Returning to What Was Lost and Stolen with Corrina Gould
Defending land rights and preserving tribal culture is difficult for North American tribes, especially for those that do not have sovereign nation-to-nation status with the federal government. The lack of recognition of a tribe’s nationhood as a self-governing entity (as defined by the U.S. Constitution) has been explicitly used as a tool to continue to prevent Native peoples from living on the most desirable lands or protecting sacred lands that have been stolen.
We talk about these issues with Corrina Gould, a celebrated leader and activist of the First Peoples of the Bay Area from the Lisjan/Ohlone tribe of Northern California. She also co-founded the grassroots organization “Indian People Organizing for Change”, which works to defend and preserve sacred Ohlone shell mounds formed over generations.
Corrina Gould (Lisjan/Ohlone) is the chair and spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, as well as the Co-Director for The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women-led organization within the urban setting of her ancestral territory of the Bay Area that works to return Indigenous land to Indigenous people. Born and raised in her ancestral homeland, the territory of Huchiun, she is the mother of three and grandmother of four. Corrina has worked on preserving and protecting the sacred burial sites of her ancestors throughout the Bay Area for decades.
California Indian Genocide and Resilience | 2017 Bioneers panel in which four California Indian leaders share the stories of kidnappings, mass murders, and slavery that took place under Spanish, Mexican and American colonizations — and how today’s generation is dealing with the contemporary implications.
This is an episode of Indigeneity Conversations, a podcast series that features deep and engaging conversations with Native culture bearers, scholars, movement leaders, and non-Native allies on the most important issues and solutions in Indian Country. Bringing Indigenous voices to global conversations. Visit the Indigeneity Conversations homepage to learn more.
Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
Co-Hosts and Producers: Cara Romero and Alexis Bunten
Senior Producer: Stephanie Welch
Associate Producer and Program Engineer: Emily Harris
Consulting Producer: Teo Grossman
Studio Engineers: Brandon Pinard and Theo Badashi
Tech Support: Tyson Russell
This episode’s artwork features photography by Toby McLeod. Mer Young creates the series collage artwork.
Additional music provided by Nagamo.ca, connecting producers and content creators with Indigenous composers.
ALEXIS BUNTEN: Hi, Everyone. Welcome to Indigeneity Conversations. I’m Alexis Bunten, co-host and also co-director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program along with Cara Romero.
CARA ROMERO: Hi Everyone. Today we have part two of a wonderful conversation I had with Corrina Gould, a celebrated leader and activist of the First Peoples of the Bay Area from the Lisjan/Ohlone tribe of Northern California. Born and raised in her ancestral homeland, Corrina is the mother of three, and grandmother of four.
I talked with Corrina about the critical differences between federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes. There are historical and contemporary inequities that those differences present when it comes to defending land rights, preserving culture, and having a sovereign nation-to-nation status with the federal government.
I’m particularly delighted about this conversation between two California Native women. I’m an enrolled citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian tribe, a federally recognized tribe of Southern California. But like many tribes in California, the Confederated Villages of the Lisjhan do not have federal recognition.
AB: Corrina is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a Native American land conservancy in the heart of an urban epi-center.
She also co-founded the grassroots organization “Indian People Organizing for Change” which works to defend and preserve sacred Ohlone shell mounds formed over generations. She’ll be talking today about the efforts to save those shell mounds from development.
CR: So now let’s go to my conversation with Corrina Gould…
CR: Corrina, what has it been like, because you are an activist in the Bay Area. First, can you tell the audience about the shell mounds of the Bay Area? And can you also talk about what it’s been like to try and protect what’s left of your land base without federal recognition?
CORRINA GOULD: So shell mounds are our traditional burial sites, our ceremonial places, our villages. It’s a part of a landscape. And what I like to say is that, you know, we are looking at this climate crisis right now, and everybody’s talking about leaving a smaller footprint on the Earth. Right? And so our ancestors did that. For thousands of years they left this small footprint. Our houses, our boats, our basket materials, almost everything we utilized was biodegradable, went back into the land. Right? My ancestors left few things behind – our mortars and pestles, our arrowheads, our shell beads, and our shell mounds, these monuments that my ancestors created burying our people in the land covered by soil and shell, and over thousands of years grew to be sometimes three story high. And they were devastated by the mass influx of people in the Bay Area, not just the Spanish or Mexican rancho period, but really around the time of the 49ers, and when the United States got here, the Bay Area became this booming place, and they began to level out our shell mounds and to build on top of them.
