Pin It

Bones of Discontent - Andrew Galvan carves a unique, controversial role in relocating Native American skeletons 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007

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.

Chief Philip also fired off a missive to the Native American occupiers, demanding (to no avail) that they vacate the island. (He viewed the non-Ohlone Indians as interlopers.) Andrew Galvan, then a teenager, typed the letter.

"Philip was a keeper of the oral traditions," says Santa Clara University anthropologist Russell Skowronek, who has known the family for years. "He and his [late] uncle Dario listened to the stories of their elder relatives and made sure they got passed along. It says a great deal about the role Andy has assumed for himself."

About The Author

Ron Russell


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular