November 11, 2019

Landless in the Bay Area

From the "Landless in the Bay Area" panel at San Francisco Public Library on October 23, 2019. From left to right: Julian Brave NoiseCat, Ruth Orta, Corinna Gould, and Jonathan Cordero.

From the “Landless in the Bay Area” panel at San Francisco Public Library on October 23, 2019. From left to right: Julian Brave NoiseCat, Ruth Orta, Corinna Gould, and Jonathan Cordero. Photo: Anissa Malady.

On October 23, Julian Brave NoiseCat of Oakland and the Canin Lake Band Tsq’escen moderated a discussion at the San Francisco Public Library between three leaders of traditional Bay Area territories, Corrina Gould (Confederated Villages of Lisjan), Ruth Orta (Ohlone/Bay Miwok/Plains Miwok), and Jonathan Cordero (Ramaytush Ohlone).

“Landless in the Bay Area” addressed historical and contemporary events that have left numerous Indigenous tribes in California landless and without federal recognition, as well as the work these activists are doing to reclaim culture and re-assert their claim to these lands — and why Indigenous presence in the Bay Area matters.

Presented by Alcatraz Canoe Journey 2019, the panel was the first in a four-part, citywide series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation, in partnership with Open Space’s fall magazine Alcatraz Is Not an Island, and the San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book literary campaign. The following is an edited version of a transcript of the night.


Julian Brave NoiseCat:  My people, the Secwepemc and St’at’imc, are some of the first peoples of what is now British Columbia, Canada. But I grew up in Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge. And I want to acknowledge our presence today in Yelamu, on Ramaytush Ohlone territory. 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, a historic nineteen-month occupation of a former federal prison, led by a group of students and activists that took on the name of the Indians of All Tribes. The occupation was a path-breaking moment in the history of not just Native people, but of the United States as a whole, and Indigenous peoples globally. It inaugurated a shift from an official policy of termination — which my friend at the New York Times who just wrote a piece about our canoe journey had to explain to his editor that that was actually what it was called, the official policy was called termination — to now, a policy of self-determination, which endures to this day. So, effectively, the Indigenous equivalent of the Montgomery Bus Boycott happened right here in the Bay Area, but it is far too often overlooked when we talk about not just the history of this region, but the history of this country. Ten days ago, at six in the morning on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, eighteen canoes representing dozens of tribes, nations, and communities from as far north as the Klahoose First Nation in British Columbia and as far west as the Kanaka Maoli in Hawai’i took to the waters of San Francisco Bay, circling Alcatraz to reclaim the island as a symbol of Native rights. This was the first canoe journey of its kind in the Bay Area, and tonight’s talk will very appropriately kick off the accompanying series, Alcatraz: An Unfinished Occupation, with a discussion of the First Peoples of the Bay Area, the Ohlone, and their land. With me to discuss this incredibly important topic, we have Jonathan Cordero, chairperson of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the first peoples of San Francisco and professor of sociology at the Californian Lutheran University. Can we all give Jonathan and his people a hand?


Seated next to him is a longtime family friend of mine, Corrina Gould, who is the spokesperson of the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan. She’s Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone and she’s also the co-founder of two really wonderful grassroots organizations in the East Bay: Indian People Organizing for Change and the Sogorea Te Land Trust. Part of my life is as a journalist and as far as I know, Sogorea Te is the first urban Indigenous land trust that is re-matriating Native land in a city in the entire world. I think that that’s probably the first.


JBN: Yes, that was definitely the cue to applaud. And last but certainly not least is Ruth Orta, someone who I’ve gotten to know throughout the course of organizing the canoe journey, a wonderful, respected elder of the Jalquin/Saclan/Ochejamne, the Ohlone/Bay Miwok and Plains Miwok, and a lifelong resident of the Bay Area.


Ruth Orta welcoming canoes ashore at the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

Ruth Orta preparing to welcome canoes ashore during the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

JBN: Ruth did a wonderful job welcoming the canoes ashore and sending them out into the Bay last week, and is deeply knowledgeable and, I would also add, very proud of her history and her family.

