The World We Need celebrates America’s unsung grassroots environmental groups — often led by people of color and the poor — that defend communities against polluting industries and help them mitigate the impacts of climate change. This excerpt highlights Corinna Gould, an Ohlone woman and cofounder of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, who is working to restore tribal land in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This post was produced in partnership with The New Press.
Corrina Gould stood on the corner of Shellmound Street and Ohlone Way in Emeryville, California, cordless microphone in hand and a crowd of about 200 circling around her. Some among the throng held aloft signs espousing the cause for which she had gathered them: “Save the shellmounds,” read one banner held taut behind Gould. “Protect All Sacred Sites. You can’t protect the living until you protect the dead.” Another: “Oakland is Ohlone.” A third: “You are walking on Ohlone graves.” This was the 20th Black Friday in a row that Gould, a squat and resolute Ohlone matriarch, had led a protest urging residents not to shop at Emeryville Bay Street, a mall on the eastern shoreline of San Francisco Bay. Local Indigenous residents have taken to calling Bay Street the “Dead Mall” because it’s built atop a sacred burial ground. “We gather here to remember that these spiritual places still exist,” said Gould. “They need songs and prayers.”
Gould is the spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, a subgroup of the Ohlone whose territory comprised the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro. Alongside Johnella LaRose, an urban Indian from the Shoshone-Bannock and Carrizo tribes, which now live on reservations in Idaho and Texas, Gould has led campaigns, protests, prayer walks, and occupations to protect and reclaim Ohlone land in the Bay Area since the 1990s. In the process, the two women founded two organizations to drive these efforts: Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC), a grassroots, community-funded activist collective that has led efforts to protect shellmounds and connect urban Native Americans to essential services like housing and healthcare, as well as the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a legal structure they are using to reclaim and steward Ohlone land. In the gentrifying Bay Area, these efforts place them at odds with investors and developers angling to buy up properties to build, rent, and flip at a profit.
The Dead Mall is a typical U.S. shopping center with generic could-be-anywhere stores like J.Crew, H&M, and Uniqlo; a 16-screen AMC movie theater; a half dozen chain restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen and P.F. Chang’s; 400 residential apartments; and a parking garage. Erected in the late 1990s, before Amazon disrupted the retail model, Bay Street is situated in the landfilled postindustrial flatlands between Oakland and Berkeley, at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 580. The shopping center was the centerpiece of Emeryville’s plan to cash in on the first dot-com bubble, and is now an artifact of the last real estate rush to remake the Bay Area before the post-recession Silicon Valley boom of the 2010s. When I was growing up in Oakland in the 2000s, Bay Street was a new and popular destination, where adolescents gathered on weekends or teenagers went on first dates. But like much of the sprawling Bay Area megalopolis, Bay Street also hides a big and terrible truth: This land was stolen from its original inhabitants, and the cities, lives, and opportunities that supplanted Indigenous ones are built on Indian graves.
Standing on the corner next to the Old Navy and across the street from the P.F. Chang’s, Gould told the crowd that the shellmound that once stood there was the largest of some 425 built by her people on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Over generations, the Ohlone stacked middens and remains into a mound that rose 60 feet — as tall as some of the apartments now on offer. The shellmound’s village site and funerary complex sat at the mouth of Temescal Creek, just a few dozen feet away, where freshwater running down from the rolling hills met saltwater in the marshlands that once rimmed San Francisco Bay.
“These shellmounds are our places — our village sites, our cemeteries — where people gathered along the shores for thousands and thousands of years, from time immemorial,” Gould explained. “It’s a part of our cosmology that when our people pass away and as we’re having a ceremony for them here at the shellmound, that our ancestors would sit on Alcatraz Island and wait,” she said, gesturing toward San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, and the Pacific Ocean. “When the ceremony was complete, their spirits would go through our western gate, which is now the Golden Gate Bridge.”
