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Ohlone People Rejoice After City of Berkeley Votes to Return Sacred Land

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Melissa Nelson, chair of the board of directors of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, middle, gestures while speaking at a news conference in Berkeley, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, March 12, 2024, to adopt an ordinance giving the title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women-led, San Francisco Bay Area collective that works to return land to Indigenous people and that raised the funds needed to reach the agreement.  (Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)

Ohlone people and their allies rejoiced Wednesday over the return of sacred native land dating back thousands of years, saying the move righted a historic wrong and restored the people who were first on the land now called Berkeley to their rightful place in history.

The 2.2-acre parking lot is the only undeveloped portion of the shellmound in West Berkeley, where ancestors of today’s Ohlone people established the first human settlement on the shores of the San Francisco Bay 5,700 years ago.

Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ordinance giving the title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a San Francisco Bay Area collective led by women that works to return land to Indigenous people. The collective raised most of the money needed to reach an agreement with developers who own the land.

“The site will be home to education, prayer and preservation, and will outlast every one of us today to continue telling the story of the Ohlone people,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín at a celebratory press conference on Fourth Street in Berkeley Wednesday. He said their history is “marked not by adversity, but more importantly, by their unwavering resilience as a community.”

Arreguín added that he thought it was “pretty absurd” that they had to buy the site to give it back to Indigenous people “when this was theirs all along, and we stole it from them.”


“[I]t’s been a long effort … long, long legal battles, many meetings. People prayed, people protested. But all along, it’s been an incredible community effort. And I’m very grateful that we were able to do this today,” Arreguín said.

Cheyenne Zepeda from the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation said that they’ve been praying and fighting for this recognition for over 25 years.

“We see a huge parking lot that’s been paved over, we’re looking towards the train tracks, there’s also the freeway that’s here off of university, and we don’t see the beautiful ground that it was before, but we will … we will again,” Zepeda said.

The crowd cheered as speakers talked of a movement to restore other lands to Indigenous people. The site — a three-block area Berkeley designated as a landmark in 2000 — will be home to native medicines and foods, an oasis for pollinators and wildlife, and a place for youth to learn about their heritage, including ancient dances and ceremonies, said Melissa Nelson, chair of the board of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

“Thousands of years ago, this site was a thriving … urban center for Native Americans, for California Indians with their beautiful shellmounds dotted all around the bay,” Nelson said. “We want to be a place for global Indigenous leadership to come and gather in solidarity. We want to educate, we want to restore, and we want to heal.”

Before Spanish colonizers arrived in the region, the area held a village and a massive shell mound with a height of 20 feet and the length and width of a football field that was a ceremonial and burial site. Built over years with mussel, clam and oyster shells, human remains, and artifacts, the mound also served as a lookout.

The Spanish removed the Ohlone from their villages and forced them into labor at local missions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Anglo settlers took over the land and razed the shell mound to line roadbeds in Berkeley with shells.

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The agreement with Berkeley-based Ruegg & Ellsworth LLC, which owns the parking lot, comes after a six-year legal fight that started in 2018 when the developer sued the city after officials denied its application to build a 260-unit apartment building with 50% affordable housing and 27,500 feet of retail and parking space.

The settlement was reached after Ruegg & Ellsworth agreed to accept $27 million to settle all outstanding claims and to turn the property over to Berkeley. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust contributed $25.5 million and Berkeley paid $1.5 million, officials said.

The trust plans to build a commemorative park with a new shell mound and a cultural center to house some of the pottery, jewelry, baskets and other artifacts found over the years and that are in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

Corrina Gould, co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, attended Tuesday’s City Council meeting via video conference and wiped away tears after the council voted to return the land.

The mound that once stood there was “a place where we first said goodbye to someone,” she said. “To have this place saved forever, I am beyond words.”

KQED’s Sara Hossaini contributed to this story.

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