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In the shadow of San Francisco's oldest building, surrounded by 200-year-old tombstones on the grounds of Mission Dolores, where he is the curator, Andrew Galvan elicits rapt attention from the wide-eyed sixth-graders who've encircled him.
"Do you know who built this church?" he asks.
"That's right, Indians," he says, arriving at a familiar punch line. "I like to say that this place was built by Indians, for Indians."
It's a rap for which the 52-year-old Galvan is uniquely suited. He traces his lineage to an Ohlone/Miwok man named Liberato, his great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was baptized at age 14 at Mission Dolores in 1801. The significance of a Liberato descendant becoming the first-ever Native American to oversee one of California's 21 historic Roman Catholic missions may be lost on the visiting students, but it hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere.
Since being named Mission Dolores' curator in 2004, Galvan has become a celebrity of sorts. He has been mentioned flatteringly in newspapers around the country. College students and professors alike seek his expertise in deciphering the mission's centuries-old sacramental records. He is invited to speak to civic and community groups, and has lectured in classrooms at San Francisco State and elsewhere.
But the former seminarian is also a divisive figure among other Bay Area Ohlone.
Galvan has carved a unique — and controversial — role in helping developers and property owners relocate the skeletal remains of Native Americans unearthed at Bay Area construction sites.
Among Native Americans, the reburial of remains is a sensitive issue. In California, whenever they are encountered during construction, state law mandates that an Indian observer — referred to as a Most Likely Descendant, or MLD — be consulted about how best to handle them. If bones must be moved, most such observers try to have them reburied as close as possible to where they are found.
But Galvan, who frequently serves as an MLD, offers developers with unearthed bones an option few others can match. That's because his family, through his father, Philip Galvan, an 81-year-old handyman, has for years controlled a historic and ostensibly nonprofit Ohlone cemetery in Fremont that critics complain is operated as a family enterprise. The cemetery is owned by Ohlone Indian Tribe, Inc.; records on file with the secretary of state's office list Philip Galvan as its principal agent. Despite the name, the entity doesn't pretend to be a tribe and has never sought recognition from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Still, the senior Galvan is often referred to as "Chief Philip," even though the title is not official.
Andrew Galvan, meanwhile, is a partner in an archaeological consulting firm that has made the removal and processing of Indian bones a specialty. By his acknowledgement, the Galvans have overseen more than 5,000 reburials at the cemetery since 1971. That's when the graveyard, once owned by the Diocese of Oakland, was deeded to the nonprofit.
Galvan insists that no one is charged for burials at the cemetery, although he says his firm charges for other services, including preparing remains for burial and for archaeological "coffins" in which those remains are often commingled.
But the arrangement doesn't sit well with critics, notably some of Galvan's relatives associated with the 450-member Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who've long complained of secrecy surrounding the burial ground and the Galvan family's role in managing it. "That cemetery is sacred ground," tribal chair Rosemary Cambra says. "It's where many of our ancestors are buried, and there needs to be accountability as to what Andrew is doing there."
As the younger of two sons born to devout Roman Catholic parents, Galvan is in a real sense a child of California's missions. Besides serving as curator in San Francisco, he grew up and still lives in the shadow of the historic Mission San Jose in Fremont. His father has been caretaker of the Sisters of the Holy Family convent there for 50 years.
Galvan once thought he would enter the priesthood, and attended Saint Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park for a while in the 1980s. (His brother, Michael Galvan, is a priest in the East Bay.) After leaving the seminary, he enrolled at Cal State at Hayward, where he acquired a bachelor's degree in history.
"My father dragged me around to archaeological sites from the time I was 10 while trying to see that the remains of our ancestors were treated with respect," Galvan says. "It left a huge impression."
Galvan also credits his father with his becoming a mission historian. Few Indian families can claim such strong ties to the Catholic Church. Besides the Galvans' link to Liberato, family legend has it that another ancestor laid the cornerstone of the original Mission San Jose. In 1982, Philip Galvan was chosen to lay the ceremonial first stone of the restored mission church at Fremont.
Described by those who know him as quiet and self-effacing, the elder Galvan declined to be interviewed, deferring questions about the cemetery to his son.
But Philip wasn't always willing to let others do the talking for him. In 1969, during the famous Native American protest occupation of Alcatraz, he staked out a notably independent (if little-noticed) position counter to the militant view of many Indians regarding the protest: He opposed it, and even wrote to President Nixon (who didn't respond) suggesting that the federal government deed the island to the Ohlones.