So to start, I wanted to turn to our friend Jonathan, who is among other things a professor, an expert on these matters, and ask what happened to Native land here in California and the Bay Area more specifically?

Jonathan Cordero: California is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world — as it was before it was known as California, when there were probably eighty to ninety different languages spoken just in the context of the state. Obviously at one time, Native peoples occupied all of the lands in California. But when the land was turned over to the United States, the United States government made only eighteen treaties with particular so-called representatives of Native peoples in the United States. And we know these as the eighteen unratified treaties. The math is easy to do: California as a state is roughly a hundred million acres, and the first treaty with the United States government, which was made in 1852, granted California Indians seven and a half million acres. And that’s the map that you see up here. But the Senate failed to ratify those treaties, and so instead of seven and a half million acres, California Indians got five reservations totaling 75,000 acres, which is less than 1/100th of a percent of the state. And those only lasted about ten years before they folded. Today in California there are about 112 federally recognized tribes, but still the sum total of land that Natives occupy in the state of California is incredibly, incredibly small. So the point here, of course, is that at one point we owned all of our land, we thought we were going to get some through treaties and we didn’t even get that. And then the 75,000 acres that we get at one point, we also lost. And ever since that point, Native peoples have been lobbying and petitioning the federal government for federal recognition — and with federal recognition often comes land.

But here’s the problem, and this is the problem particularly for all of us, and particularly for California Indians who were incorporated into the Spanish missions. This is the map that you have to see: it’s a map that shows the total zone of missionization, from Sonoma to San Diego, inland forty to sixty miles roughly, along the coast. And within that zone of total missionization, there are fewer than five federally recognized tribes.

A map of the complete missionization and lowest rates of Indian survival contrasted with federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal lands in California as of 2010. Landless tribes are shown with their approximate historic rancheria locations.

A map of the complete missionization and lowest rates of Indian survival contrasted with federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal lands in California as of 2010. Landless tribes are shown with their approximate historic rancheria locations. Slide provided by Jonathan Cordero.

So what does that mean for us? Well that means that, as a result of historical circumstances, we don’t even qualify for federal recognition. We can’t get it. The most recent effort was by the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in the East Bay, and they’re done, they can no longer apply and they didn’t get federally recognized. But at one point in history they actually were. So that’s the situation that we find ourselves in. The Native American literature on this topic basically calls us “out of luck.” If you look at the criteria, we just can’t fulfill the federal requirements. Because, when the United States government created those criteria, they did not take into account the unique situation that we find here in California. So, we historically have been landless as a result, and that’s the situation that the vast majority of California Indians find themselves in, from Sonoma to San Diego.

JBN: So Ruth, you’ve lived in the Bay Area —

Ruth Orta: Ready. [Laughter.]

JBN: — for your entire life. Can you tell us a little bit about your family’s history and how the theft of your people’s land has shaped that story?

RO: I’m still landless. I rent, just like everybody else. This is my mom in the picture right there. I was born in Newark, August the 20th, 1934. She’s pregnant with me there. That picture was taken in the springtime, I think, because there’s a little flower on one of the bushes.

I’ve always known who I was. My mother was the one that registered all of us in the ’40s to become recognized by the state of California that we’re here. In fact, she registered us as the Digger Tribe, and everybody knows today that was the derogatory term used for the Native people. And I do not like to be called California Indian, American Indian, whatever. I want to be known as a Native from this part of the world.

Ruth Orta holding a framed photograph of her mother, after the panel.

Ruth Orta holding a framed photograph of her mother, Trina Marine, after the panel. Photo: Claudia La Rocco.

