Historic Land Back Victory: West Berkeley Shellmound Returns to Lisjan Nation

After years of struggle, the sacred West Berkeley Shellmound has been protected!

Guided by Corrina Gould, Chairperson of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation and Co-Founder of the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, thousands of activists and allies came together and worked with the City of Berkeley to gain title to the land. This month, by unanimous vote, the Berkeley City Council has transferred title to the Sogorea Te' Land Trust.

The 2.2-acre parcel is the last undeveloped portion of the first human settlement in the Bay Area where, more than 5,000 years ago, ancestors of today’s Ohlone people created a unique way of life at the mouth of Strawberry Creek. It is believed this deal will be the largest and most expensive urban #LandBack victory in California history — and perhaps in U.S. history.

On this episode of Terra Verde (a weekly environmental affairs radio program, co-produced by KPFA and the Earth Island Journal), Terra Verde host and WEA's own Communications & Development Manager, Fiona McLeod, speaks with Corrina Gould about what it took to secure this historic victory, and what’s next for the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site.

Listen to the conversation here.

A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This episode first aired on KPFA on March 22, 2024.

Rematriating the land is about restoring balance in the natural world and about Indigenous feminist activism, says Gould. Photo by Toby McLeod.​
Rematriating the land is about restoring balance in the natural world and about Indigenous feminist activism, says Gould. Photo by Toby McLeod.​

Fiona McLeod 

Welcome to Terra Verde, a weekly environmental public affairs program co-hosted by Earth Island Journal and KPFA. My name is Fiona McLeod, the host and producer of today's show. I'm here today with some very big Bay Area News. Last week, the Berkeley City Council announced a global settlement to purchase West Berkeley's historic Ohlone Shellmound and Village Site, and to pass title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. This is one of the most significant urban land back victories in California history. 

I'm so excited and honored that my guest today is Corrina Gould, Chairperson of the Confederated villages of Lisjan Nation, Co-Founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust — and so much of the heart and spirit and effort behind this effort to save the West Berkeley Shellmound over the last few years, along with an amazing team of allies and activists who who supported that effort as well. 

Welcome, Corrina, thank you so much for joining me today. 


Corrina Gould

Thank you so much, Fiona, it's great to be here. Been a while! I'm so happy to be here with you today.


Fiona McLeod

Corrina has joined the show in the past, and before we got on air, we were reflecting on how the last time we spoke about this topic, it was a different conversation. There was not this update that we just received. So I'm really excited to be here with you now, in this moment. 

I want to start by asking you, how are you doing? The struggle has been going on for over 20 years. And I know that for the past eight years, it's been basically a full time job, fighting against proposed development of the site and lawsuits and court decisions and appeals. How are you feeling now that the settlement has finally been reached?


Corrina Gould

That's the question of the hour, Fiona! It's been a roller coaster of a ride. And I don't feel like I've gotten off the ride yet. I'm extremely happy and extremely tired. I find myself often close to tears at different moments. And, I don't know, relieved. And ready for a party! So it's a lot; it's a mixed bag right now. It's a mixed bag.


Fiona McLeod

I'm sure it is. So as we said, we've spoken about and reported on this story in the past here on Terra Verde, and I just want to remind folks about some of the history of the West Berkeley Shellmound site, where over 5000 years ago ancestors of today's Ohlone people established the first known human settlement in the Bay Area at the mouth of Strawberry Creek. 

When Spanish conquistadors arrived and appropriated the land, the Ohlone were removed from the villages and forced into labor at local missions. Settlers took title to ancestral Ohlone lands, razed the West Berkeley Shellmound and hundreds of other shellmounds and village sites throughout the Bay Area. They appropriated burial remains, pottery, baskets, other artifacts, and developed the Bay Area as we know it. For most of recent history, the two acre portion of the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site that we're talking about today has been paved under a parking lot at 1900 Fourth Street, which local Bay Area people commonly know as Spenger's parking lot. 

Corrina, will you share about why this particular site is of such importance on a cultural, spiritual, ecological level — and what originally led you to this work to free the West Berkeley Shellmound? 


Corrina Gould

Our Shellmounds are burial sites, and where our ancestors were buried along the waters. But this particular Shellmound, the oldest along the Bay on our side of the territory, is a part of our cosmology story. 

If you can imagine, if you've ever been to Berkeley: Spengers is this parking lot, and then there's the railroad tracks and businesses, and then you can finally see the Bay past all of that, past the freeway, right? But if you can imagine, before all of that — before the field was there, before the freeway was there — at this shellmound and this village site (which was much larger than the 2.2 acres of land that we're talking about, we're talking about blocks and blocks around Berkeley in that area that people lived), there was a fishing village. 

That was the first place that our ancestors put our Tule boats into the water, on that particular edge of the waters. It's aligned with what we now know as Alcatraz Island. And Alcatraz Island was an island that was designated for the ancestors spirits’ to reside for four days after they passed away. Our ancestors would have ceremony on the shores that would last for four days: a fire would be lit, and songs and prayers would be had. And at the end of those four days, we believe that the spirit leaves through what we know as the Western Gate, where the sun goes down: what today people know as where the Golden Gate Bridge is. 

