At the back end of a two-acre nursery lot in Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood, where 105th Avenue dead-ends into Highway 880 and Lisjan Creek (otherwise known as San Lorenzo Creek) twists north on its path to the Bay, Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose stand alongside a collection of twigs arranged in a small circle: a miniature rendering of a traditional Ohlone dance arbor. Elsewhere on the property, workers coax tender fruit trees into pots filled with organic soil. Only a year ago, this space was covered with trash and debris piles. But to Gould and LaRose, it’s become an incredibly significant patch of earth.
“This gives us a place to call our own,” said Gould, an indigenous Chochenyo/Karkin Ohlone who lives in Oakland. “That’s something that’s hard to come by for a lot of people in this world, especially for indigenous people who have had everything taken away.”
As with nearly the entirety of the East Bay, this fringe of land in deep East Oakland has been part of the ancestral homeland of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people for several thousand years. Starting in the late-1760s, Spanish missionaries and soldiers attempted to erase California indigenous people’s identities by forcing them into filthy, disease-ridden labor camps at missions from San Diego to Sonoma and baptizing them in the Catholic faith. In the late-1840s, U.S. soldiers and vigilantes arrived like a steamroller to these lands, virtually exterminating numerous indigenous nations and forcing others into hiding or on long marches at gun-point to far-flung reservations.
Until now, the descendants of the Chochenyo Ohlone people who survived were left without a secure place on which to practice many of their ceremonies and traditions. Because they aren’t federally recognized tribes, contemporary Ohlone communities have no reservations or protected land base.
But last year, the nonprofit food sovereignty group Planting Justice established a first-of-its-kind partnership with the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an urban indigenous, women-led land trust founded by Gould and LaRose in 2015. Planting Justice is paying off $600,000 on a loan to acquire the rectangular parcel on 105th Avenue, which features rows of potted fruit trees ringed by sheds and greenhouses. Currently, Planting Justice provides Sogorea Te with a cultural easement on the property’s northern quarter-acre, allowing it to hold ceremonies and for other cultural uses, but after paying off the loan, Planting Justice will deed the entire parcel to the land trust.
The agreement with Planting Justice is a first step in a far more ambitious effort to repatriate East Bay land to Ohlone people. The Sogorea Te Land Trust intends to acquire dozens or even hundreds of parcels in a patchwork throughout the East Bay, partly using funds generated by the “Shummi Land Tax” — a voluntary way for non-indigenous Bay Area residents to acknowledge the theft of Ohlone land and work toward its healing.
These lands will serve as focal points for the revival of Chochenyo Ohlone cultural traditions and their language. They could also enable local indigenous people to re-inter thousands of their ancestors currently piled on shelves at UC Berkeley and in museums across the Bay Area, Gould said. And the land trust will be a vehicle to protect indigenous sacred sites.
In the last two years, Chochenyo Ohlone people and their supporters have been locked in a campaign to protect a portion of one of the oldest sites of human habitation and an important Ohlone ceremonial place along San Francisco Bay. Located where Strawberry Creek meets the saltwater near what is now the Berkeley Marina, the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site is estimated to be roughly 5,700 years old, according to radiocarbon dating. The sacred mound, a pyramid of shell and earth, was roughly 30 feet high and covered the area of about two or three football fields. Indigenous people lived there for several millennia.
In 2002, the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a two-block area of the shellmound and village site that stretches from Hearst Avenue to University Avenue and from Fourth Street to Second Street as a city landmark, eligible for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Currently, only one portion of the site remains as undeveloped — a 2.2-acre parking lot located on the southwestern portion of Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district. In what has become one of Berkeley’s most heated development battles in recent memory, a proposed housing and retail development there would involve digging to depths of eight to ten feet across the property. (The ground beneath the parking lot has never been extensively excavated.) Ohlone people have stood firm against any effort to develop the site, and they have called attention to the possibility that their ancestors’ remains will be disturbed by the excavation. They have instead proposed a memorial park honoring their history and culture to the present.
In March, the developer, West Berkeley Investors, a subsidiary of Danville-based Blake|Griggs Properties, raised the stakes in the fight by becoming the first company in California to invoke a new state law, Senate Bill 35, that streamlines the approval process of building projects that provide certain levels of housing designated as affordable. In a thorough re-design of the company’s original proposal, it is proposing to construct 260 apartment units, half of which would be set aside for households earning 80 percent of the area median income — $80,400 for a family of four.
SB 35 requires that eligible projects be approved within 180 days of its new permit application, which West Berkeley Investors submitted on March 8. Berkeley officials are still reviewing the proposal. Berkeley Planning and Development Director Timothy Burroughs is set to announce whether it is eligible for fast-track approval by June 5, according to Berkeley spokesperson Matthai Chakko.
