The Indian Hunter 

James Benney is so inspired by the East Bay's dozens of Native American sites that he published his own guidebook about them. So why do all the experts wish he hadn't?

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"He's convinced he's doing the right thing, and he's not," Newland added. "I respect his desire to save these sites, but the way he's going about it is all wrong." Fellow SCA member Gregory White is less forgiving: "Benney didn't realize the depths he was plumbing here. He has a real narrow perspective on what is right and wrong."

The uproar clearly suggests to both sides of the debate that the current arrangement for protection of Native American sites is inadequate. Stakeholders have only begun to examine the issue with renewed urgency. And threats from pothunters, vandals, or New Agers are just one part of a bigger problem, as population growth, suburban sprawl, and technological advances raise a host of new issues for cultural resource protection in the 21st century. A solution to the dilemma here, whether public or private, could provide a blueprint for the management of threatened sites nationwide.


Recent archaeological discoveries in California, including human remains found in the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County, provide hard evidence that Native American occupation of the Bay Area dates back at least ten thousand years. Some experts place this number as high as thirteen thousand years, given that the oldest sites now lie beneath layers of sediment on the bay floor. The native people who most recently called the East Bay home are today considered part of the Bay Miwok, Northern Valley Yokut, and Ohlone tribes. Mission records suggest their population at the time of the arrival of the Spanish was around 4,500, although approximately 80 percent died of European diseases in the missions over the next forty years. Hundreds of their descendants still live in the Bay Area, and as many as five thousand are scattered around the globe.

The Bay Area was once replete with Native American villages, but few have escaped ruin. At least 451 shellmounds — refuse and burial heaps that are today considered rich archaeological sites as well as sacred ground among native descendants — were noted across the Bay Area at the start of the 20th century. Yet most were already gone or heavily damaged by 1910. The village sites' rich soil, resulting from centuries of decomposing organic matter and human remains, was commonly used as potting soil, road and tennis court fill, yard fertilizer — even chicken feed.

In short, only the last vestiges of Native American history in the East Bay remain untouched, and Benney's critics complain that he is accelerating their demise. "Now somebody wants to give away the last of what's left, as if it's a public curiosity," objected Beverly Ortiz, who works for the parks district as a naturalist at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont. Through her private work as a cultural anthropologist and passionate protector of Native American culture, Ortiz has led the charge against Benney's book.

Benney published his sixty-two-page guidebook last March, and thus far has sold a couple hundred of the 2,500 copies pressed, mostly through his Web site and a few boutique bookstores and businesses in the East Bay. Multiple copies also are shelved in two East Bay libraries. There's no telling who has read the books, but so far no serious incidences of looting or vandalism have been reported.

The sites Benney exposes are spread across the entire East Bay, from Brentwood to Sunol and as far north as Richmond. Some are in plain view in popular public parks; others are located far from established trails. A few are as small as a single mortar, while many contain between ten and twenty. The spots could have been in continuous use for thousands of years, and seemingly look today much as they were left. With wildlife biologist Jim Hale and a few other friends, Benney found all forty — plus another fifty or so not included in the book — simply by exploring. In a few cases he relied on word-of-mouth tips or historical texts with vague mentions of site locations, but for the most part found them through his own initiative.

"We're just getting out and looking," he said. Armed with a notebook, camera, and GPS device, Benney and his fellow hikers head out once a week to wherever they feel like going — a process they've repeated at least forty days a year for the last six years. In a typical day they cover ten to twelve miles, along the way keeping their eyes peeled for rocks with mortars. These are often located near water sources — usually a small spring or creek — and tend to be found in exactly the sort of places we appreciate most today: those with the best views, most natural beauty, and most wildlife. Eventually, Benney says, he developed a feel for where to look, and more-successful day trips have turned up as many as six sites. While finds like these are certainly a thrill, in the end they're not the main reason he goes out hiking every week. "We're not just looking for Indian sites," he explained. "We like to hike, and the Indian sites are an enhancement." He hopes his book will inspire in readers the same appreciation of the outdoors.

No matter his motive, his success as an explorer is indisputable. Benney suspects he has made a number of new discoveries, but has no way of knowing for sure — site details are guarded in an archaeological clearinghouse kept off-limits to the public. San Francisco State University archaeologist Jeff Fentress, who is uniquely familiar with the East Bay's wealth of Native American sites, contends that Benney's book contains no previously unrecorded sites, although that may not be the case with the fifty unpublished ones. Fentress does confirm that few of them have received any attention beyond a basic site record, and none have undergone archaeological excavation.

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