In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.

Corrina Gould speaking at an event at the West Berkeley Shellmound, November 2022. Photo: Brooke Anderson

In March, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust made history. With the help of the City of Berkeley and countless community members, the group of Ohlone leaders was able to rematriate the West Berkeley Shellmound: one portion of a sacred indigenous burial site which lies beneath the pavement of Spenger’s parking lot on Fourth Street.

Using $25.5 million raised by Sogorea Te’ and $1.5 million from its own general fund, the City of Berkeley has agreed to purchase the lot at 1900 Fourth Street. They will soon transfer the property to Sogorea Te’, an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. The city council unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing this purchase on March 12, making Berkeley one of the first cities in the country to return land to Indigenous people.

The West Berkeley Shellmound was once over twenty feet high and hundreds of feet long. It was constructed over centuries and made of abalone, mussels, clamshells, and other materials. Ohlone people buried their ancestors there and built villages around it. It was the largest of over 400 mounds around what we now call the San Francisco Bay, and acted as a hallowed and integral part of the first human settlement along its shores. 

The Shellmound was razed in the 1800s, and these days most of the land is privately owned. The segment at 1900 Fourth Street is the last remaining undeveloped portion of the site.

Now that the site has returned to Indigenous hands, Ohlone leaders will begin implementing their vision for the space. This includes restoring native vegetation, building a dance arbor for ceremonial use, and creating a 40-foot high mound covered in California poppies with a path to the top, as well as a memorial and educational center contained within the mound. 

Corrina Gould is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. We caught up with her to talk about the history of the movement to rematriate the West Berkeley Shellmound, the significance of their victory, and the ties between homelessness and the Land Back movement. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Street Spirit (SS): How do you feel in the midst of this historic victory?

Corrina Gould (CG): You know, it’s amazing that we had to buy back our [own] sacred site. But it’s a blessing that we had allies and accomplices that came forward and helped us. The City of Berkeley stepped forward [to create] an agreement that allowed the land to be returned to the Lisjan People after 250 years of occupation on our land. And that’s an amazing feat for a city to do.

SS: Walk me through a little bit of the history of this movement to rematriate the West Berkeley Shellmound. What were some of the pivotal moments?

CG: I think that we need to start back before the West Berkeley Shellmound, to when we were doing the work of educating the Bay Area about what Shellmounds even were. About [the fact] that we even exist, [and are] still here on our territory.

That work started back in the late 1990s when a lot of development was happening in the Bay Area, because the internet was created. A lot of Shellmounds were being disturbed at that time. So we started doing protests and showing up to different city council meetings, trying to stop desecration of our [sacred] sites.

And eventually in between 2005 and 2009, we created a Shellmound Peace Walk. We walked from Vallejo to San Jose and up to San Francisco, [walking] 300 miles at probably around 18 to 24 miles a day. [We were] stopping at these Shellmounds. We stopped at the West Berkeley Shellmound, we stopped at places that were under railroad tracks and apartment buildings and schools, all of these places that were sitting on top of our sacred sites and burial sites. That education really brought [the] awareness [of] where [those sites] were, and that we were still here.

[Then] in 2016, Standing Rock happened. And [while] Standing Rock was happening, this project came forward to the City of Berkeley through the Zoning Board. [Councilmember] Sophie Han was on the zoning board then, [and she] contacted some mutual friends of mine and said, “there’s this project, I don’t know, I think you should come listen to it.” And we went and found out it was going to [develop] the West Berkeley Shellmound. And we created some committees to [organize] around [stopping] it.

Over the years we have had people from all over the world come and pray at the Shellmound. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Tibetan chanters, Hawaiian singers, Aztec dancers, and Korean drummers have all come. Buddhists have come and prayed at the Shellmound together, and have created artwork together. We had a Farce of July event there. We celebrated MLK day there. So there were multiple times that we had leaders from different Indigenous groups that came and asked permission to be on our territory and asked us to pray for their sacred sites. Our relatives from [the] Antarctic came and asked us to offer prayers for the Antarctic and what was happening up in their territories. Folks from Oak Flats, the Winnemem Wintu. We have offered prayers for people that are facing genocide in Kashmir, West Papua, and Palestine, the weaving of all these different things that are happening, connecting them to our sacred sites. Dohee Lee and a group of migrants and refugee Asian folks that have offered prayers there continuously.