The Sogorea Te Land Trust is not affiliated with the struggle over the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site, which is being spearheaded by a group founded by LaRose and Gould in the mid-‘90s called Indian People Organizing for Change. Each, however, is part of a broader effort to re-imagine what it means to live, work, and build on Ohlone land. And both the land trust and the shellmound campaign have drawn passionate support from hundreds of non-indigenous allies.
Many who have made common cause with the Chochenyo Ohlone struggle view the colonization of land and the genocide of its original inhabitants as fundamental injustices that must be repaired if true justice and lasting environmental protection are to be achieved. The struggle for indigenous cultural renewal has offered a radical and generally inclusive vision for meeting people’s material and spiritual needs, which centers on reinvigorating both indigenous and non-indigenous people’s relationship to the land itself.
“The taking of the land — the heart of the people — has been the cause of a lot of problems,” said LaRose, who is Shoshone Bannock of the northern Great Basin and moved to the Bay Area as a young adult, raising her family here. “I believe that with the land trust, and with a renewed relationship to the land itself, I think that’s really going to help us to find our way back.”[pullquote-1]
In the mid 1700s, Ohlone people lived in a world of dizzying abundance. In the East Bay, there were vast marshes and lush meadows, wild salmon that swam up the creeks veining the hills to spawn and die, and grizzly bears that inhabited endless oak forests. Partly owing to the temperate climate and easy access to food sources, approximately one-third of all Native Americans in the United States were living in the area now known as California prior to contact with Europeans. In an area spanning from San Francisco to Big Sur, there were 50 documented villages and extended family groups who spoke at least eight distinct dialects and were loosely united by a similar language, often referred to as “Costanoan” but now more commonly known as “Ohlone.”
The arrival of Euro-American soldiers and missionaries, who commodified these lands by gridding and platting them with farms and ranches, marked the beginning of a period of gut-wrenching violence, dislocation, and erasure. Tens of thousands of indigenous people in coastal areas were brought to Catholic missions (that were essentially concentration camps), where they were beaten, whipped, burned, maimed, tortured, and killed. Within the missions, many of the so-called religious “converts” continued to worship their deities surreptitiously as well as conduct native dances and rituals in secret, and in some cases became fugitives who allied with the indigenous people of the state’s interior to fight back in armed uprisings.
The United States’ conquest of California in the Mexican-American War greatly hastened indigenous people’s destruction. “The handiwork of … well armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush,” retired Sonoma State University Native American Studies Professor Edward Castillo has written of the initial years of the California Gold Rush. “Nothing in American Indian history is even remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder.”
Under the laws of the new state, native people were denied rights such as the ability to vote or testify in court. Many indigenous people became migrant farmworkers. Others, including Ohlone people, survived by hiding out and concealing their identities. Corrina Gould said her relatives survived by hiding out at a Pleasanton ranch and pretending to be Mexican.
Part of what enabled indigenous people to survive was the depth of their spiritual connection to their homeland, notes Chochenyo Ohlone Berkeley resident Vince Medina.
“An intense and undeniable love for homeland is among the reasons our identity was able to survive in the East Bay,” Medina wrote in a 2017 letter to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board concerning the proposed 1900 Fourth St. development, on behalf of 19 other Chochenyo Ohlone individuals. “In this very small geographic space, every moment in our Chochenyo Ohlone history has occurred; in this place our very world began on the peak of tuuštak (Mt. Diablo) during the Great Flood that covered the whole of the world.”
Ohlone people have continuously fought to protect their cultural connection to that homeland whenever circumstances have allowed. The late-1960s brought a nationwide resurgence of indigenous cultural pride, including in 1969, when “Indians of All Tribes” initiated a nearly 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island to demand that the U.S. honor its treaties with indigenous nations. During this period of increased indigenous political struggle, Ohlone people made several stands to protect sacred places. In a little-known 1975 stand-off in Watsonville, Calif., for example, dozens of indigenous people established an armed fortification within a partially bulldozed Ohlone cemetery where a warehouse was to be built, and successfully negotiated to preserve the half that had not yet been destroyed.
Much of Johnella LaRose’s early cultural and political education was also rooted in the Red Power movement of the 1970s. In the late-1970s, she was living at the now-defunct American Indian Movement Freedom and Survival School in Oakland when she became involved in organizing for the Longest Walk, a spiritual walk across the country to rally opposition to numerous pieces of anti-Indian legislation in Congress.
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.[pullquote-2]
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.
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.”[pullquote-3]
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.”
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.
Wiener declined to say whether he believes the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Complex qualifies as a “structure.” “It would not surprise me if there were litigation, and then the court would interpret that part of the bill,” he said.
The project is also playing out in the court of public opinion. More than 1,800 people submitted comments opposing the project as part of the Berkeley environmental impact review process. Only five submitted letters in support. Several hundred of the letters raised concerns about noise, traffic, and congestion, though the heart of the opposition to the project and nearly all of its energy has come from supporters of protecting the shellmound.