At that time, you have to remember, we had no laws protecting us. And we have still few laws that protect our sacred places. And so when I started working on this with Johnella LaRose we created Indian People Organizing for Change, but around 1998, when the Internet blew up in the Bay Area, it caused a huge wave of people to move out of the Bay Area, including Native people, because they couldn’t afford it anymore, because people that had made money with the Internet had started outbidding each other for houses and apartments here in the Bay Area, and it caused people to start building more.
And around that time, they started hitting many places that my ancestors were buried at because of that. And we realized that nobody in the Bay Area knew what shell mounds were. People still thought we didn’t exist, you know, Ohlone people were all dead. And it was at that time that Johnella and I started really fighting against the City of Emeryville and other places that were destroying our sacred sites, and really educating our intertribal Native people that lived in the Bay Area, and really getting people to come out and talk about protecting of the sacred and why it was important.
In 1909, this man named Nels Nelson created a map, because back in 1909, before my mother was even born, this man knew that these shell mounds were important places to our ancestors, and he created a map of 425 of these shell mounds that were in the Bay Area, 425 places where there was villages and there were ceremonial places, places that we buried our ancestors at, beautiful landscapes that were being destroyed by development in 1909.
Today we find this development happening in the Bay Area again, this wave of people building and building, using the excuse that there’s not enough housing, knowing full well that the housing that they’re building will not be able to put the people that are on streets in them. The housing that they’re building is because of greed. There is more than enough housing here to house everybody. But in the meantime, they’re taking every inch that’s left of the Bay Area, and they’re destroying it.
Today, you know, I’ve been fighting the destruction of our shell mounds for over 20 years. The Bay Street Mall was built on the largest of all 425. I’ve been in battle with a developer for over four and a half years for our oldest shell mound, the West Berkeley shell mound on 4th and University, which looks like a parking lot today, but it’s the very first place our ancestors lived along the waters where freshwater met saltwater, along that marshy place where it aligns with our sacred Alcatraz Island and aligns with our Western Gate, where people think the Golden Gate Bridge is now. You know, these sacred places and landscapes you don’t see because of the asphalt and the buildings on top of it. We have responsibility and obligations to those sacred places.
And so it’s been a fight to try to do that. And it has been allies and accomplices that have been coming to the side of us to help us to really talk about stopping the desecration of these sacred places. And so it’s really been an education process for the last 20 years, first to tell the cities in the Bay Area that we still are alive, that Ohlone people are still here; second to educate people about what our sacred places is and why it’s their responsibility to help us to save them now that they live on our traditional territory, and as good guests, they should work with the host of whose land they’re on.
And then there’s the other side of it, also having the burden of having to know which development in which city is happening, answering to all of these different developers wanting to consult about it, and if you miss one, you could be in danger of losing something precious.
Prior to our tribe getting onto the Native American Heritage Commission list, there was a development that was approved. And so we didn’t have anything to do with it until they found a body.
And what happened to this grandma was that she was the first body that was found. And we thought she was the only one that was going to be found. And today, they’re literally unearthing anywhere between 50 and 100 of my relatives in order for them to put a development on top of it. So it’s not something that’s in the past. It’s continuing today that we are dealing with this historical trauma that creates issues with our health, that creates problems with our people that is devastating, not just to Ohlone people on this territory, but it should be devastating to everybody that now lives on our lands, that a Native cemetery that is thousands of years old, older than the pyramids of Egypt, can be destroyed so that they can put something impermanent on top of it.
CR: I think that that is the purpose of all of the erasure of our history in schools, our erasure of representation in the media, our dehumanization of California Native Peoples, the lack of federal recognition is all to continue genocide, to continue the great taking of landscape.
And one of the things that we talk about in the South is that people need to be reminded that no matter the amount of development or the amount of time that’s passed since the sacred sites have been invigorated, that those places are not dead, that those places might be dormant but that they can be brought back to life. I would like to talk about the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Can you talk about the founding of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and what it is?
CG: I’d love to talk about the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust because it’s my ancestors’ dream come true, I believe.
There’s a story that I remember of our salmon run that was written in a diary by a Spanish soldier as they were chasing my ancestors. They got to the Carquinez Strait, and it was during a salmon run, and they wrote in their diary that they lost my ancestors but when they looked into the water, that there were so many salmon that they could practically walk across to the other side on their backs.
Now we’ve never seen a salmon run like that in our lifetimes, and wouldn’t it be beautiful and be blessed for us to do that, to have that salmon come home like that.
