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

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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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.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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