West Berkeley Shellmound to be Transfered to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust

March 14, 2024 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

On March 12, 2024, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing the purchase of land containing the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site. The City has purchased the property with funds raised by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an Indigenous-led land trust based in Oakland, and will transfer the property to Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. This will make Berkeley, California, among the first cities in the country to return land to Indigenous people.

This site is one of the most important and earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay, with a village dating back 5,700 years. It served as a burial and ceremonial ground, as well as a lookout and communications site, with the repository of shells, ritual objects, and artifacts forming a massive mound. When Spanish missions began enslaving Ohlone people, many remaining villagers fled. Shell material was later removed by Gold Rush settlers to fertilize farms and line streets. The site was mapped in 1907, and UC Berkeley archaeologists removed 95 human burials and 3,400 artifacts before the shellmound was leveled in the 1950s.

A large painted sign in red with a black bird on the pavement with the words "Save the West Berkeley Shellmound." This is surrounded by a group of people who are advocating for the protection of this site.

photo by: Brooke Anderson

Photo of a sign from a Rally for West Berkeley Shellmound in 2018.

Today the Shellmound site is still an active place of Ohlone prayer and ceremony and is considered sacred by the Ohlone people, though it has been covered by a parking lot for decades. The West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2020 after a condo development was proposed in that location by the long-time private owner of the Shellmound site. The City of Berkeley blocked the building permit, but the developers sued the City, and the California courts ruled in favor of the developers, although the National Trust’s Law Department filed amicus briefs in support of the City and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, a group of seven tribes across the Bay Area. In light of the court decisions, the successful acquisition of the site is an especially important achievement.

In response to the news, Corinna Gould, Chochenyo Ohlone activist and co-director of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, told the Berkeleyside: “It’s one of the most culturally significant sites for the Lisjan people and to have it protected forever, I think I’m without words.” Read more about Corinna and the Shellmound site as part of the National Trust’s Where Women Made History campaign.

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!