In the late 1800s, a popular amusement park was built atop the shellmound. It operated until Prohibition in the 1920s. After that, the shellmound was partially leveled to make way for steel manufacturing plants and trucking terminals. Some of the material excavated from the site — including human remains — was processed into the concrete that paved the streets of Berkeley and Emeryville. Plundering California Native cemeteries became a kind of anthropological niche at the University of California, Berkeley, and its facilities still hold lockers and boxes containing the corpses and belongings of more than 9,600 first peoples. During the construction of the Dead Mall in 1999, workers discovered large portions of the shellmound still intact beneath layers of bubbling acid and dirt streaked white with arsenic. Skeletons, buried side by side, were unearthed under what is now Victoria Secret and Forever 21. Adults were curled in the fetal position beside their canine companions. Couples had been laid to rest in embrace. Some women were interred with their babies. These resting ancestors, some of the last still in the ground, were taken too.
LaRose, who was an organizer with the carpenters’ union, learned of the desecration from environmental impact statements and friends on the job site. She and Gould launched a hurried, last-ditch effort to stop the development, but Emeryville plowed ahead. To “honor” the first people, developers installed glass cases displaying Ohlone artifacts at the entrances of public restrooms and built a small fake shellmound at the intersection of Shellmound Street and Ohlone Way, right where we stood in solemn protest on Black Friday. Behind us, along a walk- way above Temescal Creek, was a series of granite pillars etched with a history of the Ohlone. “The Ohlone gathered acorns, their staple food, every fall,” read the final pillar, meant as a description of modern Ohlone life in the year 2000. All of it is written in the past tense.
In 2016, Gould and a group of Ohlone visited their ancestors’ remains at UC Berkeley for the first time. The basement’s low ceiling was lined with racks of remains and belongings, alphabetized H through K. They walked the rows, singing and praying. Outside, the group put down an offering of tobacco. And then Gould went home, curled up into a ball, and did not leave her house for three days. To restore justice and balance to this place, Gould has made it her life’s work to return her ancestors’ remains to the land. “There’s a reason for them to go back,” she told me. “I believe that the Bay Area is a magic place. And I believe that those are the prayers of my ancestors who prayed that magic into this land. That magic has to go back, to return balance to this land.”
Before the arrival of European colonists, the Bay Area was a place of plenty for the Ohlone, who fished, hunted, and gathered in the region’s wetlands, plains, and hills. Marshlands lined the shores. On the savannahs, native bunch grasses stood almost as tall as an adult. Farther inland, forests filled with oak trees and towering redwoods covered much of the coastal range that separates the Bay from the Central Valley. An early European visitor to Monterey Bay, not far to the south, remarked that so many whales approached his vessel that he could smell their spouts. Upon entering the bay, the Spanish said, they saw sea lions so plentiful that they seemed to cover the entire surface of the water “like a pavement.” Grizzly bears, now extinct in the state, and wolves, which only returned to the hinterlands of northern California in 2018, once hunted elk, deer, and salmon, as did the Ohlone. “There is not any country in the world which more abounds in fish and game of every description,” wrote the French sea captain Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse in 1789.
Today, San Francisco Bay has been dredged, and the Sacramento River delta, which feeds into it from the north, has been reshaped by levees. The marshlands have been filled, making the structures on top of them more vulnerable to the San Andreas Fault, which lies beneath. The flatlands and hills have been paved and overlaid with freeways designed to transport goods from the ports to consumers further inland. On weekday mornings and evenings, commuters from the suburbs use the same roads to get to jobs in the cities. After the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow South, polluting infrastructure and industries began to segregate working-class neighborhoods, often inhabited by people of color, from middle-class ones, dominated by white people. By the 2000s, a Black child born in the East Oakland flatlands lived, on average, about 15 years less than a white child born in the more affluent hills, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.