I was one of eight children that my mom had, the second to the oldest. She was born June 16, 1902, orphaned by the time she was eight, and raised in an orphanage in Mission San Jose by the Dominican sisters. Her brother was at the orphanage up in Ukiah that was run by the Mission San Jose Dominican sisters. Their mother died when my mom was between four and a half to five years old. We don’t know the exact date — the missions have the records — but she was buried in her own backyard. She was born in 1863. She was probably in her forties. My grandfather, who was a red-headed Spaniard from Costa Rica — that generation of my mom’s family was the first non-Native into our Native family — died 1910 in October. My mother was twelve and my uncle was fourteen when they got out of the orphanage fully educated. They could have been anything they wanted, but what did they do when they got out at that age? They went to work for the farmers, for the field. My mom was a cook, a babysitter, and a housekeeper. But she was my teacher when I was born, and I thank the Dominican sisters for giving her that education and that will for her to survive, to raise all of us. That’s who I want people to know: Trina Marine, that was her maiden name; she lived to be eighty-four, died 1986. She lived on somebody else’s land, working for people. We used to go with her in the fields. We picked apricots, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, you name it; there was everything around in the Bay Area. I used to question her when I was a little girl. I loved history, and I told her, “Mom, how come they call us Indians when Indians are from India?” She said, “That’s what the government wants people to think, that we came here from another part of the world. Which we didn’t. We came here from this part of the world. And you always be proud of that Native part that you got in you.”

And I thank Bev Ortiz for taking me to the California Indian Conference, I never knew they had such a thing. And I found out that there were people still speaking their native language. Mom was gone already, but it was very emotional for me to hear our native language, because Mom didn’t know any of her language. She spoke Spanish when she entered the orphanage, because the Spanish had already taken over. As far as I’m concerned about the land, we didn’t own the land. Our Indigenous people lived here on the land and took care of it. They didn’t have a space where they said, “This is my land.” It was the conquering people that came here and forced us to do what they wanted. My mom was never recognized as a citizen of California or United States of America until the 1920s. She never voted, but she always gave her opinion about every politician that ever entered into the politics, and she said a whole lot. My mom never owned a home until she was a little old lady, but she was connected to the ground, to this part of the world. So landless, we’re still here.

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Ruth Orta walk along the Aquatic Park shore at the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Ruth Orta walk along the Aquatic Park shore during the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

And I want to say something about Alcatraz. I worked fifty-four years of my life. I raised seven children and was married since I was sixteen to only one man. He passed away in 2003. And I remember when they occupied Alcatraz. My mom said, “Good for them! I hope a lot of people come and take it over and take other parts over so we can have our land back.” I was invited to go up there, but I was in my thirties, worked, and my husband wouldn’t allow me to go and sit on the rock. [Laughter] He wasn’t going to take care of the kids, he had to work too! So, I didn’t get to go, but I was behind them.

And as far as I know, a lot of Indigenous people in California didn’t want to go, because they were jealous, I think, that the Natives from the Midwest came to sit on Alcatraz. I only know one cousin of mine that sat on Alcatraz, and that was Marvin Marine, and I didn’t find that out until I met Marvin — I think it was in 2004. I met him through my daughter. Corrina also, I didn’t meet her until about nine years ago? Something like that. And her grandmother was my first cousin, and I didn’t see her grandmother since I was about thirteen. That’s why I was so excited when I met Corrina, it was like this long-lost family member. I knew she was my relative because — I told her — “You act just like my Native mother!” [Laughter] Thank God she’s got the fortitude, the will, to do what she’s doing. And God bless all the people that work with Corrina, she’s an awesome lady and I appreciate everything that you do.


Corrina Gould delivering a land acknowledgment at Open Space's 2019 Summer Party. Photo: Andrea Nieto.

Corrina Gould delivering a land acknowledgment at Open Space’s 2019 Summer Party. Photo: Andrea Nieto.

