The East Bay 'Land Tax' That Supports an Indigenous Women-Led Trust

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A sign outside the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Oakland: 'In November Pay Shuumi Land Tax.' (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

This article includes a correction.

For the past two decades, since the Bay Street Mall was first built on ancestral burial ground in Emeryville, Corrina Gould and fellow Indigenous activists and community members have gathered there to pray the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday.

This sacred site is the Emeryville Shellmound: one of hundreds of shellmounds around the Bay Area.

“Shellmounds are created by my ancestors as ceremonial places and as burial sites,” Gould told KQED in 2019.

UC Berkeley archeologist Nels Nelson estimates that in 1909 there were 425 such shellmounds around the Bay Area — and almost certainly many more that had been worn away by water, time and development.

Gould is the tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, which is one of the many indigenous groups in the Bay Area. She is also the co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust: an urban, woman-led land trust working to “rematriate” land by returning Indigenous land like the Emeryville Shellmound to Indigenous people.

Hundreds of people show up every year at the Black Friday action in Emeryville “for a peaceful prayer gathering and educating the public about the history of that land and the importance of it,” said Ariel Luckey, who works alongside Gould at the Land Trust. “It's been a really beautiful and powerful gathering.”

This year, there will not be an official ceremony at the Emeryville Shellmound due to safety considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Gould has been working for many years to educate young and old alike, in an effort to “come in right relationship” through Sogorea Te', and provide a concrete way for non-Indigenous allies to support this work.

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About the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust

Gould officially established the land trust in 2015 with co-founder Johnella LaRose.

Sogorea Te' refers to the Ohlone name of an ancestral site in Vallejo. It's the place that the pair's first organization — Indian People Organizing for Change — occupied for 109 days in 2011. This action was in protest against the city's plans to pave over parts of the shellmound by developing a recreational public park. The experience "changed me in a physical, spiritual and emotional way," Gould said in a recent talk on colonization, decolonization and rematriation on Ohlone land.

“I believe the Bay Area is magic. I believe that there are so many things that have been created here in the Bay Area — movements, technology and ideas. My ancestors have been putting down prayers on this land for thousands of years,” Gould said during the talk. “As human beings, we are just a bridge between the past and the future.”

Sogorea Te' colleague Luckey said "there are 473,000 acres in Alameda County and less than five of them are owned by Ohlone people.”

The land trust does not yet own land outright, but is actively stewarding three plots in different parts of the East Bay, as part of a broader effort to provide a place where remains, such as shellmounds — which have been kept in museums around the Bay Area — can be returned. "That’s one of the main things this land trust is about: getting those ancestors returned to us and put back into the ground so that we can all heal," said Gould in the organization's mission statement.

Their work also encompasses the cultivation of Indigenous plants and efforts to revitalize Indigenous language and cultural practices.

Gould also emphasizes the importance of it being an Indigenous women-led organization. "What has this history taught us about men being in charge of land? They have done things to the land that is unthinkable," she said in the talk. “Because of colonization there has been an imbalance, and it's time to bring it back into balance."

Shuumi Land Tax: A Way to Give

To support the work of bringing land back in right relationship, the trust invites non-Indigenous Bay Area residents living on Lisjan Ohlone territory in the East Bay to give a Shuumi land tax — a voluntary contribution to support the work of Sogorea Te’. (Shuumi means gift in the Ohlone language Chochenyo.)

Not sure if you're living on Lisjan Ohlone land? There's a map to check (the area includes Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek and Vallejo). If you're not sure how much to pay, the website provides this calculator to make the estimate.

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The organization says the land tax directly supports rematriation, establishing a cemetery to reinter stolen Ohlone ancestral remains and building spaces for current and future generations of Indigenous people.

"Part of it is a way to acknowledge the history and colonization of this land,” Luckey said. “It’s an opportunity to participate in the transformation and healing of history by supporting the work that Sogorea Te' is doing now.”

While activists have been elevating conversations around Indigenous reparations and the "land back" movement for years, the issue has taken on a new urgency after Standing Rock — and the recent Black Lives Matter uprising this summer, which further amplified the national conversation on reparations and racial justice.

Acknowledging the past in a way that is "brutally honest," as Luckey said, in regards to genocide and the colonization, slavery and the "cold-blooded murder that folks committed against Native people" is also an opportunity to highlight the work that Native people are leading in the community.

"Land acknowledgments are becoming popular, more Native leaders are becoming more visible," Luckey affirms. "But there's still a lot of work to do."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Sogorea Te' Land Trust owned land outright, however they are currently stewarding the land.

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