In 2014, the parking lot’s owners — the Spenger family and real estate investor Dana Ellsworth — hired an archeologist to conduct a trenching study on the parking lot that found no evidence of a shellmound. Partly owing to this study, Blake|Griggs Properties contend that the exact 2.2-acre area of the development was not part of the shellmound, asserting that Strawberry Creek and a willow grove marshland instead covered most of the lot. Their research found two shellmounds located to the west/northwest and to the northeast of the parking lot — but not at the parking lot itself.
“It should be noted that although the project was designated a city landmark due to the belief that the West Berkeley Shellmound is located on the site, extensive testing and undisputed expert analysis have shown that the shellmound does not actually exist on the project site and never did,” the company stated as part of its application to build the housing and retail complex.
But opponents of the development dispute the findings of the archeologist hired by the developer, saying the mid-19th-century Coast Survey Map and a previous archeological study serve as significant evidence that one of the shellmounds overlapped the Spenger’s parking lot. But they also say the focus on the exact location of the shellmounds is a diversionary tactic. In a blog post, project opponent Toby McLeod, of the Sacred Land Film Project in Berkeley, noted that the struggle is “not about the exact location of the shellmound — or shellmounds — since Ohlone villages were often composed of a mound complex, with one large mound and satellite mounds.”
In a comment letter on the draft environmental impact report, archaeologist Christopher Dore, who has extensively studied the site, wrote that the shellmound is one archaeological feature within the boundaries of the site, which has been designated as a significant archeological site by the state of California, known as CA-ALA-307. “There are significant, undisturbed, cultural and natural deposits within CA-ALA-307 that are not directly related to the shellmound…. One of the names for CA-ALA-307 that has been used historically is West Berkeley Shellmound. This is just a ‘shortcut’ name for this entire historical resource; both the parts that relate to the actual shellmound (the archaeological feature) and other archaeological components of the site within the site boundary.”
Blake Griggs offered to deed about half an acre along Hearst Avenue to a nonprofit that would have included an Ohlone educational and cultural community center and park, and a new Ohlone Cultural Trust would own the land and the building after 99 years. But Gould said representatives of two other Ohlone family groups rejected the offer because it would still allow excavation of the rest of the site and would diminish Ohlone people’s ability to perform ceremonies at one of their most revered places.
The Ohlone maintain a ceremonial connection with the shellmound and village site to the present day. The parking lot, for example, is one of the places they visited during the Bay Area shellmound walks from 2005 to 2009. “Our ancestors put that ceremonial place there,” Gould said. “It’s the first place along the bay where our ancestors had their bodies laid to rest and the first place where they heard a newborn baby’s cry. It’s really important that we keep that alive.”
On April 4, more than 50 people attended a Berkeley Landmarks Commission meeting both to reaffirm their opposition to the project and again put forth their vision for a park honoring Ohlone history to be constructed.
At the meeting, landmarks Commission Chairman Steven Finacom raised further questions about the legality of the project. Once a site is landmarked, he noted, there is no way to take away the designation without coming before the Landmarks Commission, which Blake|Griggs Properties has yet to do. (Finacom also supports landmarking the view from UC Berkeley’s Campanile, which opponents say is a way to block high-rise housing development in downtown Berkeley.)
“A lot of people who visit this part of the world do not even know we live here,” Ruth Orta, an 83-year-old member of the Him’re-n Ohlone tribe, said at the meeting. “We’re supposed to be extinct. But we’re not, and we’re not going anywhere.”[pullquote-4]
The name of Berkeley itself is a provocative reference to the historical drive to exterminate indigenous identity. In 1866, as legend has it, University of California trustee and railroad magnate Frederick Billings stood on the corner of Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road in the Berkeley hills and looked out across the western gate of the bay now spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge. The view inspired him to suggest naming the town after a line in an 18th-century poem by British philosopher and cleric George Berkeley: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
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.”[pullquote-5]
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.
Part of the goal is to provide people access to food outside of a market exchange relationship, LaRose explained. “People talk about the spiritual connection as well as physical connection to the land,” she said. “How we used to live off land. How we could just go outside and find food. The idea here is to bring that back.”
In the meantime, Gould said her adult daughter has begun to have dreams in the traditional Chochenyo Ohlone language. Some of the old ceremonies that have been dormant are beginning to return. This year, on the autumn equinox, the 105th Ave. land will host the first traditional dance arbor ceremony in Chochenyo Ohlone territory in more than 200 years.
Editor’s note: We have made several clarifications to this story, including the fact that the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site is one of the oldest sites of human habitation along San Francisco Bay (it may not be the oldest site); that the ground beneath the Spenger’s parking lot has never been extensively excavated (not that it has never excavated at all); that the site supported around 4,000 years of human habitation (instead of 5,000 years); and that the Ohlone maintain a ceremonial connection with the shellmound and village site to the present day (to say the connection has been continuous may be an overstatement).