JBN: Corrina, I think Ruth just called you into the conversation. One of the big ironies and injustices of tonight’s topic is the fact that now the Bay Area’s one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. People are investing in Bay Area real estate from all over — all over. So places like the waterfront in Emeryville have been developed over the last fifteen, twenty years. And of course, when they start building, they often run into you guys’ ancestors, you guys’ sacred sites. Corrina, you’ve been doing that work for a long time now, decades, and you guys just won a big victory in the fight to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Corrina Gould: Sure. Good evening everyone. So all of you that have been following the West Berkeley Shellmound fight — the day before yesterday, the judgment finally came in on the court case and we won.


CG: So this is really the first public talk that I’ve been at that I’ve announced it. For those of you that don’t know about it, the West Berkeley Shellmound is the oldest Shellmound, burial site, village site, and ceremonial place along the shores of the Bay for us. In 1909 this guy named Nels Nelson created a map of Shellmounds because of gentrification and development happening in the Bay Area over a hundred years ago. He knew that these special places were going to be destroyed, and he created this map. I really believe that our ancestor was in the ear of this guy. Because who cares, right? A bunch of Indian cemeteries are going to get destroyed? Why should he care? But he did that work so that we who are here today, alive, could find those places and re-connect to those spiritual touchstones. The West Berkeley Shellmound is a part of our cosmology from the East Bay. It was the first place that our ancestors were buried along the waterways there. It was the very first place that we had ceremony, along Strawberry Creek. It was the very first place that human beings lived along the Bay, in the Bay Area. So imagine that. They just happened to also be my ancestors, Ruth’s ancestors.

So, when this place was about to be developed three and a half years ago, it was our job and our responsibility to stand up and to speak for those ancestors. Because if you live in San Francisco Bay Area, you have to know that this place is full of magic. There’s movements that have come out of the Bay Area, like the takeover of Alcatraz, the American Indian movement, Indians of All Tribes, the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers, all kinds of technology and ideas have come out of here. But why would this bubble place be that place? Because our ancestors for thousands of years put down prayers on this land. This land is magic. It’s our responsibility to take care of this place in such a way. 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.

Hundreds and hundreds of people have come with us and prayed on that land from all over the world. There have been tireless efforts by allies and accomplices to get the word out, to write letters, to ensure that phone calls were made, to make sure that paint was put on the ground, to ensure that there was fliering that happened and stickers that were made and websites that were created. That was not just me. That was not just Ruth. That was not us in a bubble. We now live in a community of people that understand the reciprocity that it takes to live on someone else’s territory. And that’s what we’re really talking about. The West Berkeley Shellmound is not just a win for us, the Huichin, the Lisjan, people that live in the East Bay. It is a win for everybody in the Bay Area. I want to thank all of you that participate in any way, that help to see this, this court case win. So give yourself an applause please.


Remnant of the West Berkeley Shellmound during archaeological excavation (circa 1950) Source:

Remnant of the West Berkeley Shellmound during archaeological excavation (circa 1950). Source:

CG: So yes, we have a victory that we need to have a dance for, right? We need to take over this so-called parking lot at 1900 Fourth Street and we need to celebrate our wins, because in a time of so many crises in the world right now, we have so few of them. The West Berkeley Shellmound gives us hope. It gives us something to wrap our minds around, that we can get behind and that we can protect, and that we can know. Someplace that we call home. And celebrating doesn’t mean that this is over; they’re going to want to appeal it, you know. But the judge who wrote the judgment on this particular court case was so beautiful about how he likened our Shellmound to other places across the world, places that were under rubble, that were hidden beneath, but are also still protected. These places are sacred to us. And so he’s realized that, and wrote that in his statement. And I thought that was the most beautiful thing, to have someone in a court who can hear that, and tell developers who want to destroy everything that’s left for us, that they have to stop. That the legislatures are going to be forced to change the law to protect our sites, that we are going to continue to ask you for your support to push this law to be more than it is right now, that we continue to save and protect sacred sites of the Indigenous peoples whose land you’re on.


