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."

Caltrans workers at the site of an ancient Indian village on Yerba Buena Island, unearthed in 2002.
Caltrans workers at the site of an ancient Indian village on Yerba Buena Island, unearthed in 2002.
The nonprofit cemetery in Fremont, which critics contend is operated as a Galvan family enterprise.
Ron Russell
The nonprofit cemetery in Fremont, which critics contend is operated as a Galvan family enterprise.
Mission Dolores curator Andrew Galvan at a traditional Indian house on the mission grounds.
Paolo Vescia
Mission Dolores curator Andrew Galvan at a traditional Indian house on the mission grounds.
Andrew Galvan was a leading Native American voice for the beatification of Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California's missions.
Paolo Vescia
Andrew Galvan was a leading Native American voice for the beatification of Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California's missions.
Mission Dolores as it may have appeared 200 years ago.
Paolo Vescia
Mission Dolores as it may have appeared 200 years ago.
Native American artifacts unearthed at Yerba Buena Island.
Native American artifacts unearthed at Yerba Buena Island.
Larry Myers of the California Native American Heritage Commission.
Larry Myers of the California Native American Heritage Commission.

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."

It's a role that hasn't always endeared Galvan to other Native Americans, including distant and not-so-distant relatives enrolled in the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, which claims San Francisco and much of the Bay Area as its native territory, and which for years has sought federal recognition. Cambra, the tribal chair, is Galvan's cousin.

In the late 1980s, after Stanford University started a trend among museums and other institutions by voluntarily repatriating hundreds of Native American skeletal remains held at the Stanford Museum to the Muwekma Ohlone, Galvan sided with those who criticized the move as detrimental to academic research.

He has also drawn scorn from fellow Indians for supporting the beatification (a step toward sainthood within the Roman Catholic Church) of Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California's missions, under whom Indians suffered greatly. Galvan "isn't afraid to be a lightning rod," says Gary Breschini, who owns Coyote Press in Salinas, which caters to archaeologists.

Such contrarian views help to explain Galvan's tenuous relationship with his Muwekma Ohlone relatives. In their respective spheres, Galvan and Cambra are arguably the Bay Area's most influential Native Americans. Yet, observers say, they have remained wary of each other since the day nearly 20 years ago when they first met — and sparred — during a forum at a UC Berkeley coffeehouse on the treatment of Indian skeletal remains.

With financial help from would-be Indian gaming investors, Cambra has spent much of her adult life battling the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition. After a decade-long court struggle, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., is expected to rule soon on whether the tribe will achieve its dream.

Galvan, by contrast, has sought to promote Native American interests from within the church, to which many of the Muwekma Ohlone belong. Notably, he and his family, including "Chief Philip" — despite their eligibility to do so — have never bothered to enroll in the tribe, and have at times even belittled it.

But the real source of the rivalry, observers say, stems from the Galvan family's control — to the exclusion of the tribe — of the small patch of land next to busy Interstate 680 in Fremont, where 11,000 Ohlone lay in unmarked graves.

Fenced off on two and a half tree-covered acres along a busy thoroughfare across from a strip mall, the Ohlone Cemetery resembles a quarantined (if well-kept) park. There's no entrance. Signs warn outsiders to keep out. There's little to announce the place other than a giant arch, erected in 1915, on which is inscribed "Ohlones."

It's a wonder that the cemetery is there at all.

Established in 1811 after the graveyard at nearby Mission San Jose became full, Mission Indians and their latter-day descendants were routinely laid to rest there for more than a century. As the Native American population dwindled, burials finally ceased in 1926, and the cemetery fell into disrepair.

Its longtime owner, the Oakland Diocese, treated the cemetery as surplus property, and in the early 1960s sold off a huge chunk of it. Houses, a private school, and a church were built atop what was originally a nine-acre burial ground. Even before that, part of the property closest to a creek had become a borrow pit. "Dirt for streets and roads, bones and all, was hauled away from there for years," says Mark Hylkema, a state parks archeologist for the Bay Area who formerly worked at Caltrans.

Enter the Galvan clan.

