A Sit-In to Save a Sacred Site

How local tribes stopped a Bay Area burial ground from becoming a parking lot.
Glen Cove occupation photo by Dignidad Rebelde

Protesters held off bulldozers and protected a burial site sacred to Native Americans through a peaceful 97-day occupation of “Sogorea Te” in Glen Cove, California.

Photo by Dignidad Rebelde.

The day before construction began on the site of a Native American burial ground, members of several local tribes came to Glen Cove, Calif., and built a ceremonial fire.

That was on April 14 of this year. For 97 days, they camped on the land to protect it and prayed to their ancestors that the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) would change its plans to build a parking lot and bathrooms on the site. On July 21, the 98th day of the vigil, the protesters were victorious. The GVRD and the City of Vallejo established a cultural easement agreement with two Native American tribes, granting them a say in the park’s development.

During their occupation of Glen Cove, the protesters invoked federal legislation that allows indigenous people access to places of worship. Their efforts stalled construction and pressured the GVRD to negotiate with tribes that had proven connections to the land. Under the new agreement, the GVRD won’t build bathrooms, and the parking lot will be moved to an area of the site that doesn’t contain human remains.

More than 3,500 years ago, Glen Cove, also known as ­“Sogorea Te,” was a 15-acre trading hub and spiritual center for the Bay Area’s tribes. It was also home to a burial ground, or “shellmound.” Burials no longer take place there, but it continues to be a sacred site for traditional Native American ceremonies. Of an estimated 425 shellmounds in the Bay Area, only three remain that are not covered by roads, shopping malls, or other types of development.
“It’s time to put a halt to desecrating these sacred sites,” said Wounded Knee DeOcampo, a Miwok elder and one of the leaders of the Committee to Protect Glen Cove, the group affiliated with the protesters.

DeOcampo says non-native people supported the committee during the protests with boxes of produce from local farms, restaurant fare, water, and prayers. In May, attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild came to the encampment to offer legal advice.

More than a week before the settlement, committee leader Corrina Gould of the Chochenyo/Karkin Ohlone Nation awaited the outcome of a closed-session meeting between the Vallejo City Council and representatives of the tribes.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to ensure protection of this site,” she said in a telephone call from City Hall.

That responsibility did not end with the establishment of the cultural easement.

In a press release following the agreement, Gould stated that although the cultural easement is an important victory, the tribes are still concerned about the lack of specific language that would prevent grading on the western portion of the site.

While the committee’s work to protect Sogorea Te is not yet done, its occupation of the site is over. At press time, an ending ceremony for the protesters’ encampment was scheduled for July 30, 2011.

Lily HicksLily Hicks wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Lily is an editorial intern at YES!