So those alignments: from the West Berkeley Shellmound, to Alcatraz, to the Western Gate or the Golden Gate Bridge. These areas were a part of who we were, and what we were supposed to do, and what were our obligations. Those obligations never went away, thousands and thousands of years prior to Spanish colonization, the Mexican Rancho period, the current occupation of the United States government… those obligations have always been there. 

What brought me to this fight? You know, over the last week and a half I began to piece together this web of interventions that the ancestors had all along. I keep saying, “Oh, yeah, and then this person brought this person, and this is how we were able to meet this person.” And all along the way, there have been these interventions: people who have come into the fold of this work, and have created this magic that happened over this time. 

Thousands of people have come in, and stepped onto that 2.2 acres of land and prayed and sang and created art and music and poetry. 

We understood that this was a place that was worth saving, and that we were all called to, to say yes. This journey that brought me here, I think it was a journey that was always here — since I was born. 

But it wasn't until after 2011 — until after the village site takeover, when we were called to do this work again, in this particular way — that we said yes to it. 

Those ancestors kept us going the entire time. They showed us miracles all along the way. There were, of course, things that would get in the way. But there was always some other way out, some other intervention that allowed this brightness to come in and said, “Oh, we're taking you on this journey.” 

At different points of these last eight years, different ones of us were discouraged. But I kept saying, “Now, you know, these ancestors would not have taken us down this way if it wasn't for a win.” It was for them. This journey has never been about me: it's been about all of us remembering our humanity, and remembering connections at a deeper level. It's been a beautiful journey to watch, and to see all of the different interventions that have happened along the way.


Fiona McLeod

Thank you for sharing that. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that path — that as you said, the ancestors brought you along, accompanied you along. What did that path, that has now ultimately resulted in the West Berkeley Shellmound having been returned to the Lisjan Nation, look like over these past eight years? I'm sure it's nearly impossible to summarize 8+ years of very hard work into a few minutes! 


Corrina Gould

I have to just say this: people who have been in Berkeley for a long time knew about this Shellmound because it had been documented by Nels Nelson. There have been other archaeologists that had done work on it that, you know, Stephanie Manning was on the Landmarks Commission when it was landmarked. And Sophie Hahn, who is now a Councilmember was on the Zoning Board at the time. She reached out to Toby McLeod and said that there was this building that was being proposed there, and that we should come to this meeting. Malcolm Margolin was involved at the very early stages. 

We went to this meeting, and we listened to this developer and about what they had planned: big box stores and high-rise condominiums — this horrific idea of what was going to happen there. We submitted public comments about how we were against this development happening, about the Shellmound being a sacred site, about how it was important for us to preserve and protect it. They moved it on, and said that there needed to be more discussion about it. And then we started organizing, and we came together with people. 

It was amazing. There were two committees that were created out of this organizing, right: there was Toby McLeod and Claire Greensfelder and Lenore Goldman, and Chris Walker and Chris Oaks and Stephanie Manning. We met almost every week, over many years. We got our first lawyers, Darcy Hoch, and we organized a campaign and got over 1,800 people that wrote against the draft EIR. The developers had three people who wrote letters on behalf of them. 

It began that way: Zoning Board meetings, people holding up signs, people making public comment, keeping people up until 2am. Then realizing that it was on a landmarked site and going to the Landmarks Commission and doing the same thing: making presentations to them about why it was important to uphold that Landmark designation, and to not allow the dig to happen. 

At one of those meetings, I met this guy Chris Walker. Chris came up to me at one of those meetings and he said, “I'd like to talk to you if I could.” He said, “The developer has this plan. They have a vision, they can show you. You're talking about it, and I could see your vision, but there’s no picture. Can we create this picture together?” I was a little wary, but that was one of those interventions that I was talking about, right? So Chris and I sat down, and we created this idea of what could be there instead. And it was something that people could resonate with. They can understand Strawberry Creek opening up, and this building — that represented thousands of years of people being buried there — with poppies all over it, and a place where people could talk about resiliency and the past. And so that vision, it just took off. 

There was all this research that people were doing, and connections that people had. And so that group of people just kept on meeting and meeting and trying to figure out, how do we do this? And, you know, eventually the developer walked away from the project. We had won in public perception. People who came when we asked them to come and pray with us at the West Berkeley Shellmound, and prayed with those ancestors that remain under that land. 

People from Christian and Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, Tibetans, chanters, Hawaiian singers, Korean drummers, Aztec dancers, Buddhist prayer bringers, all came and prayed together, people that were We were supported by the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP). And we connected that Shellmound — our sacred site — to the sacred site of Mauna Kea, and to West Papua, and to Kashmir, and to Palestine, and to the Run4Salmon and the Winnemem Wintu, and to Oak Flats, and to our relatives in the Antarctic, and to the chiefs that were standing up for the Amazon. That all happened in Berkeley, on this 2.2 acres of land. 