JBN: Recently, the City of Berkeley updated its signs to acknowledge that it’s on Ohlone territory. The City of San Francisco updated its Indigenous People’s Day proclamation to acknowledge that it’s on Ramaytush Ohlone territory. I know that Libby Schaff, the mayor of Oakland, is at least vocally supportive of the arbor that is being built at the Sogorea Te Land Trust right there on Lisjan Creek in East Oakland. So there is a shift that is happening slowly and maybe not recognized by everyone, but there is a shift. What do you think is driving that? And why is it important that people understand that they are on Ohlone territory: what does that change about the way in which we understand San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the history of this place and its future?

CG: Thank you for that question. And thank you Jonathan, for allowing us to be on your land. That’s where we need to start: that we acknowledge as Indigenous people whose land we’re on. I thank Julian for remembering that when we started this off.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades we’ve worked to get people to realize first, that there’s a Shellmound, and then what is a Shellmound and why should we care about that? Over four and a half years we did these walks to the four hundred and twenty-five Shellmounds. Believe it or not, our people were not sedentary; we didn’t have a village and just stay there. So we were able to walk from Vallejo to San Jose and up to San Francisco in three weeks. Eighteen miles a day we’re walking and stopping at these places that were Shellmounds and finding railroad tracks and parking lots and bars and schools and apartment buildings and streets, but still recognizing that this is where our ancestors put down those prayers. It was an educational process in the Bay Area, because we were virtually erased. It’s a paper genocide that continues to today — nobody knows that we’re still here unless we’re vocal about it. As we became vocal about it, allies and accomplices joined us in this fight to talk about what sacred sites are, to understand that we were still alive and here and living in our territory, that we weren’t something in the past but that we were contemporary and we are still doing this work. That was what was important. And it took all those years of doing that work on the ground and talking to people along the way as we’re walking, and getting people excited about it.

I remember when we were walking through Hayward one day, this woman drives up, a soccer mom kind of person, and says, “Why are you walking?” We’re giving her information and she got excited about it and wanted to know more; we happened to be camping at Coyote Hills that night and this woman showed up with a fresh chocolate cake and two gallons of milk. We had people stopping along the way, handing us hundred dollar bills or twenty dollar bills for gas for our support vehicles. This was all grassroots: we did it on the weekends with our children and the backs of cars as our offices. We never had grants to do this work. It was the work that we were supposed to do. It was our responsibility. It still is our responsibility. We are the bridge between the past and the future, and if we don’t take care of our responsibilities, those that are coming after us won’t know what they’re supposed to do.

On Indigenous land.

On Indigenous land. Source: Sogorea Te’ Land Trust Instagram account.

And why now? What’s going on? Well, little known fact maybe, in the Bay Area in 2011 we re-occupied some of our territory in Vallejo called Sogorea Te. For four-and-a-half months, 109 days, we sat on that land just like Standing Rock. People from all over the Bay Area brought tents and food and firewood, praying with us and standing with us and being willing to get arrested with us, with Coast Guard and Homeland Security and the police and everybody else. We created this village that must have been like a village that was there for thousands of years that my ancestors were on. And when we left, it probably was much like leaving Standing Rock: we left there with the feeling of emptiness and longing. Because we weren’t praying with our neighbors anymore. We went home, just like we do every day, like most of you will go home today and you’ll shut your door and you won’t know who your neighbor is. And you will never have had food with them, or prayed with them, or know what’s going on in their lives. And when you live in a village, good or bad you know everybody that’s there and what’s going on. We had people that figured out their jobs, because nobody was told what to do. We had people that made sure that the fire lasted for one hundred and nine days, that that sacred fire never went out. And people in four different places around the world lit fires that lasted just as long. This is creating community, and this is what we need, right? That’s what we’re looking for as human beings, that we see each other as human beings again.

