Ohlone Nation Fights to Save Ancestral Homeland
New America Media, News report/, R.M. Arrieta and Ann Bassette Posted: Jan 21, 2010
San Francisco and much of the Bay Area is the ancestral homeland of the Ohlone nation.
Their ancestors lie in the land here. Remnants of their villages can be found deep beneath the soil. The blood runs deep. They have lived in the Bay Area for more than 10,000 years according to carbon-dated artifacts.
Early on, the Ohlone were included in the roster of federally recognized Indians. But, as has happened to many tribes, on a whim and with the stroke of a pen, they were crossed off the list in 1927.
Almost 75 years later, in 2003, San Francisco recognized the Muwekma Ohlone as the First People of San Francisco. The Muwekma Ohlone remain embroiled in a federal lawsuit with the United States for federal recognition.
Their burial sites and ancient villages were documented by archeologist Nels Nelson in the early 20th century. Now, according to a draft Environmental Impact Report, a plan is underway to build on top of those sacred sites as part of the Candlestick Point/Hunter’s Point Shipyard Phase II Project being developed by Lennar Corporation.
Members of the seven bands of the Ohlone tribe say they were never contacted or consulted about the giant 700-acre development project in San Francisco –parts of which will be built over Ohlone villages and burial grounds.
The Ohlone nation is calling for an extension of the public comment period for the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report. The public comment period was to have ended Tuesday, Jan 12. But the extension has not been granted.
Ohlone members say they should have been contacted about the plan according to state law. Senate Bill 18, “Protection of Traditional Tribal Cultural Places” approved in 2005, requires cities and counties to contact and consult with California Native American tribes before adopting or amending a general plan or when designating land as “open space.” The general plan for this project was amended in 2006.
In a letter to city officials, Ohlone tribal members stated that “the SF Planning Department failed to contact our people or provide any notice with regard to the Draft Environmental Report or commencement of the public hearing period.”
“We don’t know why we have been overlooked,” the letter continued. “We are concerned that the Planning Department has made a decision to deliberately exclude us and disenfranchise our people … more sites are expected to be discovered during construction.”
But Michael Cohen, director of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Economic and Workforce Development office, says that according to the City Attorney, there’s no legal requirement to consult with Native American tribes in this case.
“The City Attorney said that the law does not apply,” said Cohen. “However, we actually have done and will continue to do outreach and consultation anyway. We had already previously sent notice to the federal agencies that are responsible for coordinating that kind of comment and will be in the coming weeks and months doing that consultation even though its not legally required.”
If, as Cohen says, the federal agency was indeed contacted, “they don’t consider it their responsibility to do the outreach. They consider it the local agencies’ responsibility,” said Neil MacLean of the Ohlone Profiles Project, which documents the ongoing lives of Ohlone leaders.
MacLean said the federal agency simply provides the list of tribal members to be contacted and that the inquiring agency--in this case, the Planning Department--is responsible for notifying the tribal members.
According to Mat Snyder with the SF Planning Dept., SB18 does not pertain to Native Americans in this land issue. “We’ve been advised that because we’re a charter city we’re technically not subject to SB18,” said Snyder. A charter city is a city in which the governing system is defined by the city's own charter document rather than by state, provincial, regional or national laws.
“We’re going to reach out to them and offer them an opportunity for consultation,” Snyder added. “We just want to hear what their concerns are and how we can address them. I hope to have a letter out this week and offer them the opportunity.”
Madeleine Licavoli, Clerk of the Board of Supervisor’s Office, explained that a charter city is governed by its own charter document rather than state, provential, regional or national laws. "San Francisco is a charter city. Its charter was adopted by a majority of the voters as are all amendments to the charter."
Matt Dorsey, spokesperson with the City Attorney’s office, said that City Attorney Dennis Herrera could not publicly comment on the decision. “In this case,” he explained, “when we are giving legal advice to a policy client or policy maker or department head, we have to defer to the policy maker or department head. In the same way that you hire a lawyer to defend you, your lawyer shouldn’t be out there making pronouncements.”
“Because of the chaos with the federal recognition [of the Ohlone nation], the state came forward with their own law and that law is SB18. Now it appears the city is saying they don’t even really have to obey that,” said MacLean. “It may be that by pulling and twisting in that way, the city can avoid actual legal fault – but in terms of good faith negotiation, its very clear its just manipulating dates.”
The draft EIR addresses the second phase of the development project, which calls for more than 10,000 housing units, a hotel, an amphitheater, commercial businesses, a marina slip and more. A storm of controversy has surrounded the project, with questions over the toxicity of the land, and static over the more than 4,000-page draft EIR that was released just before Thanksgiving, drawing numerous calls to extend the public comment period.
On Jan. 12, members of the Ohlone Nation delivered letters to Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco supervisors and City Attorney Dennis Herrera asking for the extension so that Ohlone input could be included.
These tribal members, who are listed with the Native American Heritage Commission, must be given 45 days to prepare comments after being notified, according to SB18.
Educator and Native American artist Kim Shuck said, “They are expected to contact a group of people who’ve been designated as the ‘most likely descendants,’ and none of them got contacted. Rosemary Cambra, Ann Marie Sayers, they didn’t know, they weren’t told and basically, the upshot is they were trying to sneak this past. There’s really no question about that.”
She added, “The reason this is personally offensive is because I’ve been hauled down to City Hall on more than one occasion and sat in the room with the mayor and had him say, ‘Well, we want to make sure that we’re doing right by the Native people in the city of San Francisco.’”
Ohlone Chairperson Ann Marie Sayers said in a statement that, “The sites affected by the development are extremely significant and believed to be burial or ceremonial sites. In addition to protecting these sites, we want to work with the local community to protect their health, the land, and the fragile bay marine environment.”
“There are at least four known sites they are going to be working on and there are at least 16 others including shell mound sites in the area,” said Corrina Gould of Indian People Organizing for Change. “Shell mounds are the cemeteries of my ancestors and they are considered sacred sites. We wouldn’t desecrate a cemetery. Just because there are no headstones doesn’t mean the shell mounds are less sacred.”
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