It’s winter solstice, but the sun is shining in East Oakland, California. Within sight of the highway, in the middle of a sandy area with more concrete than trees, the Rolling River nursery and the urban farm stand out. The two-acre land, managed by the nonprofit Planting Justice, is filled with around 30,000 fruit trees and is occupied by former inmates and other residents of the area with few options for use.
On this day, the green space is particularly quiet. A group of young men hold a circle of drums. Near the entrance, workers and volunteers sit around boxes of avocados, removing pits for planting. Soon a quarter of an acre of this land will belong to the Sogorea Tè Land Trust. The land, Planting Justice said in a recent announcement, will be an “indigenous cultural site with a traditional arbor, a place of ceremony and a place to stay true to the original teachings and pass them on to subsequent generations.”
The effort is the product of a partnership between Planting Justice and the Sogorea Tè Land Trust – a female-led urban effort that is rare in a landscape of predominantly rural, male-organized efforts – to facilitate land return from Ohlone to Native Stewardship. .
For thousands of years, the Ohlone people have lived in the area between San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay. When Spanish missionaries arrived in the 1700s, they took smallpox and other deadly diseases with them and enslaved and murdered indigenous communities. By the early 1880s, the northern Ohlones were reduced to around 1,000 people. Dozens of tribes in the state, including the Ohlone, were never federally recognized, so they were powerless to prevent the paving of their sacred sites.
Much of the hardship in indigenous communities today is linked to their lack of land, say Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose, founders of the Sogorea Tè Land Trust, which was established in 2012, specifically as a way to make Ohlone lands. LaRose is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, and Gould is Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone.
More than 330,000 Native Americans live in the state today, and many suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses. According to a recent public health survey of Indigenous children and their families in Alameda, “Native Americans face a myriad of illnesses and unhealthy behaviors known as historical trauma responses.” For this and other reasons, Aboriginal people need a place to express their cultural pride as an antidote to intergenerational trauma.
“It’s important that all human beings have a connection to the land,” says Gould, who saw mounds of shells sacred to Ohlone covered in apartment buildings, bars, malls and parking lots. With that in mind, she and LaRose “work to create places of healing and a space where young people can be, so that they aren’t covered in concrete all the time.”
When asked how she and Gould came up with the ambitious plan to buy back tribal land, LaRose laughed. “Oh, you know,” she said. “You fall asleep and dream. “
But she and Gould are more than dreaming. As co-founders of Indian People Organizing for Change, they joined organizer Norman “Wounded Knee” DeOcampo, another organizer for native tribes, to protect a sacred burial site in Vallejo just northeast of ‘Oakland in 2011. They occupied the land there for over three months, ending in a cultural easement between the town of Vallejo, the Greater Vallejo Recreation District and two federally recognized tribes.
This struggle inspired LaRose and Gould to start thinking about what they could do to regain the sacred sites of Ohlone. Gould was invited to Southern California to an Aboriginal Land Trust meeting and out of this was born Sogorea Tè Land Trust.