All of these people that have continued to show up in prayer and in solidarity. And shout out to Bay Area for embracing this work together.

Artist rendering of proposed Ohlone memorial at the West Berkeley Shellmound site. Courtesy of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

SS: What was happening behind the scenes? What kind of organizing was Sogorea Te’ doing to actually pull this off?

CG: There were definitely two lead organizing groups, and we had hundreds of meetings. There was one group of folks in Berkeley that had access to Berkeley city council members, [who] were able to open doors to places that I probably couldn’t get into quite frankly, right?

So we canvassed city council members. We set up meetings individually with them to talk about the importance of this. We did this time and time again over the last eight years, meeting with new council members, talking to the mayor, the city lawyer who absolutely took this up as a fight that she believed in.

And then we had another group of people [who were doing community organizing and doing artwork at the site, from the ground up]…a younger crew that I was working with on this site. So there was these two different worlds happening at the same time.

The [artwork] and poetry that came out of the West Berkeley Shellmound was amazing. Molly Jane was the one that branded us with the black bird that we see often on the artwork that’s out there. And then, you know, there was folks that just believed in us, like the San Francisco Foundation, from the very beginning, who gave us funding to pay for paint and for sticker production and for our legal team.

So, it was just so many people who participated.

SS: So what is the meaning of this moment, now that you have won the fight? Why does it matter that Sogorea Te’ is buying this land and returning it to Indigenous community?

CG: I think we all need hope right now. And I think that this came at a very good time that the world is in pain and a lot of our relatives around the world are suffering.

I believe in prayer and magic. And I believe that our ancestors have held us all along this time. Even when it felt like, “oh my God, how are you going to get $27.5 million to pay for your sacred site? And who has the right to own someone else’s sacred place? When you look at how capitalism and heteropatriarchy and war and destruction has changed and hurt our earth, and continues to do that, [now] we have some hope. That we can breathe, and that everyone is welcome at this particular place. I think that that’s what it does. It gives us hope, that we can see that there can be wins. And we need wins right now. I think we all need that. And that’s what this does, it gives us that place to hope.

SS: Street Spirit is a newspaper that most often covers homelessness, but land and who has the right to land and space, and who has the right to survive, is such a big part of that conversation. What do you think about how this movement and this victory relates to the crisis of homelessness here in the East Bay?

CG: I’ve lived in Oakland my whole life, and I’ve never seen it like this before. The ugliness of capitalism has thrown people away.

Look, you know, just a few hundred years ago, here in the East Bay, there was no such thing as homelessness or hunger. That everyone had enough. And there’s still enough, right? Especially in the Bay Area, when it is teeming with resources, there should never be a place where people don’t have a place to rest their head, [or] cook food, or have enough food or water or warmth or coolness.

This makes me sad to see, [in] this place [where] my ancestors lived on without rent, without this idea of somebody else being a landlord. This idea [is] foreign, it came to us from someplace else. Capitalism is actually killing us, and it’s killing the world. And so I look to our relatives in the Pacific that are drowning underneath the climate as the waters rise. How do we make sure that those folks have places as well?

I think we need a revolution of poor people standing up to say that they deserve to be seen, and that they deserve homes, and they deserve food and dignity. And Indigenous people have been standing up trying to say the same thing ever since colonization happened here in Turtle Island.

SS: Is there anything you want to say to Indigenous groups in other places who are trying to do what you all have done at the West Berkeley Shellmound?

CG: Never give up. Always have faith. And join us in April. We don’t have a time yet, but we’re going to have a big party.

(Ohlone) Corrina Gould is the tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan. 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.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.