The Bay first appeared on European maps in the imperial scramble for the “New World.” In 1776, the Spanish built Mission San Francisco de Solano, nicknamed “Mission Dolores,” in San Francisco to fend off Russian advances from the north and to claim fertile Ohlone and Coast Miwok territories for their king. Missions Santa Clara de Asis and San Jose de Guadalupe followed in 1797 and 1798. Through 1821, the Spanish built 21 Catholic missions in California to claim Native lands and convert Native souls. Journalist Carey McWilliams once compared this system to “Nazis operating concentration camps.” By 1833, Franciscan missionaries had baptized 81,586 California Indians and buried some 62,600, who perished from disease, displacement, and starvation. Gould’s Ohlone ancestors and relatives, enslaved at the San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Jose missions, were among them. California’s Indian population fell from 310,000 to 150,000 by 1846, when the United States annexed the state. Coastal populations like the Ohlone were particularly devastated. When East Bay Ohlone lands were granted to the Peralta family in 1821, the Bay Area’s Indigenous population had plummeted from an estimated 17,000 before contact to less than 5,000.
Under United States rule, Indigenous people suffered even more. Fueled by racial Darwinist ideas about Indigenous people being depraved, state and federal governments spent $1.7 million to liquidate California Indians. “The aborigines of California are placed, by those who have had the best opportunity of studying their character and disposition, with the Hottentots, the Patagonians, and the Australians, among the lowest of the human race,” wrote American historian and lawyer Robert Greenhow in 1844. In California’s first three decades of statehood, Indigenous numbers fell again from 150,000 to just 16,277.
As Indigenous humanity was denied, so too were Indigenous land rights. California was the only part of the United States to be declared terra nullius, a legal term meaning “nobody’s land.” A few land cession treaties were negotiated with California tribes, but not the Ohlone. The Senate rejected the treaties that had been drawn up and signed, and imposed an injunction of secrecy on the documents. Tribes who had been promised recompense and reservations received neither. Up and down the Golden State, Native communities were left without title to their lands. Laws passed in the 1850s legalized the kidnapping and enslavement of Native children. The Bay Area’s Native population plummeted once more from 1,356 on the 1860 census to just 184 by 1910. Survivors went into hiding. Many adopted Hispanic identities to avoid persecution.
While a few dozen Ohlone and Miwok survived in silence in a small settlement called “Indian Town” in present-day Pleasanton from the 1870s to the turn of the century, by 1925, the prominent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber declared the Ohlone extinct. Gould’s great-grandfather, one of the last speakers of the Chochenyo Ohlone language, died in the 1940s. “Nobody knew about us,” said Gould. “There was this process of colonization that erased the memory of us from the Bay Area.” Gould’s mother was taken to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, purpose-built to assimilate Native children. The Lisjan leader grew up knowing that she was Ohlone, but her mother’s generation rarely talked about what that inheritance meant. “It’s this historical trauma that still sits with us,” Gould said. “It’s really fresh.”
Since the 1970s, however, Ohlone people have worked with elders and scholars to revitalize language and culture as they reassert rights to ancestral lands. “We made it cool to be Ohlone again in the Bay Area,” laughed Gould. After the Dead Mall was built, Gould and LaRose kept fielding calls from workers and residents who had unearthed the bones of Ohlone ancestors. But for almost a century, the Ohlone haven’t owned a single parcel of land in the East Bay. Back in 1999, the tribe, one of hundreds that are not recognized by the federal government, wasn’t even eligible to repatriate artifacts and ancestral remains through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. When Bay Street opened for business in the new millennium, Gould could not file to reclaim her ancestors’ remains. And even if she could, she had no land into which they could be returned. All she could do was honor their memory.
In 2005, LaRose returned from an antinuclear proliferation walk on the East Coast, inspired. Later that year, IPOC organized a procession to the shellmounds from Vallejo, north of the Bay Area, all the way to San Jose in the south, along a circuitous 300-mile route. They marched as much as 18 miles every day, stopping to pray at many of the unmarked mounds buried beneath BART stations, streets, and elder homes. They repeated the walk again in 2006, 2007, and 2008. “There was this total erasure, but there was almost this peace that came from walking the Bay Area knowing that there were people who were here before and knew this land,” said Gould. “It created a huge community of people that knew about shellmounds and were willing to talk about things that happened.” On the fifth year, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was expanded, allowing non-federally recognized tribes like the Ohlone to repatriate the remains of their ancestors. That year, Gould, LaRose, and their supporters walked the route in reverse, beginning at an Ohlone village site in the marshlands of the Alviso neighborhood of San Jose and tracing the footsteps of Ohlone ancestors back to Mission San Jose de Guadalupe in present-day Fremont. They thought about bringing their forebearers home. Gould remembers it as one of the hardest walks.
