoods taken, little or no compensation given (and often taken away or agreements reneged upon later). To make matters worse the survivors were generally forced on to the worst land available and forced to adopt European practices even when the local environment did not support those practices (growing corn in AZ/NM w/o major irrigation???). To add insult to injury the various nations were assigned to church missionaries, “you’re now Catholic, you Methodist, you Baptist, ” etc. Their children were shipped off to boarding schools where they faced brutal punishment for resisting while they were converted in to nice young white farmers.

    Today Native Americans have a choice that no one should have to make. Abandon your family and culture, leave the reservation and succeed, or stay on the reservation and survive. Despite the stereotypes, most don’t live on reservations and sadly most don’t know much about their own cultures or speak their traditional languages.

    To add to the cultural bigotry, the attitude that Native Americans are “extinct” (I’ve honestly had students tell me that Native Americans are all gone), and minor “slap in the face” issues like sports mascots and the like, there is the very real issue that there are ridiculous quantities of Native American remains in museums all over the country. Certainly you wouldn’t care that much if someone went back to whichever country your ancestors came from and discovered 2,000 or 3,000 year old remains. Of course you also didn’t have government agencies sponsoring Indian hunts. You didn’t have military expeditions tasked with collecting your parents or grandparents skulls for “phrenology tests;” while slaughtering the living they were desecrating the dead.

    Native Americans have been abused and dehumanized since 1492, this is just one of many issues that wouldn’t mean that much to someone who hasn’t had to deal with it from anything but an academic standpoint.

  3. This piece on the shellmounds was submitted by Felix, who writes ‘Bay Radical’ for Four Stone Hearth, and will duly appear in the next edition – the rest of her site is well worth checking as well.

  4. dogmeatib, you are exceptionally correct with the amount of abuse and assimilation native Americans have been under. But that is no excuse to hinder the scientific process. Archaeologists, anthropologists, for the most part, aren’t out to further oppress native Americans. True, there are some assholes out there that wanna keep all the artifacts and bones. Those are the ones NAGPRA is supposed to protect against. Likewise, there are self serving natives that will and have claimed remains as their relatives without any real evidence linking them to it. They do that just to ‘stick it to the man.’ If NAGPRA is revised, this will happen a lot more. Retalitating against science for what has happened throughout history won’t fix the problem.

  5. Archaeologists, anthropologists, for the most part, aren’t out to further oppress native Americans.

    I realize that, but they have to realize that they are often seen as part of the establishment that was responsible for the oppression. Simply telling people that you aren’t out to do that wont work because more often than not, that’s what they were told in the first place.

    They do that just to ’stick it to the man.’

    I wouldn’t simplify it that way, while also not dismissing those with that mindset. Realize that some of them may or may not have any specific ties to the remains (or believe they d0), but honestly see themselves as protecting those remains regardless of who they are related to. While you have individual nations, a certain level of “pan-Indianism” does exist, in their mind they may be protecting those remains … period.


    But that is no excuse to hinder the scientific process

    I would argue that preserving the last vestiges of your culture for what, to them, seems a dubious process of science is more than an appropriate excuse.

    Don’t get me wrong, I minored in anthropology and archeology in college and find the fields both valuable and interesting. My point is simply that a bit of “the other fellow” could help with smoothing relations with the local people. You wouldn’t go on fieldwork in the Amazon or Sub Saharan Africa without doing your homework and understanding the culture as much as possible, why assume that you can approach Native Americans without similar preparation and an effort to understand them?

  6. I would argue that preserving the last vestiges of your culture FROM what, to them, seems a dubious process of science is more than an appropriate excuse.

    I made a slight mistake, apologies.

  7. Hi there! I’m Felix, the author of Bay Radical. Thanks so much for linking to my post. I’ve been meaning to get out to your neighborhood to check out the site of the major Alameda Shellmound – from the map it looks like there is a park on the site now. Is there any marker about the mound? I imagine not. There were hundreds of Shellmounds in the Bay Area before the Spanish arrived, some huge, some small, but only a few are preserved in any significant way.

    I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist, just a lay person with an interest in history. Based on what I’ve read, I understand that Western Coastal Shellmounds are no longer known as ‘middens’ within the anthropological community. Am I wrong about that? As I understand it, this term is considered derogatory, and fails to capture the complex role of the Shellmounds which people here actually seem to have lived on top of.

