Indigenous people rejoice after city of Berkeley votes to return sacred Native land to Ohlone


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Ohlone people and others rejoiced Wednesday over the return of sacred Native land dating back thousands of years, saying the move rights a historic wrong and restores the people who were first on land now called Berkeley, California, to their rightful place in history.

The 2.2-acre (0.89-hectare) parking lot is the only undeveloped portion of the shellmound in West Berkeley, where ancestors of today’s Ohlone people established the first human settlement on the shores of the San Francisco Bay 5,700 years ago.

Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ordinance giving the title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a San Francisco Bay Area collective led by women that works to return land to Indigenous people. The collective raised most of the money needed to reach the agreement with developers who own the land.

“We want to be a place for global Indigenous leadership to come and gather in solidarity,” said Melissa Nelson, chair of the board of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, at a celebratory news conference Wednesday. “We want to educate, we want to restore and we want to heal.”

The crowd cheered as speakers talked of a movement to restore other lands to Indigenous people.

The site — a three-block area Berkeley designated as a landmark in 2000 — will be home to Native medicines and foods, an oasis for pollinators and wildlife, and a place for youth to learn about their heritage, including ancient dances and ceremonies.

“The site will be home to education, prayer and preservation, and will outlast every one of us today to continue telling the story of the Ohlone people,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, adding that their history is “marked not by adversity, but more importantly, by their unwavering resilience as a community.”

Before Spanish colonizers arrived in the region, the area held a village and a massive shellmound with a height of 20 feet and the length and width of a football field that was a ceremonial and burial site. Built over years with mussel, clam and oyster shells, human remains, and artifacts, the shellmound also served as a lookout.

The Spanish removed the Ohlone from their villages and forced them into labor at local missions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Anglo settlers took over the land and razed the shellmound to line roadbeds in Berkeley with shells.

“It’s a very sad and shameful history,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who spearheaded the effort to return the land.

The agreement with Berkeley-based Ruegg & Ellsworth LLC, which owns the parking lot, comes after a six-year legal fight that started in 2018 when the developer sued the city after officials denied its application to build a 260-unit apartment building with 50% affordable housing and 27,500 feet of retail and parking space.

The settlement was reached after Ruegg & Ellsworth agreed to accept $27 million to settle all outstanding claims and to turn the property over to Berkeley. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust contributed $25.5 million and Berkeley paid $1.5 million, officials said.

The trust plans to build a commemorative park with a new shellmound and a cultural center to house some of the pottery, jewelry, baskets and other artifacts found over the years and that are in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Corrina Gould, co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, attended Tuesday’s city council meeting via video conference and wiped away tears after the council voted to return the land.

The shellmound that once stood there was “a place where we first said goodbye to someone,” she said. “To have this place saved forever, I am beyond words.”

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