In 1964, Dolores Marine Galvan (Andrew Galvan's grandmother, and Cambra's aunt) helped to persuade Caltrans to reroute the then-unbuilt I-680 around what was left of the cemetery. At about the same time, she and her son, Philip, persuaded the city of Fremont to cancel plans to extend a street through it.

The diocese subsequently backed away from further development. Looking to unload the property, church officials were even amenable to its being nominated as a National Historical Monument. But "Chief Philip" nixed the idea, preferring that the federal government not have a say in the cemetery's future.

Instead, with the help of San Francisco couple Rupert and Jeanette Costo, the Galvans took a different tack. As scholar-activists associated with the (now-defunct) American Indian Historical Society, the Costos took on saving the cemetery as a crusade. In 1971 they arranged for the diocese to transfer ownership to the society.

A short time later, the historical society deeded the graveyard to the newly created Ohlone Indian Tribe, Inc. Its articles of incorporation list Philip Galvan, along with his mother and a brother (both deceased) as the original officers.

Since then, according to Cambra and others, the cemetery has come to operate as a Galvan family enterprise from which the tribe has been shut out. Some local Indians complain that they've been barred from interring their loved ones there.

When retired San Francisco barber Lawrence Thompson, an Ohlone, died in 1999, his son, Lawrence Thompson Jr., says he asked Philip Galvan for permission to bury his father at the cemetery and was told that it was full. "It was really disappointing, because that's where he wanted to be," says Thompson, a truck driver from Tracy. "I had him cremated and kept the ashes."

Meanwhile, the little-noticed cemetery has become a godsend for developers from San Francisco to San Jose confronted with the unpleasant — and expensive — prospect of disposing of Native American bones encountered at construction sites.

For decades before sensitivities shifted, both public and private companies routinely hauled away and wantonly disposed of human remains — sometimes with the sad knowledge of Indian groups, sometimes not — to make way for the subdivisions, shopping centers, and freeways that sprang up around the bay after World War II.

Protocols for handling such remains changed in the early 1980s with the advent of the California Native American Heritage Commission, which was created to curb the wholesale desecration of Indian burial sites and related material.

Under state law, whenever Native American remains are discovered, the local coroner must notify the commission, which then dispatches a Native American from a list of Most Likely Descendants who've certified their ancestral connection to the area where bones have been found. The commission has appointed some 350 MLDs throughout the state, including Andrew Galvan and about a half-dozen others in the Bay Area who claim Ohlone ancestry.

The problem is that the law gives MLDs little real power; they can't legally force anyone to comply with their recommendations. Absent any legal mandate requiring that landowners accept their suggestions, MLDs use moral persuasion, or, failing that, the threat of adverse publicity to convince those who encounter Indian bones to handle them respectfully, those familiar with the process say. Native American monitors who are not always MLDs, and who are often paid by the developer or property owner, are typically assigned to construction sites when remains turn up.

As someone with unique access to a recognized Indian cemetery, however, Andrew Galvan is no ordinary MLD.

Observers say it is no coincidence that the Ohlone Cemetery has become a repository of Indian remains in the Bay Area, from the archaeologically rich valley enveloping present-day San Jose to the Oakland Hills and downtown San Francisco, where a centuries-old Native American village was unearthed in the late 1980s during construction of Moscone Center.

But the means by which many of those reburials have been arranged have raised eyebrows within archaeological circles, and especially among the Muwekma Ohlone. Andrew Galvan is co-owner of Archaeor Archaeological Consultants, a full-service firm that leases offices on the campus of Ohlone College in Fremont (Philip Galvan was instrumental in campaigning for the name when the college opened in the 1960s). It occupies a two-story house that once was home to the college radio station.

Those familiar with the matter say that over the years Archaeor has provided services for many of the same clients on whose job sites Galvan has been assigned as the MLD. It collects fees from these clients to remove skeletal remains that often end up reburied at the nonprofit cemetery.

While there is nothing in the law to prevent this arrangement, critics say that it creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. "It's an example of how, when it comes to policing the way Indian remains are handled, nobody's minding the store," says Alan Leventhal, an anthropologist at San Jose State University and the ethnographer for the Muwekma Ohlone.