    My rudimentary understanding of anthropology leads me to believe that it would be wrong to apply our understanding of things to other cultures. For example, the place where you and I send our trash – a garbage dump – holds no spiritual or emotional significance. But it would be wrong for us to assume that the place where other folks sent their waste products had the same meaning to them. That is one argument for accepting the Ohlone perspective that Shellmounds are not ‘just dumps’ but rather hold important spiritual significance. Archaeologists certainly believe that shellmounds, and the Emeryville Shellmound in particular are of deep significance to understanding the lives of Coastal tribal people here.

    While the idea of preserving something that many people now see as a garbage dump may seem bizarre to many, I do think that most people would feel some discomfort at planting a mall on top of a graveyard, even a very old one. If the tribes here had used written language, and had chosen to mark the human graves within the mound with the names of the deceased, perhaps contemporary non-Indian observers would feel more sympathetic about this issue?

    Anyhow, thanks again for the link and for the discussion about this issue!


  8. I am from N.J. . I live in the pine barrens. All along the coastal planes here, we also have shell mounds. Made by the local Native americans. They are also being destroyed for the purpose of expanchion. But a lot of ower problems come frome grave robbers looking for valubuls to sell on the black market. As far as I know they mostly countain clam shells. No human remains. But arrow heads and outher stone artifacts are scatterd all over N.J.
    I don’t see the problem with remans that are thousands of years old. Becaus theres no possible way you could have know that person. Besides the bodey in many coulthers is just the vesseal for the soul. It’s an uninpourtant componet to assentchain in the first place. But I can see having problems with more recent remains. Studing oulder remains is nessesary for an understanding of eveloution. Maybe even the keys to understanding nutrician, and the history of certian diseaseas as well as possible cures for those diseaseas.

  9. Careltyrrell,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with what you said but the amount of spelling errors you have makes it hard to concentrate on your message. I make spelling errors too, a lot of them, but I usually run them past a spell check built into my browser before I post. I suggest that next time you can do the same.

  10. I’ve been reading your blog for the past few months, and generally enjoy your posts. I think this is the first time I’ve commented on a post here, and I do so because you solicit feedback on your statements.

    Using the phrase “any old Joe with a feather in his head” comes across as intentionally belittling. You and I both know that the process of claiming remains is more complicated than that. I interpret the use of this phrase as an attempt to challenge and trivialize claims of ancestry and legitimacy. Your argument would be stronger without these digs thrown in.

    I’ll apply the same criticism to your repeated use of the word “trash”, as in “vilified for transforming trash”. You and I both know that modern connotations of the word trash imply unwanted/gross/cheap/etc. Then you want to know why Native Americans are so upset about us cleaning up trash. That’s not a fair question.

    Your question, “If their reburial so detrimental to their spiritual well being then why were they buried in trash mounds in the first place?” is invalid. Can you imagine one person saying to another, “If we don’t want these remains to be reburied in the future, we’d better not bury them here!” If anyone has the ability to see into the future, please–tell me if my grandmother is buried in a safe location.

    “There’s a potential to use science to understand why these people from the past dumped their loved ones in their community trash mounds. ” This seems to be one of your main anti-repatiration stances in this particular case. But you’re building on sand. Please clarify how you will use science to access people’s emotions in the past. Not in a general, defending archaeology way. But in this case, how would you use science to reach the “why”? Also note that many Native American groups would say that they don’t need you to tell them or confirm “why”, as they already know. In which case I guess you’d be arguing that humanity at large deserves to know the “why”. And I for one will go on record saying that my need to know why humans were buried in shell mounds isn’t so strong that I need anyone to upset and increase tensions with Native Americans.

    “we need to understand how people lived…” Who is the “we” implied here? And how do you define “need”? At what cost?

    @ Felix: Thank you for stating so clearly the point that we can’t apply today’s terms and their connotations to materials and situations in/from the past.

    Again, I enjoy your blog and appreciate that you deliver informative commentary on current issues in anthropology. But your posts are of little use to public debate if they inappropriately use loaded language and use the word “we” to really mean “me”.

  11. hello, I am responding to this blog as a student who is presently doing research on the San Francisco shell mounds. It is a shame that people like you exhibit such ignorance on the subject. While the many reasons why you are wrong can fill many pages, here are a few mistakes you have made:

    1) The mounds actually did contain many remains of human beings. The relatives of these individuals took great care in interning their loved ones in the mounds.

    2) These mounds were furthermore not “just trash”! They were places of importance to the people who occupied the site, they lived on these mounds as well as deposited refuse, as well as buried their dead. To generalize about the cultural importance of these mounds is sadly ignorant.

    3) The cultural significance of the mounds is highly important to current native groups because it is highly likely that their ancestors occupied the mounds. Please show respect towards these groups as it may be difficult for people to conceptualize the culture and histories of other peoples, especially groups which have been misplaced and abused throughout history.

    Having Ohlone blood running through my veins as well please show some respect, it is sad how chronically deceived the average American is. Think about how your words and how your opinions affect everyone around you. Avoid the pessimistic attitudes of an ethnocentric hierarchy and open your minds to the realities around you

  12. The shellmounds are sacred sites. Even if some people do not believe they are important, they are sacred. They are a fragile piece of our past. They represent the geological change from the Ice Age into the Holocene period during which the S.F.Bay was formed and an ecosystem conducive to human existence developed. This is the beginning of modern history, the coming of the people and the acretion of the moundsites over centuries. In the case of the mound at Berkeley, the people lived there for 45 centuries (3700B.C.-800A.D.)! And yet, natives are lucky to get one page in the history books. This is wrong and this will change! Go to to read more about what people are doing to bring attention to the sacred sites all across America.

  13. If you check in the culturally un-affiliated database at the NPS NAGPRA website, you’ll see that the Emeryville shellmound, Ellis Landing, and scores of others contained Native American burials. While you may view shell middens as waste piles, that isn’t necessarily the way they were viewed by the folks who created them (and for what it is worth, many of the Jomon shell middens in Japan have yielded burilas of humans, dogs, and pigs).

    Second, I hope you listened to the State Legislature’s hearings on UC Berkeley’s NAGPRA compliance and checked out some of the documents at .
    Particularly the so-called “Luby Report” where they mention they just filed 40% of their inventories to the Federal government without
    proper archival review and Prof. Carol Goldberg’s letter on the UCOP Review Committee.

    Best, Mark Hall

  14. UC Berkeley is only in compliance with NAGPRA because the federal government illegally dropped the Ohlone from the Federal roles in 1924. If Ohlone were still recognized, UCB would have to release the remains of the people.

    Your ignorance of the burial sites of the people is not surprising. Garbage mounds don’t generally include intact ancestral remains and life artifacts. All of which have been found in every shellmound which has been destroyed.

    Colonized America’s constant need to erase our peoples is mindblowing. Erasing tribes from the law, so they can destroy sacred sites and continue to break treaties. Let’s not forget the mound found in 1986 while BART was being constructed. Remains dating back more than 5000 years were quietly destroyed so the white man can have public transportation.

    Maybe your understanding would be clearer if we opened Casinos on the cemeteries in Colma. You don’t mind, after all to you it’s just a pile of garbage. See you at the blackjack table at the new Casino in Holy Cross Cemetery.

  15. I am an archaeology student at San Jose State and I was incredibly appalled by your statements in this blog. Although I do not agree with some of the aspects of NAGPRA and I do think that it would benefit the Native American community to have a better understanding of their past culture, your reasoning was terrible and extremely trashy. With an outlook like that, no wonder Native Americans don’t want their ancestors exhumed
    When you say the Alameda County shellmound,
    are you are talking about CA-ALA-329 at Coyote Hills? If this is the case, you are incredibly wrong in saying that that is a heap of trash. In fact it is not. It is a cemetery site, not a village site, and not a heap of trash. San Jose State University has a large collection from this cemetery site. I work with a man who has written his thesis about the mistake that has been made concerning these sites. If there is any trash there it is from the many ritual ceremonies held there to honor the dead. The sites with only a few burials and more trash are villages. So they were actually burying their dead some place a lot cleaner. The mounds were formed over years of burying their dead. You want verification, read Alan Levanthal’s Reassessment of Bay Area Shellmounds.
    Your views are extremely ethnocentric. Just because you don’t care what happens to your ancestors bodies and have no religious feeling doesn’t mean that everyone else feels that way. You are breaking basically the first rule of anthropology. CULTURAL RELATIVISM. Get a clue. Back up your statements with facts and try to get some perspective of other people’s beliefs and not your own.

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