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'We Have a Vision': East Bay Ohlone Tribe Looks to Future as Oakland Announces Landback Plan

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a group of people of Native descent pose near a poster board at a press conference
Sogorea Te' Land Trust co-founder and Lisjan Ohlone Tribal Chair Corrina Gould (standing next to the sign, wearing a black face mask) and family members pose for a photo with Oakland officials alongside a poster showing a mock-up of the structure the trust hopes to build on the Sequoia Point site. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

On Thursday, the City of Oakland announced plans to return about 5 acres of Joaquin Miller Park to the East Bay Ohlone, which would make Oakland the first California city ever to turn over part of a municipal park as part of the Indigenous Land Back movement.

If approved, the site known as Sequoia Point will be co-stewarded by the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, a women-run nonprofit, and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, an East Bay Ohlone tribe, through the creation of a cultural conservation easement. Under that arrangement, the city will retain emergency access to the land but grant the trust the right to use it in perpetuity for natural resource restoration, cultural practices and public education.

For Corrina Gould, Lisjan Ohlone tribal chair and co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, the announcement is the culmination of nearly five years of planning and conversations with the city.

"We have a vision of a place in the hills that overlooks our territory, that holds us in a basket as we offer prayers, a way for us to tell our story as Lisjan people," said Gould at a press conference announcing the plans. "A way for us to engage our relatives from all walks of life into stewarding this land in the way that it should be stewarded again."

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Representatives from the trust said they're in talks with planners and architects about what the site might look like, including options for a public education component, such as space for workshops about Ohlone heritage and culture and the Indigenous Land Back movement, a growing effort to return stolen land to the descendants of Indigenous people who inhabited it for millennia.

a poster board showing a mockup of a gazebo
At a Sept. 8, 2022,  press conference, Oakland officials and members of the Sogorea Te' Land Trust shared a mock-up image of a structure the trust is hoping to build at the Sequoia Point site. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

The land transfer must still be approved by several committees, including Oakland's Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, and the City Council. City Council Member Sheng Thao, who represents the district in which Sequoia Point is located, will host a community meeting on September 13.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she expects the City Council's approval by the end of the year. Returning the land to Native stewardship, said Schaaf in a statement, is a way to "offer some redress for past injustices to Native people."

"I hope the work we are doing in Oakland with the Sogorea Te' Land Trust can serve as a model for other cities working to return Indigenous land to the Indigenous community we stole it from," she said.

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Land transfers to Native American groups have made headlines in recent years elsewhere in California. In January, the San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League bought a remote 523-acre plot of redwoods on the Lost Coast and transferred ownership to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, or Sinkyone Council, which includes members of 10 federally recognized tribes in Mendocino and Lake counties.

But Sequoia Point would mark a notable outgrowth of the movement into a densely populated city — one of the first times municipal urban land has been returned to a Native group in the U.S.

Gould said that for Native people, an announcement like Thursday's is just the beginning.

"I really want to lift up that the city of Oakland is the first one to do this," she said. "And I'm hoping that we can use this as a blueprint for other cities that say, 'We can't do this.' There are other tribes around California that want this to happen ... they can use this as an example: Yes, it can."

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