In 2011, IPOC began an occupation of Glen Cove, a sacred gathering place and burial ground in the Carquinez Strait known as Sogorea Te’ in the Karkin Ohlone language, which had been slated for redevelopment. Hundreds of people, including many who had participated in the shellmound walks, showed up in support. After 109 days, the city of Vallejo acquiesced to the pressure and negotiated a cultural easement with the federally recognized Yocha Dehe and Kletsel Dehe bands of Wintun, which gave them the right to oversee the sacred ancestral sites. The agreement was the first cultural easement signed in an American city, but Gould and the Ohlone were cut out of the deal because, according to Gould, they were perceived to be too radical, and, unlike the Wintun, they are not federally recognized.
After the occupation, Beth Rose Middleton, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of Trust in the Land, invited Gould to a meeting about Native American land trusts. Land trusts were originally developed to conserve private land, but in recent years, tribes from California to Alaska have utilized the model to reclaim and protect territory and sacred sites. “These tools can be used against the purposes they were created for,” Middleton told me. “You are almost taking [land] out of this capitalist regime to bring it into Indigenous ownership.”
At the meeting, Gould saw that many Native land trust leaders came from federally recognized tribes — and that most were men. She recognized that her job was not to repatriate the land, culture, language, and remains of her ancestors, but to re-matriate them. “The land has been raped and taken advantage of and destroyed in a parallel way to how women have been treated at the hands of men,” she said, reflecting on the history of the colonization and development of Ohlone territory in the Bay. “That’s part of re-matriation — women’s work, women’s jobs to bring life through midwifery and to sing our relatives out, to return them to their final resting place through song.”
Gould and LaRose founded the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in 2012 to re-matriate Ohlone land. They began fielding calls from parties interested in repatriating their lands to the group. Nonprofits, community-based organizations, faith groups, LGBTQ groups, and affluent citizens are now lending support through the Shuumi Land Tax that Gould and LaRose created for residents of Ohlone territory — shuumi means “gift” in Ohlone, and the tax-deductible donations are an anti-colonial twist on 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. In January 2018, the food-justice organization Planting Justice, which helps formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet by learning how to farm, gifted a quarter-acre of land in East Oakland, on a small urban farm tucked between the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Nimitz Freeway, to Sogorea Te’ — its first plot of land. “We have always believed that reparations are necessary,” said Gavin Raders, executive director of Planting Justice. Once Sogorea Te’ pays down the original $600,000 land debt, aided by the Shuumi Land Tax proceeds, Planting Justice will hand over the rest of its two acre East Oakland nursery. “One way we wanted to do that is to put the land in the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.”
Four generations of Ohlone shared prayers and songs in a ceremony attended by about 100 community members. Gould and LaRose lit a sacred fire, the first on free Ohlone land in over 100 years. “It may not look like much or look like it means much, but it’s so important to us,” said LaRose. “Even if it’s a postage stamp, it doesn’t matter. We are getting the land back.”
“It’s our responsibility to take care of this place,” Gould told me many months later. “But taking care of this place is not just for us to do. There are thousands of people that live in our lands now, and so now that you live in our lands, it is also your responsibility. Because this land also takes care of you. Those prayers that our ancestors put down for thousands of years also take care of you and your family.”