Archaeor's client list includes a who's who of large homebuilders, utility companies, and public entities, including Caltrans and the East Bay Regional Park District. According to the firm's Web site, it "is 50 percent minority (Native American Indian) owned through an in-house partnership with the Ohlone Indian Tribe, Inc."

However, Galvan insists that the company has "no connection" to the nonprofit that controls the cemetery. He called his Web site's description "a wording issue," saying that he — and not the nonprofit — owns a half-interest in Archaeor, along with archaeologist and business partner Rick Thompson.

Galvan says that Archaeor charges clients for "a variety of services relating to the handling of skeletal remains," such as cleaning and preparation for burial, as well as for archaeology coffins, but insists that the firm derives no profit from the cemetery. "We've never charged a nickel for anyone to be buried there," he says.

However, the distinction may be lost on some of his clients. Al Kaplan, who owns a property in the Contra Costa County town of Danville where several Indian skeletons were unearthed during the remodeling of a pizza restaurant in 2005, says that among the charges he incurred were those "to have the bones reburied down at an Indian cemetery in Fremont." Galvan served as the MLD on the project. Kaplan says he can't recall what Archaeor was paid: "I don't think I wrote the check. We handled it as just another contractor's expense."

But other former Archaeor clients who paid to have remains removed from their properties with the understanding that they would be reburied at the Ohlone Cemetery (and who spoke on condition of anonymity) were more specific.

"He's big on cleaning [the remains]," says the property manager for a landowner who contracted Archaeor's services. "That's $60 an hour, and it can take up to 12 hours per skeletal remain, so that's [$720] right there. If you have a lot of skeletal remains, it can really start to add up." He declined to say how much Archaeor charged his boss, saying that the client had signed a confidentiality agreement to keep the contents of Archaeor's price list private.

Galvan declined to discuss specifics of Archaeor's finances, including its client fees. But others familiar with the scope of the company's work conservatively speculate that it has generated many thousands of dollars in revenue since it was formed in 1996 for services predicated on the placement of Indian bones at the cemetery. Galvan's involvement as both an MLD and independent consultant pre-dates the creation of Archaeor, sources say.

"If you take even a very modest figure of a few hundred dollars [per skeletal remain] and start multiplying times 5,000 [as the number of human remains Galvan says he, and his father before him, have reinterred at the cemetery since the early '70s], it's not an inconsequential sum," says an archaeologist who has worked with Galvan, and who asked not to be identified.

Stanford campus archeologist Laura Jones says that in the mid-'90s, when Galvan was appointed the MLD after two Native American skeletons were unearthed at a campus construction site, Galvan proposed charging the university "several thousands of dollars" to reinter them at the Ohlone Cemetery. The university rejected the proposal, and the bones were ultimately reburied at an undisclosed site on the campus, she says.

Such services don't come cheap. According to officials at the East Bay Regional Park District, where Galvan is on retainer, his firm was paid $58,000 to collect, remove, and temporarily store 12 skeletal remains from the Big Break Regional Shoreline in Contra Costa County in 2002.

Although it was the park district's intent to rebury the bones near where they were found, at the insistence of Galvan, who was also the MLD, they were ultimately reinterred at the Ohlone Cemetery, says Brian Wiese, the agency's chief of planning and stewardship.

Galvan's use of the cemetery as a repository for remains clients pay him to remove has long irked Cambra, who says her calls to have the Heritage Commission investigate have fallen on deaf ears. "It's apparently not in the commission's job description," she says. "They'd rather look the other way."

Although an MLD herself, Cambra has long been critical of how the Heritage Commission oversees Native American burial sites. She and others say that throughout California there are MLDs and job-site monitors of questionable Indian ancestry whom the commission has failed to weed out, including those more interested in cooperating with developers than in ensuring that bones are handled properly.

"I hate to say it, but the Heritage Commission appears to have missed its calling," says Lalo Franco, an official with the Tachi Yokut, a small, federally recognized tribe in the Central Valley.

The commission's ostensible mission is to help preserve Native American archeological sites. In administering the MLD program, it often serves as middleman between Indians and developers whenever Native American sites are encountered. But critics say it has little real ability to block the desecration of sites, lacks institutional accountability, and does a poor job of screening monitors and MLDs.

