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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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For the Sogorea Te Land Trust, Gould and LaRose explored how to implement this model in one of the world's most urbanized, cosmopolitan — and least-affordable — regions. Among those who have built the strongest connections to the project are low-income people and people of color who have built solidarity with the Ohlone around a broadly shared experience of historical dispossession and forced displacement.

In 2016, the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline based at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in southern North Dakota had given people throughout the country the experience of a spiritually- centered struggle in solidarity with indigenous people. Among them were Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders, cofounders of Planting Justice, a 10-year-old nonprofit with numerous programs to address inequities in the food system, including urban farms in El Sobrante and Oakland's Sobrante Park neighborhood. After traveling to Standing Rock, they returned with a clear vision of ultimately donating the Sobrante Park land to the Sogorea Te Land Trust.

"No matter where you're standing in the United States of America, it's all on stolen land," Raders said. "And here we are with the legal right and ability to give this land to the Sogorea Te Land Trust once we pay it off."

Other opportunities are emerging. The Northern California Community Land Trust purchased a 99-year lease on an empty lot in a historically Black neighborhood of West Oakland. After its original plan for the land fell through, the organization approached the Sogorea Te Land Trust and the Butterfly Movement, an Oakland-based group that supports the personal development of young women of color by teaching them ecological design, about taking over the land. The two groups are eager to work together. Brandi Mack, a founder of The Butterfly Movement, said they have previously developed six community gardens, all of which were eventually paved over because the group lacked the ability to fund them.

"Our work with Sogorea Te is about forging more permanency in the communities where our families live, period," Mack said.

Indigenous people's effort to take back land block-by-block in the East Bay is occurring amid an unprecedented housing affordability crisis, which has led to increased support for the construction of new low-income and affordable housing units. In 2015, West Berkeley Investments applied to the Berkeley Board of Zoning Adjustments to build a cluster of three buildings, including 33,000 square feet of ground floor retail and restaurant space and a mix of 155 studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments above, on the 1900 Fourth St. parking lot. Ten percent of the units would have been affordable for those considered "very low-income."

Blake|Griggs has "quietly become one of the busiest developers in the Bay Area," the San Francisco Business Times noted in 2017. The company currently has roughly $1 billion worth of projects in the pipeline from Fremont to Berkeley, including the proposed 1900 Fourth St. development in the Berkeley-designated Ohlone shellmound and village site.

The site provides an unparalleled link to the human and environmental history of the East Bay. The 2000 application to designate the site as a City of Berkeley landmark noted that "designation of the site would do more in the way of educating the community about its ancient past, native history, and Victorian times than any other place in Berkeley." With its access to fresh water and abundant food sources, the site supported around 4,000 years of human habitation. It also generated at least two shellmound burial structures, as evidenced by an 1856 Coast Survey map of the region.

"You can imagine this really busy place here in San Francisco Bay Area," said UC Berkeley anthropology professor Kent G. Lightfoot, who has conducted pioneering research on Bay Area shellmounds. It was a place where Ohlone people kept tule reed canoes and lived off abundant shellfish, surf fish, salmon, and smelt, he said. "There were hundreds of these mound and village sites recorded around the San Francisco Bay, and at night, people would have been able to look out and see the twinkling lights of the fires in all of these different places."

In the last two years, the Fourth Street project went through most of Berkeley's approval process, including doing a draft environmental impact report and appearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Design Review Commission, and the Zoning Adjustments Board. That environmental impact review is now on hold as the developer attempts to gain approval through the process established by California's new housing bill, Senate Bill 35.

The Ohlone and their allies have countered that an exemption in SB 35 allows localities to deny an application if a project would "require the demolition of a historic structure that was placed on a national, state, or local historic register."

Ohlone leaders Ruth Orta, Vincent Medina, and Corrina Gould at the West Berkeley site of contention. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER MCLEOD
  • Photo Courtesy of Christopher McLeod
  • Ohlone leaders Ruth Orta, Vincent Medina, and Corrina Gould at the West Berkeley site of contention.

The co-author of SB 35, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in an interview that a recent meeting with Ohlone people and their representatives — which came after dozens of people had called his office to complain about the 1900 Fourth St. project — convinced him to look at a possible amendment to the bill to ensure stronger protections for indigenous sacred sites. "I told them I would be open to be considering that," he said. But he noted the amendment could not take effect until early-2019, and thus would be irrelevant to the struggle concerning the West Berkeley Shellmound.


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