An Ohlone vision for the land

“We could share our culture, and let the world know who we are. A lot of the people who visit this part of the world do not even know we’re still here”
—Ruth Orta, Him’re-n Ohlone elder

While standing steadfast against the desecration of the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site, Ohlone leaders have also advanced visions of how the 2.2 acre property at 1900 Fourth Street could become once again the monument to their ancestors that the great shellmound once was—a touchstone through which all people who reside in or pass through the Bay Area could learn about the true history of this land.

“The proposed development is a huge complex that would obliterate anything that we could use as a sacred place,” Chochenyo Ohlone community leader Corrina Gould says. “It’s important for the public to see the opportunity to begin to dream about what it could be other than a retail space and housing.”

To that end, Ohlone people have presented an alternative proposal for how the property, currently covered by asphalt, could be transformed into a natural open space area—a memorial to thousands of years of habitation by Ohlone people in Berkeley and a tribute to their survival today. “We envision a living cultural space—revitalizing cultural traditions, like songs, language and dances,” Corrina Gould says.

In March of 2017, Ohlone matriarchs Ruth Orta and Corrina Gould publicly presented an alternative vision for restoring the land that they developed with the help of Berkeley landscape architect Chris Walker. The conceptual plan includes the restoration of native vegetation, a dance arbor for Ohlone ceremonial use, and the possible daylighting of Strawberry Creek. A 40-foot high mound covered in California poppies is envisioned, with a path spiraling up to the top and a memorial and educational center contained inside the mound. “When people go up to the top they could actually see across the bay, like my ancestors would have been able to see from atop the shellmound,” Gould describes.

Such a distinctive memorial in Berkeley would provide a visibility for the Ohlone community and their history that is otherwise starkly absent. “When you come here to the Bay Area that’s full of thousands of people who are from different parts of the world, nobody knows who the original people are,” Corrina Gould laments. “Nobody contemplates who we are still. The only thing you see is Ohlone Park, Ohlone College or Ohlone Way, but none of those places have anything to do with us.”

Ruth Orta and Corrina Gould present their vision for 1900 Fourth St to the Berkeley Landmarks Commission, 2/2/17 (photo: Tim Lochner)

“It’s important to have this history known. It’s been an erased history—part of the continuous erasure of our people. What if we were to actually have a place where Ohlone people could talk about not only the past, and how we survived a genocide, but the resilience of still being here today? To talk about what it could look like to be in reciprocity with one another living on this land. Wouldn’t that be a great gift, not only to ourselves, but to future generations of people in the Bay Area?”

In any case, it is abundantly clear that this land, with the 5,000 years of memories it contains, is bigger than a place for shops, apartments and underground parking. For Corrina Gould and other Ohlone community members, it’s not only a place for their people to pray and remember, it’s a place that invites all people to remember “our compassion, conscience and civility, to learn to be human again, together.” ☆

Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; [and] the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites. —Article 12, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples