These Indigenous women are reclaiming stolen land in the Bay Area

“We want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people.”

Image Credit: Deonna Anderson

On a cool morning in December, Johnella LaRose stands in a 2-acre field in east Oakland, overseeing a group of volunteers preparing a section of this land that the Sogorea Te Land Trust stewards for the arrival of a shipping container. LaRose is dressed to work, wearing jeans and boots that look broken in.

The container will serve as storage for farming equipment, she says, and in case of a natural disaster, as a safe shelter for people to gather, sleep, and access resources.

LaRose is co-founder of the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an inter-tribal women-led organization that is in the final stages of securing nonprofit status. It’s working to acquire access – and ownership – to land in the Bay Area, where Ohlone people have lived for centuries.

Label for buckwheat in the hugel raised bed where the Sogorea Te Land Trust grows plants native to the region. Photo by Deonna Anderson

The goal, says LaRose, is to establish a land base for the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone people, whose ancestral territory includes cities in the East Bay. “The land gives us everything that we need in order to survive,” says Corrina Gould, a Lisjan Ohlone leader and the other co-founder of the land trust. “That’s how people lived for thousands of years on our land and other Indigenous people’s land. … You work with the land so that it can continue to provide, but that you honor that relationship by not taking too much.”

Gould says Sogorea Te plans to steward the lands it has in a way that honors it.

Sogorea Te got access to the land in east Oakland in 2017 through a partnership with Planting Justice, a local grassroots organization that owns the property and uses it to house a nursery of edible tree crops for purchase by community members and others online. The land is also a place where Planting Justice’s reentry work takes place, because the nursery is staffed mostly by people who were formerly incarcerated.

Planting Justice plans to give the deed on the parcel to Sogorea Te – at no cost – in the future. And the two organizations plan to continue to work on the land together. In the future, Sogorea Te intends to purchase land by partnering with organizations who own land and are willing to transfer ownership.

LaRose hopes the lands Sogorea Te stewards will facilitate healing and build resiliency for Ohlone people. When she imagines the purpose the shipping container could serve, for example, LaRose thinks about Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate impacts on poor and Black communities in New Orleans.

As LaRose talks about her hopes, the volunteers build the foundation for the 5,000-pound shipping container. So far, volunteers have dug down 4 inches, removed the dirt, leveled it out, and started hauling gravel to fill in the hole. Once the container arrives, they’ll build it out with a kitchen, deck, and solar panels.

The 2-acre parcel where LaRose and volunteers are working is in the Sobrante Park neighborhood of east Oakland, which has little access to public transportation and grocery stores. It is surrounded by dense rows of apartments and houses. Train whistles and freeway noise can be heard from where LaRose and the volunteers are working.

Sage—called “miriyan” in the Ohlone language – grows in the hugel raised bed. Photo by Deonna Anderson

Near the back fence of the plot runs San Leandro Creek – renamed with its Ohlone name, Lisjan Creek, by the trust. Previous work parties have installed a hugel (short for “Hügelkultur”) raised bed where plants native to the region are growing. A no-till mound of soil and wood chips, Sogorea Te’s hugel has sage, wild onion, and milk weed, each labeled with their Ohlone name – miriyan, ‘uuner, and šiska. The plants are used for ceremony and medicine.

The trust’s vision for this particular plot of land is to create an Indigenous cultural site with a traditional arbor 9- to 15-feet tall, built out of redwoods. The arbor will be a place for ceremony that Ohlone people can pass on to future generations.

Gould says that the Ohlone never lost their connection to the land.

“We’ve been here since the beginning of time, so there continues to be a deep connection to land and how we relate on a daily basis has changed because of colonization,” she says. “It’s really been my generation that’s been able to come out and begin to speak about these horrific issues and to talk truth to history.”