On the other side of that waterway is Sogorea Te’. It was one of the last strongholds of my ancestors. They didn’t get taken to missions until about 1810, and it was a place– always where a creek meets a saltwater body. And there’s a creek that runs through there, and there were two shell mounds that were there. And for months we had been trying to figure out how to stop the devastation from happening there. And in April of 2011, when the city filed bankruptcy, they gave the park district $30,000 worth of permits for free in order for them to destroy this sacred area. There was eight of us at that time that were on the committee to save Sogorea Te’ – four women, four men, four Native and four non-Native people. And we all looked at each other at the same time and said, “What do we do?” And then we all said, “We have to take it back.”
And we took back that sacred land for 109 days. We had a sacred fire that was lit there by Fred Short who was the Northern California American Indian movement spiritual advisor. And at the same time that that fire was lit, four other fires around the world was lit that stayed going as long as ours did.
On day 99 of that takeover, there was people from all walks of life that came and created a village site there. And of course there was Homeland Security and the Coast Guard off the water and the police department and the fire department all showing up, but people stayed there and we had ceremony together. And it changed us as human beings. We remembered what it was like to live together in a village again, to rely on each other for food and for water, for each person to have purpose and to create their own job that helped the rest of the community.
After 109 days, we left there because the first cultural easement between a city, a park, and two federally recognized tribes was created in the country. It was because we took that stand that that was able to happen. So the Patwin people paid into this cultural easement so that they have the same rights to that land as the park district and the city, and no one entity could ever change the land without the other two’s approval. And so that would save it forever. They had to sign some crazy document saying that no more than 10 Indians would ever gather there again, and that no big drums would be there. And we were angry about that until we realized that we didn’t sign the contract. And so every year, we show up with hundreds of people to do our traditional responsibilities and pray at that site, and pray back those salmon to come home, and working with another non-federally recognized leader in California, Caleen Sisk, who is the chief of the Winnemen Wintu, to do that salmon walk and that prayer run with her every year.
As a non-federally recognized tribe, we don’t have a land base. And so for years we had been praying in front of the Hearst Museum asking for those thousands of ancestral remains to come home. But what if they would come home? Where would they come home to? We have no place to put them back to rest. So this land trust was really about how do we get them home so we could do that. How do we build a place for my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews to come back to the song and the language?
And the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust was blessed a few years ago to get our first piece of land. This had been in the works for years. I had started the campaign to save the West Berkeley shell mound, Standing Rock was happening, and this man named Gavin and his wife Haleh run an organization, an organic nursery in East Oakland, in one of the most depressed parts of East Oakland, half a mile walk from my house, and it’s called Planting Justice. They work with formerly incarcerated men so that when they get out of prison they have a place to go and to have a job. On this two-acre nursery that they have, it runs along the Lisjan Creek, the waterway that we’re responsible to. And they offered us a quarter acre of land on that two-acre plot that was not being used by them at the time, that had transmissions on it and garbage, and we took that land. It was the first land returned to us in 250 years. Johnella worked on that land, and we hired someone else, and transformed that land to grow our medicinal plants and food. And we gathered together and found a place where we could cut down redwoods, and we brought them back to Oakland. And after praying for each of those redwood trees to give their lives so that we can create an arbor on our land.
After a year of working on those logs and then drying, and hundreds of people putting their hands on it, we put up that arbor, the first one in our territory in 250 years. When you walk into it, in the middle of the city to see an arbor standing there, it still takes away my breath.
CR: I very much admire the work that you’ve done to create the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, and I would implore people to find out more about the ancestral homelands that they live on, because throughout the United States, whether it seems that you’ve moved into an area that was empty, I guarantee you there is a rich indigenous history on the lands that you live on, and this is a beautiful way to get involved and help reinvigorate and wake up those sacred sites, and begin to live in reciprocity and re-indigenize, as all human beings in these areas, so that we can find balance. And Indigenous Peoples hold a sacred role to the health of the Earth and the people and the planet and these urban centers.
Protecting sacred sites and defending land rights is especially difficult when a tribe doesn’t have sovereign nation-to-nation status with the U.S. federal government. So Corrina and I shifted our conversation to talk about the kinds of complications that lack of recognition creates. I started by backtracking a bit to my own tribe’s federal recognition, and how that changed the course of not only my tribe’s history, but also our family history.