LaRose set about cleaning up the plot that Planting Justice gifted to Sogorea Te’. As she picked up the trash, broken glass, and old wires left on the quarter acre, she started to imagine what it might look like to put this land back to use. She envisioned a small ceremonial dance arbor, similar to ones used by tribes throughout California and beyond. She built a model to scale, and Gould loved it. The design called for six large wooden posts, which a friend-of-a-friend offered to donate — they had trees on their Sonoma County property that could be harvested. That April, LaRose and Gould visited with a crew of 10 people, including a young, formerly incarcerated Black man who worked for Planting Justice and had experience felling trees with prison fire crews. He had “a relationship with trees,” recalled Gould. He talked to them. Before harvesting the logs, the group said a prayer to thank the trees for giving their lives so that the Ohlone could build an arbor. Then they cut the trunks to size, rolled them onto a U-Haul, and drove them back to East Oakland.
It took a year for the logs to cure and dry. In May of 2019, community members came to Sogorea Te’ to debark and sand down the posts. They dug holes and raised the frame of the arbor in a small ceremony over a weekend. There was one pole for men, one for women, one for elders, one for youth, and one for the queer and two-spirit relatives. The sixth post represented the women leading Sogorea Te’. Gould, LaRose, and their all-women board of directors and staff lifted that one together.
So much of the history of the Bay Area and the world has been dominated by white men. And even where Indigenous peoples have succeeded at repatriating land and cultural patrimony, it has been Indigenous men who have led and benefited most from these small acts of decolonization. Under the auspices of colonial power and patriarchy, the land, climate, and ecology of the Bay Area have been exploited. The Bay and its first peoples have suffered. The arbor at Sogorea Te’ rises with an intriguing idea: that under the care of Indigenous women, the land and the people it sustains could fare much better. Perhaps there is another way — a more feminine way — to relate to this land that could help return the Bay to the place of wild plenty it once was for the Ohlone. This idea, more than any other, is the subject of Gould’s prayers and strivings.
A few months after the posts were set, I ventured down to Sogorea Te’ to see the first arbor built on free Ohlone land in over a century. The circular frame of the structure stood nearly complete in the back of a large triangular plot, squeezed between Interstate 880, railroad tracks, and San Leandro Creek — renamed and reclaimed as its Ohlone name: Lisjan, part of a territory once known as Huichin. A couple more redwood logs lay partially processed and dressed on the side of the structure. Mats woven from tule reeds were laid to the side, and would eventually be strung between the posts to provide shade for onlookers. A hummingbird made a nest in the tule shade later that spring. An adobe oven stood nearby to feed future ceremony attendees. A sign posted on the incomplete structure warned visitors: Do not enter without permission. No photos. No videos.
Rows of fruit trees, beds of kale, vines strung with ripe tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables filled out the rest of the plot. There are plans to build a walking and biking trail that would run the length of Lisjan Creek from East Oakland to San Leandro Bay. Eventually, Gould will invite neighboring California tribes to dance in the arbor, and ask UC Berkeley to return the bones of her ancestors to the ground in a new shellmound to be built on lands re-matriated from the university.
Walking back across the plot, I ran into a childhood friend, Kevin Mamea, a tall, slender Blackfoot and Polynesian man, who was shirtless and tending the crops. Mamea, towering well over 6 feet tall, wore a cap branded “Savs” on top of a sweat-stained do-rag. He told me how much he’s learned about gardening and the land working here: the appropriate ways to care for each crop and plant. Planting Justice lets him bring squash home to his mom. After taking a few classes at the University of Montana and working in the nursery, Mamea wants to start his own garden — and maybe even a landscaping business. “A lot of game to soak up around here,” he said. We hugged and parted ways. “Check out the strawberries before you go,” he advised as I started back toward the East Oakland streets.
Munching on one of the ruby-red fruits, I thought about the community being knit together on land re-matriated from the megalopolis and how that place had just created space for two Native men who hadn’t seen each other in years to embrace. Perhaps, I thought, this land really is magical.
Copyright © 2021 by Julian Brave NoiseCat. This excerpt originally appeared in The World We Need edited by Audrea Lim, copyright © 2021 by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.
Fix, Grist’s solutions lab, is hosting The World We Need: An Exploration of Art and Justice on May 27. This virtual event will investigate the relationship between art and environmental justice through the work of artists and Grist 50 honorees Favianna Rodriguez and Beka Economopoulos. Register here.
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