Sogorea Te comes from a history of Ohlone people working to gain recognition and access to land in the Bay Area. The name Sogorea Te is the Ohlone name of a site in Vallejo, California, where a cultural easement fight took place in 2011. LaRose and Gould’s first organization, Indian People Organizing for Change, was involved in reoccupying the territorial site for 109 days. During that time, together with the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes, they recreated a village site with a sacred fire and stopped development of a sacred site along the Carquinez Strait.

Owned by the nonprofit Planting Justice, the east Oakland plant nursery is planned to be transferred to the Sogorea Te Land Trust once the mortgage is paid in full. Photo by Deonna Anderson

The occupation led to the first cultural easement agreement among a city, a park district, and a federally recognized tribe. Gould says the easement allowed the tribe to have the same rights to that land as the other entities.

LaRose and Gould say they began Indian People Organizing for Change in 1999 to address issues relevant to their community, including homelessness and protection of sacred Indigenous sites. All of these issues, they say, are rooted in the same problem: dispossession from their people’s ancestral lands.

The issue of land return is particularly important for the Ohlone people who for centuries have had no land base and have been politically and economically marginalized. Today, the Ohlone are not on the list of 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

Ohlone life changed dramatically when Spanish military and civilians began to encroach on the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1700s.

Colonizers raped and forced Ohlone people into labor, brought diseases such as small pox and measles, and dispossessed Ohlone people of their lands.

Ohlone people survived and continued to live in that region, which today is one of the densest and most expensive metro areas in the U.S.

In 2015, LaRose and Gould established Sogorea Te Land Trust. It was another step in the work they’d already been doing to restore cultural access to ancestral lands.

Planting Justice and Sogorea Te Land Trust staff use this work area to store equipment, sell plants, and conduct portions of trainings. Photo by Deonna Anderson

Gould says they hope the land trust will allow Ohlone people for generations to come to reengage the land in the way that it was and has been done traditionally. That looks like bringing back traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies back to the land “and to try to create a balance.”

The idea behind establishing a land trust, which was sparked after Gould attended a meeting with existing Native-led land trusts in 2012, was for these Indigenous women to create a land base for their community.

“When you follow the rules, man, you’re not going to get anywhere,” LaRose said. “You really just have to really be brave and just put yourself out there and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen. This is what we’re going to do.’”

So far, the largest lot of land that Sogorea Te has access to is the quarter-acre in east Oakland.

The organization Planting Justice purchased that plot in the fall of 2015 as an additional location for its food justice work, with a low-interest loan from the Northern California Community Loan Fund and individual donations from community members. The nonprofit already owned land elsewhere in the East Bay.

Volunteers from the group Manhood Embodied moved and leveled gravel at the plant nursery stewarded by Sogorea Te Land Trust in east Oakland. Photo by Deonna Anderson

In November 2016, its founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi drove North Dakota to join the #NODAPL protests in Standing Rock. On their way back to the Bay Area, they started thinking about their relationship to the land and their role in the Indigenous people in their own community.

Raders said both he and Zandi were aware of the history of colonization and genocide that happened to Indigenous people in California. But during their conversations with Indigenous elders, they began to ask themselves what it meant for Ohlone people to not be federally recognized and have no land base.

“I’m not really sure how this is going to look, but we want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people,” Raders remembers thinking.

Diane Williams, a friend of Sogorea Te’s founders who worked at Planting Justice, connected the two organizations in hopes that they’d work together in some capacity.

After numerous months, members of the groups, including LaRose, Gould, and Raders, finally met in August 2017 and officially started their partnership in fall 2017.

Trichostema grows in the back section of the land shared by Sogorea Te Land Trust and Planting Justice in east Oakland. Photo by Deonna Anderson

At that meeting, Sogorea Te learned that Planting Justice still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on the mortgage but that when it was paid off, the organization wanted to sign the title over to the land trust, “which was a real surprise to us,” LaRose says.

That’s the first piece of land that the land trust was given to steward, with a verbal agreement between the organizations that they’d share it and work in cooperation with one another.