So our tribe had a very vast land base that was then condensed into a small reservation that wasn’t where the majority of our tribe was traditionally from. And then in addition to that, after the Great Depression, the United States government had what was called the Reformation Act, and they wanted to dam up all the rivers to create hydroelectric energy. And—So in addition to not having federal recognition and kind of trying to survive, the one, condensed land base that we received was then flooded in the name of hydroelectric energy to create energy jobs for the United States. And it took my ancestors many years to reorganize, but not after another suffering. You know, it was another great sadness. We lost our fertile valley. We lost an agricultural area, which to the Native Americans of that time, you know, a recreational lake did not make sense. The settlers had taken everything that was important in the name of development. They flooded the agricultural plains. They flooded out the basket materials. So all the riparian belt, the cottonwoods and the willows that grew in the wetlands along the river, the feeding areas for all of the wild game – the rabbits, the deer – was all gone, and now our reservation was this chunk of salty mesa, basically, out in the desert.
So our tribe didn’t really come back together to gain their federal recognition in the 1960s and ‘70s. There were some cousins that got together. Like I’m sure it was happening all over California, people trying to seek their federal recognition and have a land base.
I think one of the other things that many people don’t understand is this whole era, right, of relocation and termination. And we don’t have to go into all of that here, but I think it’s very important that there were 55 treaties for federal recognition that were not ratified in California. And I think it’s very important for people to understand that many of the tribes that were not federally recognized were in these geographic locations along the Western coast, the ocean-side tribes. I’m sure your tribe was one of those. Can you talk a little bit about the 1950s and how that affected your tribe’s federal recognition?
CG: You know, it kind of went before that, Cara, because we were affected by Dorrington, who was the head of the BIA in 1927. And in 1927, he was given an order by the United States government to provide the amount of money needed to purchase land for homeless Indians in the territories that he was in charge of. And he was an alcoholic. And he did not answer the correspondence coming from Washington, D.C. It was finally a telegram that was sent to him that told him that if he did not answer the correspondence that he would be required to go to D.C. and answer them there. And he quickly penned a letter and said that for all intents and purposes, the Native people from our territory didn’t exist anymore, and so there was no money needed to purchase land for the tribes in our territory.
And so with that, we stopped having government-to-government relationships. We were never terminated as a tribe. But we stopped having communications with—You know, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not do anything for us anymore.
It was during—I think it was later on that some of my relatives – and they were always women that were doing this work, right, started doing this work of trying to get us on that Indian roll, it really was around trying to have that recognition as tribal people. The roll number was about that. It was about really trying to prove we have these connections to our tribal lands, we have connections to our communities and our elders.
There is maybe one tribe along the coast of California that is federally recognized. What happened? Why is it that these mission Indians are not recognized by the federal government?
The Bay land is the most, in terms of Western ideology, it is the richest land in the country. And so why would they want to have Native people have access to that land? So being non-federally recognized has stopped us from having a land base, not having federal recognition, does not put us at the table with the federal government about infrastructure and about creating programs around education and medical. So we have been homeless in our own homelands—since contact now.
CR: I think it’s very important for the audience to understand is with federal recognition comes not only the government-to-government status, this nation-to-nation status, this idea of inherent sovereignty of the tribes which provides protections for religious gathering, which provides land base, and which also provides environmental protections or is supposed to provide environmental protections for things like protecting sacred sites, things like protecting sacred sites from development and resource extraction.
And I hope for the audience, especially our audience members that live along the coast of California, that they can take away from this conversation both the importance of federal recognition and how tribes that are not federally recognized have been affected, and how they can continue to help be protectors of those landscapes, and to acknowledge the ancestral peoples of those homelands, and continue helping them protect their sacred sites and reinvigorate those sacred sites, because while they may not have federal recognition, they very much exist. They very much continue to fight for the rich histories of their landscapes and for the many people and ancestors that came before them, that gifted them the knowledge of the area. So I just implore the audience members that are there along the California coast to learn your true history of those urban epicenters of the California coast, and continue learning how to become good allies to California Native Peoples.
Corrina, thank you so much.
CG: Thank you so much, Cara. I send a lot of love from our people to your people, from my heart to your heart.
AB: We’re so delighted to have been able to have such a wonderful conversation with Corrina Gould. If you didn’t hear part one yet, you can go to our website bioneers.org. And in addition to that episode, you can find other episodes of Indigeneity Conversations there to listen to as well as other original Indigenous media content.
CR: You’ll also learn about the Indigeneity program and all of our initiatives, including curricula and learning materials for students and life-long learners.
Thank you for joining us for this episode of Indigeneity Conversations. It’s been a pleasure to share with all of you today. Many thanks and take care!