Rematriating Indigenous Land in the Oakland Bay Area
On Thursday, November 18, the Asia Pacific Peace Studies Institute at Holy Names held the Zoom event “Rematriating Indigenous Land in the Oakland Bay Area” for their Lifelong Learning Series. Guest speakers Corrina Gould, co-founder of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, and Deja Gould, land team member of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, discussed indigenous cultural renewal and their efforts to rematriate Oakland/East Bay land to Ohlone descendants.
At the beginning of the session, Corrina Gould introduced her people’s spoken language of Chochenyo and recognized how it was one of the first languages ever spoken in the East Bay. The Chochenyo language was asleep until most recently when Deja Gould became the language carrier for their tribe. “There are over seventy two different languages spoken in the Bay Area and Chochenyo isn’t one of them that’s spoken fluently,” said Corrina. “When Deja was going into high school she wanted to learn our language and we went on a journey to figure out how we could bring our language back home.” On their journey they met a professor from UC Berkeley who created a program called “The Breath of Life,” which allows people from tribes to learn about their native languages.
Corrina wanted the main focus of the event to be about history because she explained that even though people have lived in Oakland or the Bay Area for their entire life, they still don’t know the history about her people. “We are from the Confederated Villages of Lisjan and there are multiple native tribes within the area. Our tribe’s land base covers five counties, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, San Joaquin, and Napa,” stated Corrina. Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is based in Huchiun, in unceded Lisjan territory, what is now known as Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany, California. “Along the waterways of these places, our ancestors were taken from their village sites and enslaved at Mission Dolores, Mission San Jose, and Mission Fremont.” As we look at the foundation and structure of the Bay Area, Corrina revealed that due to the reconfiguration of the waterways, people can’t even imagine that indigenous people lived or continue to live in the Bay Area.
Corrina began to explain how the Indigenous people continued to be affected by three waves of genocide, first starting with the missionaries and Spanish soldiers. “In fourth grade you learn that the Ohlone people got to go and live in these missions and learn all about farming, industry, and religion. For thousands of years, my ancestors had spiritual practices on this land and we lived in an abundance, where there was no such thing as hunger or homelessness,” said Corrina. “Today we look at Oakland and we see thousands of people living on the streets hungry without sufficient ways to use the bathroom or wash their hands in the middle of the pandemic. We have to wonder: is this society that took over our traditional homelands doing better than we did before?”
The missions were prisons for Corrina and Deja’s ancestors as well as the rest of the California Indians. These missions brought destruction to their culture, language, and their way of life. “My ancestors created Mission Dolores in San Francisco, and it still stands today with beautiful artwork from our ancestors, and hundreds of our ancestors are buried at the mission,” said Corrina. “We also come from Mission San Jose and Fremont, and these two places were where my ancestors were forced to stay during that 99 years when the missions existed, but that wasn’t the end of it.” Corrina continued to describe the events of Mexico winning its independence from Spain, and stealing the land back while continuing the enslavement of Indigenous people. “Once we were free to leave the missions there was nowhere to go because my people’s lands were taken by other people,” Corrina stated. Then she discussed the third wave of genocide, where Mexico and America battled and the land was stolen once again by the United States, and instead of slavery, it was about mass extermination. “In fifth grade, students learn about the Gold Rush and how there was an influx of people coming to try and get their riches from the gold that was found in California,” said Corrina. “Though, there were also laws created making it illegal to be Indian in California. The State of California spent $1.4 million killing Native people.” Corrina revealed that it was legal at the time to kill Native people, and so people who couldn’t find gold would find Native villages and kill the adults and sell the children for money. When the Spanish invaded in the late 1700s, they called their people “Costanoan,” meaning people of the coast. Though there are eight diverse creation stories and languages, the Spanish decided to put Corrina and Deja’s people in the idea of one, which has confused many people throughout the years. “We went through the different waves of genocide and military takovers of the land, and then we had to fight for survival during the execution period,” Corrina said.
Despite these concerted efforts to erase their people’s history and identity, the Lisjan community thrives and continues to revitalize their cultural practices and protect their ancestral homeland and sacred sites around the Bay Area. These sacred sites are called “shellmounds,” which are burial sites of the Ohlone and Coast Miwok peoples. They are considered by Ohlone people to be living cemeteries, places of prayer, veneration and connection with their ancestors. There were 425 distinct shellmound sites ringing the Bay Area, but now there are only a handful of those that remain in a natural state, where the others now lie buried beneath parking lots and buildings. “We started reimagining ourselves by completing a walk all the way from Vellejo down to San Jose to San Francisco for four years,” explained Corrinna. “We covered almost 300 miles and walked 18 miles a day, stopping at the shellmounds and laying down prayers asking our ancestors to remember us as we remember them. As we began to do this education in the Bay Area, people began to remember that the Ohlaone people do exist.”
One of the first places Corrinna and Deja’s tribe were called to was the Emeryville Shellmound and it’s the largest of the 425 shellmounds in the Bay Area. Their ancestors were buried there, held ceremonies on the land, and used it as a trading place to live. “In 1997, corporate developers began the construction of a new shopping mall in place of the Emeryville Shellmound, knowing and understanding that they would be pulling out hundreds of our ancestral remains,” said Corrina. The Ohlone people advocated for the preservation and restoration of their ancestral site, but the Emeryville City Council voted to instead construct the Bay Street Mall. Every year the day after Thanksgiving, the Ohlone people protest outside of the mall, educating people about their sacred sites and asking them to shop elsewhere. Another incident was the City of Vallejo’s plans to redevelop the grounds of Sogorea Te’ into a recreational public park. The development would pave over parts of the Shellmound, further harming the ancestors buried there. “Over a hundred people gathered at Sogorea Te’ and formed near a sacred fire to establish the spiritual encampment to protect Sogorea Te’. Our community of protectors stood vigil together, tending the sacred fire continuously for 109 days,” stated Corrina. The village of Sogorea Te’ was protected and reawakened due to the unity of the Indigenous community. “As long as California Natives breathe, we will have our own history to tell and we will continue to tell this truth without preservation.”