“It’s clearly understood by the Planting Justice board and the Sogorea Te Land Trust that this is a partnership that’s going to continue,” says Raders, a Planting Justice co-founder, who notes that his organization is committed to transfer the land to Sogorea Te ownership no matter how long it takes to pay off the mortgage. From there, the trust will establish a lease agreement with the organization so it can still have operations on the 2-acre parcel.

Planting Justice considered putting a cultural (or conservation) easement on the site, one that the Land Trust would manage, but it couldn’t because it is still paying off the mortgage of the land. Raders said the mortgage holders did not allow Planting Justice to move forward with an easement in case the mortgage did not get paid in full.

“Conservation easements last forever, no matter who owns the property in the future so those restrictions still run with the land,” said Sylvia Bates, director of Standards & Educational Services at the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization.

Johnella Larose points out the soap root plant that grows in the hugel raised bed. Photo by Deonna Anderson

In a scenario where an entity owns or is stewarding land with a conservation easement, the organization is obligated to make sure those restrictions stay in place. The mortgage holders did not want to deal with that possibility.

LaRose and Gould say that they’re figuring it out as they go along and are open to all the possibilities of acquiring land. “I don’t think that there’s one way that we’re looking at it,” Gould says. “We’re just trying to figure out, ‘how do we do that?’ and we’re bringing people along with us.”

In addition to the land in east Oakland, the trust stewards five plots of land throughout the Bay Area where they grow native plants and gather for ceremony.

Sogorea Te is also now in talks with an organization about land in Sonoma County. And in March, LaRose and Gould caught wind of a couple of vacant lots in Oakland that they might want to take into their care.

The organization doesn’t yet own any of these parcels, but they hope to soon.

Passionfruit grows along a section of the back fence on the land shared by Sogorea Te Land Trust and Planting Justice. Photo by Deonna Anderson.

In partnership, Planting Justice and Sogorea Te continue to work on the land together, as Planting Justice pays off the mortgage on the 2 acres in east Oakland and Sogorea Te raises funds to buy other parcels in the east Bay. Planting Justice plans to give the land to Sogorea Te once the mortgage is paid off. From there, Planting Justice will continue to operate on the land with a lease from the land trust.

LaRose said she’d really like someone with the resources to come in and give them the money to pay off the mortgage in full.

“Weirder things have happened,” she said.

One way Sogorea Te is raising funds is through the Shuumi Land Tax, a tax that the land trust has been implementing since 2016. It’s a voluntary tax for people who live on Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land, encompassing two dozen cities that make up most of the East Bay.

It was modeled after the Honor Tax that the Wiyot people started in Humboldt County, California. And there are other groups running similar taxes, like Real Rent, which encourages Seattleites to make rent payment to the Duwamish Tribe.

The Shuumi Tax is based on how many rooms people have in their home and whether they rent or own. As the value of a person’s home – or of rental costs – increase, so does the tax.

“But a lot of people give a lot more money. A lot more money but it’s this idea that you’re really paying for the privilege of living on Ohlone land, occupied land,” LaRose said. “It’s like reparations of some sort.”

Bins of sage and other plants in the back quarter-acre of a plant nursery stewarded by Sogorea Te Land Trust. Photo by Deonna And

In 2018, KALW reported that the land trust received $80,000 from 800 contributions in the previous year.

The tax funds have been used for staff, office costs, and supplies. And in the future, they will be used to buy and maintain lands that are under the land trust’s stewardship.

Back at the Planting Justice site, two hours have gone by and the volunteers’ work is almost done for the day. Their last big task begins when the contractor brings another truckful of gravel. Volunteers spread out this new load until it’s level.

LaRose says volunteers and other community members are always thanking her and the Sogorea Te team for doing this work.

“But I’m like, ‘we have to do it.’ It’s not like we want to do it,” she said. “We have to do it.”


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