"You're always going to have criticism, but we think we do a lot with the resources we have," says Larry Myers, the agency's executive director, citing its meager $500,000 budget. Myers, who serves at the pleasure of the governor, has been in his post for nearly 20 years, serving three Republicans and a Democrat.

But observers say the agency over which he presides is the quintessential state government stepchild, which successive governors have ignored. It has been at least a decade since it has had a full contingent of nine commissioners, who are also gubernatorial appointees. Currently, there are only four commissioners, who haven't met in nearly two years, for lack of a quorum.

Not surprisingly, observers say, Most Likely Descendants are given little respect by developers who are typically more concerned with making archaeological issues go away as quickly as possible, and even public agencies involved in construction often treat them as an afterthought.

Take Caltrans' Bay Bridge project. In the summer of 2002, while doing preparatory work on Yerba Buena Island for the bridge's new eastern span, Caltrans workers encountered 13 skeletal remains from the site of an ancient Indian village near the island's east shore. Archaeologists had known of a village site there since the bridge was built in the 1930s, but because detailed records weren't kept, the extent of the new find was a surprise.

Rosemary Cambra was the MLD assigned to the site. That summer she visited the island with Leventhal, her tribe's ethnographer, and drafted a detailed list of suggestions related to how the remains and other artifacts should be handled, which she submitted to Caltrans in October 2002.

Citing the "uniqueness of the mound" and the fact that it was slated to be destroyed, Cambra insisted, among other things, that the site be made available to leading scholars at UC Berkeley and elsewhere and proposed an open forum for academics to learn as much as possible about it. But she says it wasn't until 18 months later, in April 2004, that she received any meaningful response from Caltrans, "and by then they'd already decided to go ahead and do what they were going to do without any input from me."

Caltrans historian Elizabeth McKee, who was not involved in the matter at the time, acknowledges that there was "dissatisfaction with the way the communication was conducted." But she insists that, in the end, Caltrans followed many of Cambra's suggestions in dealing with the remains.

As it turned out, Caltrans reburied the 13 skeletal remains in the summer of 2004 on state property near where they were found, but Cambra was unable to attend because on the day of the reburials a suicide jumper caused the Bay Bridge to close.

Yet there's another twist to the discovery. In the same month in 2004 that the reburials took place, workers unearthed a further 18 skeletal remains at the village site. But because the second set of remains was found on federal property (at the island's U.S. Coast Guard station), different rules of repatriation applied, and there was no prescribed role for a Most Likely Descendant.

In fact, the Coast Guard is storing the bones at an undisclosed location and is apparently still unsure about what to do with them. As SF Weekly has learned, Rear Admiral D.G. Gabel wrote to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in June seeking guidance in the matter.

The extent of the archaeological finds on the island has never been publicly disclosed. But they are outlined in a "white paper" prepared by Caltrans earlier this year and shared with academic researchers. McKee declined to provide specifics about the discoveries, citing a provision of the state's public records law that exempts archaeological finds from public disclosure.

When pressed, she referred this reporter to none other than Andrew Galvan, who she says has consulted with Caltrans regarding what was found on Yerba Buena Island and who she — initially, at least — assumed was appointed as the Most Likely Descendant. "If Andy doesn't have any objection to disclosing what was found then you might check with him," she said, before later calling back to say that it was Cambra, and not Galvan, who was the MLD.

To the extent that his consulting firm dominates the area's Indian reburial market, Galvan is unapologetic. Acknowledging that his family's role with the cemetery has helped to make him a go-to player among developers eager to unload Native American remains from development sites, he insists there's nothing unfair about it.

"That place [the cemetery] was essentially abandoned," he says. "It was overgrown, and people were coming in there from the time I was a child, hauling away dirt — and graves — to build roads. My family helped put a stop to that, and that's something I'm proud of."

For her part, while she doesn't like it, Cambra says she's resigned to what she perceives as the deferential way the Misson Dolores curator is treated with respect to Ohlone remains, and, for now at least, is biding her time about the cemetery.

If and when the Muwekma Ohlone gain federal recognition, however, that could change. "There will have to be a day of reckoning about what's going on down there," she says, "and I think Andy knows it."

Meanwhile, Galvan — and the cemetery — are staying busy.

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