When we started doing this work around the West Berkeley Shellmound, it was just that: creating this community where we could all get together and do this work together. It was important. But it was really after people went to Standing Rock and realized that they were missing something in their lives. They were missing a connection to each other. And so people that we had had relationships with started pushing the envelope in the Bay Area, to ensure that people were recognizing that you were on stolen Indian land and whose land were you on? Making sure that people acknowledge that at the beginning of the meetings, or brought Native people to the beginnings of the meetings to acknowledge that. It pushed people to actually think about where you were. If you think about it, you’re in our home. And when I talk to fourth graders, it’s really easy to figure out. I say, “Hey fourth graders, when you go to somebody’s home, how do you behave? What do you do?” Well, you say “thank you” and you say “please.” You ask permission before you do anything. You don’t break their stuff, you don’t rummage through the refrigerator. These are the things as adults that we teach our children and our grandchildren, but when we become adults we forget we are also in somebody else’s home. And how do you behave? As Indigenous of my territory, I want to be a good host. Our obligation and responsibility is to take care of those that are on our land as our guests. But you have to be a good guest. That means all of those same things that eight, nine, ten-year-olds know: you ask permission, you say “thank you” and “please,” you don’t break things that aren’t yours, you don’t rummage through our refrigerator. We are living in a place that was abundant. We are still in an abundance here, and so we need to ensure that those basic human qualities are still true. We should not have our brothers and sisters living on the streets. There should be enough food. We’re in this imaginary place called America, where we need to be able to think outside of the box.


From the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

From the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

JBN: Thank you, that was really beautiful. You know, I’m Indigenous obviously, but that does not necessarily mean that I actually know a whole heck of a lot about the first peoples of the land that we are on currently. And I think it’s important for everyone to go home understanding that actually we have representatives of three different territories and parts of the Bay Area, and three different Ohlone communities today. I want to ask each of you, beginning with Jonathan, whose land we’re on today, what are you doing to have people honor and respect that this is your home and what does that look like to you as we gather on your land today?

JC: So the first thing that I have to say in answering this question is, I do not live in the Bay Area. I live in Thousand Oaks, so I do what I can from a distance. I’ve done quite a bit over the years and as Corrina’s been saying, none of us can do any of this on our own. We definitely need non-Native partners to get this work done. And you’ve all been incredibly helpful in getting the word out that this is Ramaytush Ohlone territory; historically, we’ve had some problems with misidentification of the original peoples of the San Francisco Peninsula, and that’s finally getting cleared up. My colleague Barbara Mumby-Huerta and I co-authored the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation to make it both historically accurate and inclusive — that was a really important landmark.

So yeah, I do what I can from a distance. Most of that is consulting work and politicking and I wanted to say something about the distinction between rights and responsibilities, because we need to clarify that. Native peoples historically don’t have rights — we don’t own land, we don’t have a right to own land. We never have. But we’re living in a world now where we need to have the right to own land. I mean, think of how crazy it is that we have to ask people’s permission to go onto their property to hold ceremony. We literally have to do that. I’m also Chumash and so I live in Chumash territory and we’re working to get back a few of our sacred sites: the summer solstice site is owned by the Hilton Foundation and the winter solstice site is on the property of CSU Channel Islands. But as Native peoples, we talk about our responsibilities to the land. Our responsibilities to Mother Earth, our responsibilities to one another. We don’t talk about rights. I mean, I know we have rights as US citizens, because we have dual citizenship.

And the other important thing to remind myself and to remind all of you, since I talked about federal recognition earlier: we don’t need federal recognition. You know, Corrina’s model is a really good model. It’s our model now, in parts of the Chumash community: act as if as if you are sovereign, as if you’ve never lost it. Sovereignty is not a Native term. And for us, sovereignty isn’t only self-governance. Sovereignty is essentially defined for Native peoples as cultural continuance. It’s our capacity to continue into the future as a culturally distinct group of people with a shared ancestry. And land, our relationship with the land, our connection with the land, is absolutely, one-hundred percent critical to our capacity to carry ourselves forward as a culturally distinct group of people.

A slide from Julian Brave NoiseCat's presentation at "Landless in the Bay Area."

