Special to Indian Country Today
When road crews uncovered a shellmound burial site in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond, municipal officials followed legal protocol and notified area tribes to come properly honor and care for the remains.
What happened next though wasn’t in the statutes. It was, according to one tribal leader, an example of “miracles” brought on by the ancestors.
Richmond budgets 1.5 percent of major projects for public art and, after the shellmound discovery, officials wanted that money spent honoring the city’s Indigenous residents. They then asked Native leaders how best to do that.
The approach was hailed as a breakthrough.
“There’s nothing that’s been specifically created with our people in mind and involved in the planning, so this is a beautiful thing,” said Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan. “I am hoping that this will be something that we can showcase to other cities.”
Shellmounds are man-made formations characterized by an abundant presence of the shells of edible mollusks. They can also contain tools and other artifacts, and human remains. Some Bay Area shellmound sites date back thousands of years.
"They are so much more than what a western observer might think of as a collection of shells," explained Gould. "Our shellmounds are part of a sacred landscape. They are part of our villages. They are our burial sites. They are our cemeteries."
Finding the right artist for the Richmond project was key, and internationally acclaimed sculptor Masayuki Nagase, who goes by Yuki, was a perfect fit.
“The way he works is that he meets with the tribal members many times. He hears their stories; he hears their ideas,” said Richmond’s former arts and culture manager, Michelle Seville. “He works extensively with them to develop the theme and the visual representation of what that project will be.”
Added Gould: “He was just really open to all the ideas that we had. It’s really been a blessing to work with Yuki.”
Yuki’s designs sprang from an exploration of traditional culture. He designed a collection of carved boulders placed along a winding walkway. The carvings depict different aspects of Bay Area Aboriginal life.
“They lived by the creek, and they made a living in the natural environment,” said Yuki, who spent five summers working on a massive project in South Dakota carving into granite spires imagery that celebrate Lakota traditions. “And one of the very important elements for their life was the oak tree and the acorns they collected that were the life staple for them.”
Yuki’s designs include images of oaks and acorns and representations of depressions found in rocks where First Peoples pounded or grinded acorns into meal. One of the central stones depicts the Confederated Villages of Lisjan translations of “water is life” and “we are still here.”
His designs also include three living oak trees for the future generations to witness them growing into mature trees and planters for tribal members to raise traditional and medicinal plants.
“There’s white sage, there’s California strawberries, there’s angelica root, soap root plants,” said Gould, ticking off some of the plants that will grow in the park.
“Yuki was absolutely the right person, the right artist for this project because of his reverence for Native American culture and his experience working with (First Nations people),” said Seville. “And just simply the manner in which he proceeded. He came with nothing except an open heart and extraordinary skills.”
Yuki art is mostly based on nature and natural forces, and he said he felt a real connection with the Native community on this project. “Because of their connection with — and respect for — nature,” he said. “It was an honor to work with the tribe.”
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said his city is proud to have a public recognition of its rich history.
He noted that, pre-colonization, the city was the site of perhaps the largest shellmound on the Pacific Coast.
“We now have an opportunity to preserve and remember a piece of that history that once so dominated the Richmond landscape,” he said.
Gould said the park is breathtaking.
“When we stepped onto that land and saw the magic that was in those stones that Yuki made, it was beyond our imagination what something like this could be,” said Gould, who is active in efforts to preserve other shellmound sites including in Berkeley, where a site threatened by development was placed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places for 2020.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 400 shellmound sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Stanford University’s Spatial History Project.
Today only a handful remain.
“Of course, we hope to open it up to share (the park) with people outside of our own community, but it’s also a place where we can begin to heal by working with those plants and join the work together to re-create some of the cultural things that have been lost because of colonization.”
Richmond officials asked Native community leaders to name the park. The proposed name is “'Ookwe,” which means “medicine” in the Chochenyo language. The name is now in the process of being formally adopted by the city.
It's another example of some positive turns in the long road to preserving, protecting and celebrating the area’s Native histories.
“It has been this domino effect of people with good hearts reaching out to the tribe to do this really great work,” said Gould. “It’s miracles that are happening right now. And I give all of that credit to these ancestors that pray for us for thousands of years on this land that are ready to have their story told in the way that it should be told.”
The park is not yet open to the public. When the pandemic recedes and it’s safe to gather again, tribal leaders plan a private opening ceremony for their members and Yuki, and then a second celebration for the broader community, with a message.
“We ask people now living in our territories to stand with us to stop the desecration of our sacred sites, to protect them and to honor thousands of years old culture,” said Gould. “These shellmounds are older than the pyramids in Egypt, and they deserve to be honored.”
Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.
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