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Living on Ohlone Land

A historic effort to repatriate East Bay land to Ohlone descendants marks a turning point for indigenous cultural renewal and prompts the question: What does it mean to live on indigenous land?

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At the time, this line was a popular expression of American exceptionalism and the realization of "Manifest Destiny," the belief that the United States was destined for Western expansion originating from the initial colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. In practice, this expansion meant the destruction or near-destruction of a diverse array of indigenous people. And this process of cultural erasure did not end with the Gold Rush and its immediate aftermath.

Soon after the establishment of the city of Berkeley in the mid-19th century, the West Berkeley Shellmound began to be removed and sold as garden fertilizer, chicken feed, material for grading dirt roads, and surfacing tennis courts. It suffered further damage with the construction of Southern Pacific railroad tracks in 1877 and the creation of various factories along the bayshore.

In 1909, the top of the mound was still one to one-and-a-half meters above the high tide line when Berkeley archeologist Nels Nelson completed his study documenting 425 shellmounds in the Bay Area, showing the West Berkeley mound spread out in a wide ellipse along Strawberry Creek. By the 1950s, the top was flattened to be used as a base for a water tank.

But the remains of the shellmound and village site are still a vital part of contemporary Chochenyo Ohlone culture. And as they fight to protect the remaining sacred sites that help define that culture, they are also working toward its restoration.

Part of the Sogorea Te Land Trust's work necessarily involves restoring old names for the lands, waterways, and territories in the East Bay — and also generating new ones that express renewed cultural vibrancy. The names of places and people can reflect entire worldviews. And, in contrast to the society of which Frederick Billings was a part, the Chochenyo Ohlone's world is historically an animistic one, in which every place, creature, and thing carries spiritual and cultural significance.

Standing in front of the miniature model of an Ohlone dance arbor at the back end of the 105th Ave. property, Corrina Gould points to where San Leandro Creek meanders under the roaring traffic of Highway 880. Her relatives on her maternal side come from a village known as Lisjan (pronounced Lih-Shawn), she explained, which likely overlapped the Planting Justice land or was located near it.

"We are directly in alignment with where my family comes from," she said. "And we didn't plan that. The ancestors arranged it to happen this way."

Lisjan is also the original name given by Ohlone people to San Leandro Creek, a name Gould and other Ohlone people from the Confederated Villages of Lisjan have now reasserted. The creek formed a marker between two different territories. On one side is Huichin, which now includes Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville. On the other is Yrgin, which encompasses modern-day San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Hayward, and Castro Valley.

The 105th Avenue project is an expression of the Sogorea Te Land Trust's vision of re-invigorating indigenous culture, while also in many cases offering non-indigenous people a place of safety where they can remember and practice different ways of living. The land trust will emphasize providing access to land in neighborhoods where such connections are hard to come by, often due to economic circumstances, Johnella LaRose explained.

"We call this the 'land of the forgotten,'" she said.

Built shortly after World War II, first as a whites-only neighborhood and then gradually becoming a white-flight red-zone in the mid-to-late '50s, Sobrante Park is now a working-class Black neighborhood that has seen massive disinvestment and historic red-lining. The neighborhood has few employment opportunities. The closest food store to the Planting Justice nursery is a Food Maxx, located a half-hour away by foot.

The nursery markedly contrasts with its surroundings while also seeming comfortably at home in them. Known as Rolling River Nursery, it features nationwide clientele and has one of the most biodiverse selections of fruit trees in the country. It has 15 full-time employees, Planting Justice's Raders said, the majority of whom live within two blocks of the site. And the arrival of the Sogorea Te Land Trust has had an immediate uplifting impact both on the nursery and the neighborhood as a whole, he said. "It's helped people here see the sacredness of their work."

"Traditionally, when people came to our lands, it was our responsibility to take care of them," Gould said. "So, of course, we want to have spaces for folks to be a part of."

Underlying the land trust's ambitions is the question of funding. In the case of the 105th Ave. parcel, Planting Justice needs to raise an additional $600,000 before it owns the land outright and can deed it to the land trust. At that point, it will lease the land back from the land trust to continue operating the nursery. Planting Justice is also seeking to raise $2 million to acquire and renovate an additional three-acre nursery site two parcels east of the existing nursery, which has been contaminated with chemical run-off, where they hope to establish an aquaponics farm capable of growing 500,000 pounds of food per year. This land would also be donated to the Sogorea Te Land Trust.

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