Slide provided by Jonathan Cordero.

JBN: Corrina, as I mentioned at the beginning, you are the co-founder of the Sogorea Te Land Trust, which is re-matriating land in the East Bay. Can you tell us a little bit about that work? Because it is, as I said at the beginning, pretty cutting edge.

CG: Thank you. Yeah, we have the first urban Indigenous-led land trust in the country or the world, as Julian said. So hey, I’ll take that. [Laughter and applause] It is a women-led land trust because there are many Indigenous women that live in our territory now, many who I have worked with for decades and raised children with, and now grandchildren we have together. Many of the folks that ended up here in the Bay Area from different tribes came here on the forced relocation project of the United States government. We are trying to bring back Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands. The reason we use the land trust model was because a federally-recognized tribe stepped in during the Sogorea Te takeover, and on day ninety-nine created the first cultural easement between the city, a park district, and a federally recognized tribe that allows the tribe to have the same rights as the city and park district in Vallejo on that land. Had we had the land trust at that time, we could have created that cultural easement ourselves; we didn’t realize that that was a tool that we needed. I was invited by Beth Rose Middleton, who is a professor at UC Davis, and wrote that book Trust in the Land about Indigenous land trusts in this country. There’s only a handful of them. I went to this meeting not knowing why, and came back with the idea that this was what we needed to do. But when I was there, I noticed that it was all boys, basically. And so, I had a new friend, Dune, who was there, an Alaskan native who saved 144,000 acres of his territory after the Exxon Valdez spill. I asked him, is this a boys’ club? And he said yeah, pretty much — not only Indigenous land trusts, all land trusts. Johnella LaRose is the co-founder of both IPOC and Sogorea Te Land Trust with me: we begin to have this conversation about what does that look like for men to hold the land? As we begin to look historically about what happens when men hold the land, we begin to realize there’s a correlation to what happens to women’s bodies and what happens to the land. The raping of resources is the same as the raping of the body. When settler colonialism came to these lands, it was about taking away the sacred first, stealing the land and stealing the women, and the destruction of people. This is an ongoing process.

We realized, when we were at Sogorea Te, that people needed a connection to the land. Not just Ohlone people, human beings need to be connected to the land. When you have that connection, your DNA changes. You’re able to see something other than yourself. When people went to Standing Rock, the same thing occurred. We have brothers and sisters on Mauna Kea right now, experiencing the same re-connection to the land. And that’s what this is about. Sogorea Te land trust is about re-connecting human beings back to the land, and creating our spiritual places and centers again. The very first piece of land came back to us because of Standing Rock. It’s a miracle: this quarter-acre of land that was given back to us is the very first piece of land that Ohlone people in the East Bay owned, or are taking care of again, in over two-hundred and fifty years. Imagine that.


CG: And on this land, what did we decide to do? Well, Johnella, who had the crazy idea of these walks, also had this crazy idea, “Well, we should put an arbor up.” She has great ideas. So we did. But you don’t understand what that means, to put up an arbor, that you have to kill thirty-eight trees, redwood trees that are older than us. You have to ask permission for these trees to give their lives so that you can create this. We were really super naive because we did that, we were gifted to go up and take these trees, up in Sonoma, and then cut them to size, and then move these seven hundred-pound pieces of tree down to Oakland. You can only do this if you’re crazy and Indian and don’t know that you can’t do that, right? Nobody told us we couldn’t, and so we did. And then we moved this onto our new land that we were taking care, which is not new land — it’s actually on Lisjan Creek, where my people come from. It’s a half-mile walk from my home, it’s these ancestors saying, “We remember because you remember.” We said we’re going to put this up in a month and the redwood trees kicked our butts for a year. And we were able to invite people from all walks of life, all intersections, all faiths, to come and help us to take the barks off of these redwood trees, to put their hands on them and sand them, to get them ready and seasoned. And thirteen months later, we were able to raise the poles of this arbor. One for the men and one for the women, one for the children, one for the elders, and one for the two-spirit, and then everybody else included. This is the first arbor in our territory in two hundred and fifty years. Along our creek, a place where everybody is welcome to come on sovereign Indian land in the East Bay. We also take care of a small community garden that we re-named Rammay in West Oakland, we’re working on land in the Gilt Tract Farm in Albany, we’re creating a park in Richmond with this beautiful artist; we’re doing all of these land-based things, inclusive of everybody that wants to be a part of it that now lives in our territory. Re-matriation means bringing back the land in a different way. Because as women, we have the songs and the medicine for the plants. We bury our children’s umbilical cords in the land. We have a different way of speaking to the water. It’s our responsibility as women, as grandmothers, as aunties, as moms, as daughters and grandchildren, to put this land back in balance again. And so we call on all of you to help us to do that work as well.


