Reclaiming Oakland: The Ohlone Are Rematriating the Land

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Thousands of years ago, the Ohlone people inhabited a vast swath of California, stretching from the San Francisco Bay to the Salinas Valley, living off the land, ocean, and streams in more than 50 villages and tribes through hunting, fishing, and gathering.

But beginning in the 18th century with the arrival of Spanish colonizers, and, later, the American Gold Rush, these thriving Indigenous communities quickly declined, a combination of murder through genocide, forced conversion to Catholicism, and succumbing to death from new diseases introduced by the colonizing Europeans.

"Wherever you are in this country, you are on Indigenous land."

Today, a women-run group based in Oakland, California — the Sogorea Tè Land Trust — is reclaiming land and rebuilding Ohlone traditions through community education. Over four years, the organization has gradually taken ownership of expanding portions of a several-acre parcel in the city, which is on the traditional land of Chochenyo and Karkin subgroups of the Ohlone.

Once a small, grassy patch of overgrown weeds in east Oakland, the first plot of reclaimed Ohlone land today has elderberry bushes, marigolds, and an arbor made up of tree trunks that are used for traditional ceremonies, including dance and prayer. Tobacco, sage, and soap root also grow beside fruits and vegetables.

The space also includes a Himmetka, which is the Chochenyo word for “in one place, together.” An emergency response center has storage, first-aid supplies, a seed library, water catchment, and medicinal gardens to aid local communities affected by climate change (such as wildfires), health crises, and joblessness.

In addition to land reclamation and cultivation, the trust is educating people who are not Native about Ohlone history and recruiting them to help grow Native stewardship of the land.

“Wherever you are in this country, you are on Indigenous land,” says Victoria Montaño, a two-spirit visual and digital artist who has been involved with the Sogorea Tè Land Trust for two years.

Spiritual Awakening

Montaño’s story parallels that of many of the trust's members and the communities it reaches. Born and raised in Oakland, Montaño (they/them) grew up seeing themselves as Mexican American. But as Montaño got older, they began to more fully embrace their identity.

“My grandmother was not really a person who claimed her Indigenous side,” says Montaño. “One time when I was young, she told me I was ‘brown,’ and my mind was blown. I never had that sense as a kid. To white people, I am Hispanic or Mexican. To some Native communities, there is this colonial mindset of ‘blood quantum’ and having to be enrolled in a tribe, but I am not enrolled.”

It was while at the Standing Rock reservation — where Montaño had traveled years ago to join protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline — that they gained new friendships and perspective in order to get more fully involved in organizing around Ohlone communities back home.

“We had a different mindset about the land when we came back from the protest,” says Montaño. “It’s a duty for me, to my ancestors and myself, to service this land.”

"It’s a duty for me, to my ancestors and myself, to service this land."

In addition to the land trust — the main plot is called Lisjan and is located on a property donated by the nonprofit Planting Justice that lies within earshot of the humming of cars on the highway — the trust also operates a unique “tax” program for non-Native communities to support those who are Indigenous to the land. Planting Justice, a food-justice organization, plans to donate its entire multiacre plot to the trust once its mortgage is paid off in full.

Voluntary Taxes

The Shuumi Land Tax, a voluntary program advertised throughout the Bay Area, is a way for residents and businesses that live on traditional Ohlone land to make regular contributions to sustain Native communities. The land-trust website includes a calculator to determine how much to pay. For a person who owns a three-bedroom home, the suggestion is $300 each year.

Similar programs also exist farther north in California for residents of Humboldt Bay, who can pay a tax to the Wiyot people, and in the Seattle area among residents who opt to pay a tax to the Duwamish Tribe.

Sogorea Te' is a reference to the Ohlone word for the community’s ancestral site in the modern-day city of Vallejo. That’s where the trust’s co-founder, Corrina Gould, first helped lead a nearly four-month occupation nine years ago as part of a group called Indian People Organizing for Change. The protest was in response to plans to raze a traditional burial site to create a public park.

Gould (they/them), who is a spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, gave a talk last October as part of the Diablo Valley College’s Student Equity Speaker Series to share their views on the power of Indigenous people and history in the Bay Area.

“I believe the Bay Area is magic,” Gould says during the event. “I believe that there are so many things that have been created here in the Bay Area. Movements, technology, and ideas. My ancestors have been putting down prayers on this land for thousands of years. As human beings, we are just a bridge between the past and the future.”

Tags: Social Justice, Women's History, Volunteering, Gender Equality, Giving, Empowerment

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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