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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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Born and raised in Oakland, Corrina Gould grew up knowing she is Ohlone because her mother, also a lifelong Oakland resident, regularly talked about their family's history. Her great-grandfather, Jose Guzman, had been one of the last documented fluent speakers of the Chochenyo Ohlone language. As an adult, she became involved in organizations focused on providing resources and support to indigenous women.

In the mid-1990s, LaRose and Gould cofounded Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) as a vehicle to call attention to the protection of sacred sites. Despite the prior decades of indigenous activism, Ohlone people still faced an uphill battle for recognition. "Twenty years ago, almost nobody in the San Francisco Bay Area even knew that Ohlone people still existed here," Gould recalled.

In the late-1990s, the construction of Emeryville's Bay Street mall rallied people around the protection of one of Chochenyo Ohlone people's sacred places — the Emeryville Shellmound, the largest documented Ohlone shellmound, located at the mouth of Temescal Creek. Ohlone people regard shellmounds as living cemeteries and places of intense connection with their ancestors. Yet, the remains of numerous Ohlone ancestors were unearthed in the construction and removed from the site. For Gould, LaRose, and other indigenous people, it was a heartbreaking event that spurred them to call greater attention to the shellmounds around the bay.

Partly drawing on a map of 425 shellmound sites developed by the UC Berkeley archeologist Nels Nelson in 1909, Gould and LaRose teamed up with Wounded Knee DeOcampo, a Plains Miwok tribal member, on a 280-mile walk from Vallejo to San Jose, and then up the western shore of the bay to San Francisco in 2005, visiting the sites of dozens of Ohlone shellmounds, some of which are intact or partially intact. "The initial thing we wanted was just to lay down prayers at these places," LaRose said. Expecting only a few dozen people to take part, they were instead joined by hundreds of people hailing from all parts of the world.

The walks took place in five successive years, bringing together a large, new constituency of Bay Area residents who understood the importance of the shellmounds and other sacred indigenous sites, and were willing to fight to protect them. For Gould and LaRose, the walks reflected the importance of following the spiritual guidance and teachings of the ancestors who were buried on these lands. "We're pretty damn obedient to the ancestors," Gould said. "And that's how we got here."

Because indigenous cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited, their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands, which face countless threats at any given time. In California and beyond, contemporary indigenous people are engaged in battles over mineral rights, water rights, federal recognition, honoring of treaties, repatriation or honorable treatment of sacred sites, health care, language preservation, and more.

One of the sacred places the Bay Area's indigenous people fought hardest to protect for several years is a large, shallow recess in the Carquinez Strait known as Sogorea Te. In May 2011, the Greater Vallejo Recreation District planned to break ground on a new park on a 15-acre portion of this site, which has been a sacred gathering place and burial ground for Native American people for at least 3,500 years. Development of a park on top of it would have entailed re-grading several acres, which would have disturbed graves and sacred objects.

On the day that park construction would have begun, close to 100 people gathered at Sogorea Te and lit a ceremonial fire.

The protest flowered into an ad-hoc experiment in communal living. Elementary and middle school teachers brought their classes there. Homeless single mothers found sanctuary for themselves and their children. People from all walks of life found a niche, whether by growing food, chopping wood, or partaking in decision-making councils.

The 109-day occupation ended in a political victory — sort of. The Vallejo City Council unanimously authorized a first-of-its-kind Cultural Easement and Settlement Agreement with the Yolo County-based Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the closest federally recognized tribe. Under the agreement, the tribe gained the legal right to oversee and protect the area. Yocha Dehe officials, however, had little connection to the struggle. Within months, they made concessions to the Greater Vallejo Recreation District, allowing park planners to grade much of the site and even install part of the contentious parking lot.

But the struggle to protect Sogorea Te provided something more lasting — an experience for many who participated of communion with land and mutual aid with other people unlike any they had previously known. "A question we began asking ourselves was — how do we bring that feeling of Sogorea Te back to the places where we live?" said Corrina Gould.

Gould and LaRose were also seeking a means of protecting land in future struggles despite the Chochenyo Ohlone's lack of federal recognition. The idea of the Sogorea Te Land Trust was born.

In part, the Land Trust draws from and reinforces the work of other indigenous land trusts, such as the land trust of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, whose traditional territory encompassed all or portions of the present-day counties of San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo. In contrast to many conservation land trusts, which prioritize species conservation that diminishes human contact with land, these Native American-led projects focus on restoring humans' historical role as land stewards.


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