JBN: One thing that I’ve gotten to learn about you, Ruth, in the time that we’ve spent together, is that you have very purposefully decided to stay in the same place that you come from for your entire life. Why is it so important for you, building off of what Corrina said about the connection to the land being what makes us Indigenous, what makes us in some sense human, I think? Why did you decide to live your life in the same place where you come from?

RO: That’s easy. Even if I can’t afford the rent, I tell everybody I’m going to go and get me some tule, I’m going to make me a little hut, I’ll put it on somebody’s yard, or in the middle of a park, and that’s where I’m going to stay! [Laughter] Even though I don’t have a house that I own, I can still stay here. For a woman that’s eighty-five years old, I’m very healthy — Creator’s kept me here, and it’s up to him, that’s what makes me stay. This is my world. This is where I come from. My mom used to tell us all the time, “You don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, and this is where you live, and this is where we’ll stay.” So Mom, I am not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here and when I leave I have a plot in Irvington Cemetery, where you’re buried, that I told the kids I’m paying for, so that way when I do die and you guys don’t have the money, I know where I’m going. If we stick to our guns — well, I shouldn’t use that word, that’s not good. [Laughter] Because I hate guns — if we stick to what we feel and who we are, I think we’ll be okay. And again, the ones who are working with Corrina, thank you, thank you, thank you. I am deeply, deeply proud of the people that are not even of our race, but they’re here. That’s another thing that my mom told us: “Creator put us here on this earth and we love everyone.” This part of the world, we’ve got a lot of people that come from all over and take care of our land. And you know, give back if you can.


Kanyon Sayers-Roods harvests tule that will be used to make a traditional tule canoe. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

Kanyon Sayers-Roods harvests tule that will be used to make a traditional tule canoe. Photo: Marissa Leshnov.

JBN:  I wanted to go down the line and ask our Ohlone hosts what we can all do, one thing we can all do, to be better guests here in their homelands? I’ll start with you, Jonathan, whose land we’re on today.

JC: I have a lot of answers to that. But one thing: if you find an opportunity to make people aware of whose ancestral homeland they’re on, an opportunity to connect them to one of us, depending on where you’re at, that goes a long way. Because the foundation of all the work that we do is building relationships. There were a couple professors from down south who contacted me the other day and wanted to work with a Native community this semester. You know, this was in August before the semester started. And I said well, “Hold on. Identify the community you want to work with, establish a relationship with them over the next year, and then start it the following year, right?” We need people to come to us, establish relationships so that we can move forward.

CG: Pay your Shuumi tax. [Laughter] Give land back if you can. Come to our twentieth annual event that we have the day after Thanksgiving in Emeryville at the largest Shellmound on the corner of Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street from noon to three o’clock. Tell other people about us, that we still are here.

RO: What Corrina said, double. [Laughter] And just let everybody know that the people that were put here from time began, they’re still here and they need your help. Especially with housing. We really do. Because what the houses go for now, even renting here — it’s ridiculous. They think everybody works in Silicon Valley. We don’t. Some of us have retired, some of us are old, but we’re still here. So, everything that Corrina does and what she said, like I said; double it.

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