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The Importance of Indigenous Land Return

When I was around 10 years old, I attended one of the numerous Berkeley City Council meetings pushing the city to return the site of an Indigenous shellmound in West Berkeley to the Bay Area Ohlone tribe. I wrote and illustrated a zine (A DIY noncommercial magazine popularized by punk and activist groups of the 90s) alongside my close family friend and radical artist Rebekah Erev. Together, we presented it to the council and distributed it. 

As an Indigenous American, the empowerment of land recognition is one that cannot be overstated. It was only in 1978 when my tribe, the Pascua Yaqui of Arizona, was federally recognized. Still, countless tribes (approximately 400) remain without federal recognition, let alone with the return of their sacred lands. The non-recognition of Indigenous tribes is not only hurtful but harmful, seeing as they perpetrate popular narratives that Natives simply don’t exist anymore. This brings us to a recent local installment in the fight for the return of sacred lands.

The Ohlone are the Indigenous Americans that reside along the Northern California coast, and for years many have been petitioning for the return of a shellmound site in West Berkeley. Shellmounds are human-made mounds of earth and organic matter that were built up over thousands of years and used as burial sites and for ceremonial purposes. In 1909, UC Berkeley Archaeologist Nels Nelson worked to create a map of remaining shellmounds across the San Francisco Bay, with which he documented 425 sites. Few remain in a natural state today, commonly due to industrial developments.

A parking lot currently sits on top of one of the ancient burial grounds in West Berkeley, spanning three blocks. Over the years developers have attempted on numerous occasions to erect developments on it, resulting in years of legal battle between developers, the city, and the Ohlone people. This echoes across other developments in the Bay Area— the Emeryville shellmound rests below the Bay Street mall and was the largest of all the shellmounds across the shores of the Bay. 

March 12th marked the turning of a new leaf when Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously to “adopt an ordinance giving the title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women-led, San Francisco Bay Area collective that works to return land to Indigenous people and that raised the funds needed to reach the agreement” (Oregon Public Broadcasting). The previous owners, Ruegg & Ellsworth LLC agreed to accept $27 million to settle all claims and turn the site over to the City of Berkeley— $25.5 million of which was contributed by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

To some, it is just a parking lot, but to the Ohlone and other Indigenous groups alike, it holds so much more cultural significance. The three-block site is planned to become a home to Native medicines and foods, an oasis for pollinators and wildlife, and a place for youth to receive education on their heritage. To some, it’s simply the land beneath their feet, but to the Indigenous communities across America, the return of sacred lands is the acknowledgment of our history and existence, and the potential to foster a legacy for the future.