Taking a walk through history

Publisher: San Mateo Times

By Rebekah Gordon, STAFF WRITER

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO -- NATIVE AMERICANS AND their supporters have been walking the Bay Area since Nov. 7 to raise awareness that their ancient burial grounds could be beneath our feet.

Trekking their way north along El Camino Real on Friday on the Peninsula, they gathered at the base of San Bruno Mountain at one of the area's largest untouched Native American burial sites, called shellmounds. The site will soon find itself next to the mixed-use Terrabay development.

The Sacred Site Shellmound Peace Walk began Nov. 7 in Vallejo at a shellmound in Glen Cove.

"We're educating a lot of people, and that's the most important thing," said Johnella La Rose, 47, a walk coordinator. "Everybody can relate to their grandmother's grave."
A core group of 25 have been a part of the walk nearly every day. On weekends, the group grows to about 75, La Rose said. They have been joined by Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists.

Native Americans who once lived here were primarily Ohlone and buried their dead in mounds of shells from mollusks they fished from the Bay.

La Rose said an estimated 475 shellmounds stretch as far east as Sacramento and south to San Juan Bautista.

"Tribes all over the country are looking at protecting their natural resources and cultural resources, which are burial sites," said La Rose, who descends from the Shoshone Bannock natives in Idaho and Utah.

Many shellmound sites in the Bay Area already have been built on, she said. While Colma's cemeteries remain untouched, "it's perfectly OK to build on 5,000-year-old grave sites. It's a really sad situation," she said.

La Rose and Perry Matlock, 43, are both members of Indian People Organizing for Change, one of the walk'ssponsors. The group has received food donations
and spends their nights in sleeping bags at churches, elementary schools, offices or private homes.

The group walks 15 to 19 miles a day, said Matlock, who took a month off from work as a trade show installer to participate.

After leaving Vallejo, they crossed the Carquinez Strait to the East Bay, hitting sites in Berkeley and Oakland. They went south through San Leandro and Hayward to an untouched shellmound at Coyote Hills Regional park in Fremont and then crossed through San Jose and Santa Clara before heading north.

At each shellmound site they visit, the group offers up prayers to ancestors.

They will pass through San Francisco to join the International Indian Treaty Council's sunrise gathering at Alcatraz on Thanksgiving, and conclude the walk by participating in a shellmound demonstration at Emeryville's Bay Street shopping center Nov 25.

The group hopes to work with city councils and developers to keep sites preserved or move bodies buried on development sites to nearby graves.

Matlock described shellmounds as one of the few physical manifestations of Native American culture that remains in the area.

"Basically, we want peace for the shellmounds," Matlock said. "We don't want it excavated anymore."

Staff writer Rebekah Gordon can be reached at (650) 348-4331 or rgordon@sanmateocountytimes.com.