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?

Page 6 of 7

But some Ohlone descendants aren't so sure they want to share. "If you want the experience, read the books," said Jakki Kehl, who lives in the Central Valley town of Patterson and serves with the state as a "Most Likely Descendant," which means she is called upon to handle Ohlone remains when they are encountered during construction projects. The broader goal of her work is protection of Native American cultural resources, and though she hasn't read Benney's book, she's heard about it. "Publicizing these things is not a respectful thing," she said. "It is the most disrespectful thing he can do. I really do think of this as a criminal act — if only a criminal act against humanity."

Bennae Calac, cultural resources director for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians in San Jacinto — a small city about eighty miles east of Los Angeles — heard about the book too. But she has problems of her own. About three years ago, a pair of researchers compiled a guide containing the locations of hundreds of Native American sites in the area, then attempted to sell it to the highest bidder. Calac saw this as a blatant attempt to put the book in the hands of graverobbers. Increased foot traffic, vandalism, and minor incidences of looting followed, but Calac can't say it all came directly from the book — intense development pressures and population sprawl around San Jacinto have also put her tribe's cultural resources in jeopardy.

"We're trying so hard to protect what we have," she said. "These books and the information that people develop is really hurting us. It just causes more people to be out there and taking things. The majority of the people in this world today are not honest, whether we want them to be or not." While talking, she tries to keep her tone hopeful. After all, preserving these sites has become her personal mission. "I don't want to have to tell my daughter or my son out of a book, 'This is where it used to be, and this is where our people traveled.' Sometimes I feel like it's a losing battle."

In the middle of a bayshore marshland east of Fremont and just north of the Dumbarton Bridge sits a model of cultural resource management that comes closest to satisfying all sides of the issue. Coyote Hills Regional Park contains the only actively managed Native American village site in the Bay Area. The two-thousand-year-old Ohlone site is open to the general public through supervised visits led by park employees and a group of ten native Ohlone interpreters, and sees thousands of visitors every year.

As a naturalist based at Coyote Hills, vocal Benney critic Beverly Ortiz oversees much of the park's extensive Ohlone programming. She's been with the parks district since 1979, and at Coyote Hills since 1991. She is considered an expert on Native American cultural interpretation and preservation among East Bay parks staff, and has played a pivotal role in guiding the site management style employed at the Coyote Hills village.

Today, the site enjoys around-the-clock protection. It has been fenced off for about forty years, Ortiz says — since around the time the regional park was dedicated to public use in 1967 — and is enclosed by a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The park road that leads through the marshland and past the village site is closed behind locked gates every evening. Like the sites in Benney's book, it's much smaller and easier to monitor than the Vasco Preserve.

Since she's been at Coyote Hills, Ortiz says she hasn't been aware of any vandalism of the Ohlone site. Its undeveloped portion — a gently curved shellmound about three hundred feet in diameter and thirteen feet deep — still looks much as it would have when the village was occupied. The developed half of the site, where interpretive programs are now held, contains three small wooden structures designed to give visitors a sense of what native houses looked like.

Ortiz upholds that native descendants living today need a stronger voice in the management and preservation of their culture. She's shocked that Benney hasn't ceased his crusade even as native peoples continue to urge him to, since they're the very people whose culture he claims to honor. "It's just going to add to what's already been a very painful history of destruction for them," she said. "I can't see any justification for making an existing problem worse."

While some Ohlone people would prefer that visitors remained outside the fence at her own park, Ortiz counters that the site's management represents a successful compromise. "For now, we're doing what many descendants of the people who originally lived on this land feel comfortable with," she said.

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