People came together, and they opened up their hearts. And they let everything else go. Our politics may not have matched outside of that sacred site, but when they were there, it was to protect the sacred. And we weren't just protecting the land and the ancestors, we were reminding each other of who we are, and that we can see each other as human beings. That's what this site did: it brought all of these people together in one place, to remember what was really important. 

And I think that the ancestors… This happened in a time of turmoil in this world, with climate disaster, and horrible things happening. We needed hope at this time. And that's what this place told all of us: that this is a time of hope as well. That if we can see something this miraculous happen, other miraculous things are bound to happen. 


Fiona McLeod

I got chills while you were describing those thousands of people coming together. And I was just reflecting on something you said a few minutes ago, about how Chris Walker (the architect) approached you and said, there's this vision, and I can hear it, but people need to see it… Of course we can talk later on about what happened next with the site now that the deal has been reached, but I was just thinking about how the West Berkeley Shellmound site became the vision in real time. It didn't wait until this deal that was just reached happened, to become that place of togetherness and a place of prayer and hope. 

The entire story that you just shared, Corrina, is really just an incredible testament to the power of organizing and activism and coming together. So thank you for walking us through that. 

And just to get a little bit in the weeds: after a settlement negotiation, the previous owners of the Shellmound site agreed to accept $27 million to settle all outstanding claims, and to convey the 2.2 acre parcel to the city of Berkeley, which the city then transferred title of to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. But of those $27 million, $25.5 million were contributed by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, in part through a Shuumi Land Tax donation from the Kataly Foundation. Shuumi is a voluntary annual contribution that non-Indigenous people living on the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation’s territory can make to support this Sogorea Te’ Land Trust’s work of rematriation and returning Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands. 

So, Corrina, the transfer of the West Berkeley Shellmound is one in a series of Land Back deals, and part of a bigger vision for Land Back and for rematriation. There are a number of sites in the Bay Area that the Lisjan Nation has resumed management and stewardship of. 

But I want to stay with that word for a bit: rematriation. Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban, indigenous women-led organization. And the language of rematriation is very intentional. I'm wondering if you will share about what it means, in your perspective, to rematriate the lan? And about the role of Indigenous women's leadership in this movement?


Corrina Gould

Thank you for that. That's a great question. I think we're still trying to figure out our own definition. I think we know what it is, but it hasn't been written out in a way. 

Rematriation is really about Indigenous feminist work, that we can tie to what happened to women when the land was stolen. It is tied to the violence of what has happened to women throughout the centuries, and our traditional responsibilities to be leaders, and to speak for the land, and for those that have no voice. It doesn't mean that we throw away men, right, because we want to bring our uncles and our brothers and our sons and our grandsons and our nephews along with this. But during colonization, they also lost their traditional responsibilities and their sacred responsibilities. And I think that it's the time of the world right now, where women have to take up our rightful position. 

This isn't something that happened in the past. I tell people that all the time: right here in the United States, right here where we're at, they're still taking away women's rights. This is not something that happened a long time ago. 

But when Europeans came to this land, they refused to speak to women leaders. And by default, men had to step up and speak on behalf of entire tribal people. And when they came here, they first took away the sacred. And then they began to rape and pillage women the same way they were doing the land. And that's never stopped. We look at the work of people doing the hard work of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, that is still happening today. 

There's an erasure, but it has always been women's responsibility to bring women and two-spirit, non-binary people to help to facilitate new life coming into the world. And as people are passing, to help them make that transition too. That sacred work: having the songs for the medicine plants, and the waters, and the basket-making materials. That's our work. And that is immense magic. And that is something that we should see ourselves as. 

In this time of climate disaster — and I won't call it change, because it's already changed) — we should see that it is time for us to speak on behalf of all of those that don't have a voice as well, so that we can all survive. We call this Mother Earth for a reason. How can we continue to destroy that which gives us life? And so I think rematriation is about bringing us back into balance, to seeing ourselves as human beings and taking care of our home. 

As women, we are the first teachers and the carers of the home. This is our responsibility, to take our medicine back up again. It is that time again, we need those voices of strong women. And so I call on all of our women relatives to do the same thing. 

I always remind people that when we were in a massive sit time during COVID, we had chances to see those lessons. That the air cleared up, and you could see the sky again. The waters began to clean themselves and dolphins and whales showed up to places they hadn't been for hundreds of years. I mean, right here in the Bay Area, coyotes started taking over the streets of San Francisco again, only because human beings sat down. This world could actually heal herself, if we would listen to those lessons, but we hadn't yet. And so we have to be louder, and we have to be stronger. And we have to stand up for all that is sacred — and not just those with two feet, but those that fly in the sky, and those that pollinate our foods and medicines, and all of the things that we depend upon. 

I think that's what rematriation is about: it’s remembering what our responsibilities are, and taking care of them, as Indigenous women and as women leaders around the world.


Fiona McLeod

Thank you. Speaking of bringing new life into the world, the land at the West Berkeley Shellmound has been given back, but the story obviously doesn't end here. I wonder if you can share about what that vision is for the Shellmound site now, now that it has been returned to the Lisjan Nation.


Corrina Gould

Yeah, that's the next chapter. That's a whole other story! And as much as it's a gift, it's a gift in a whole different way when we look at a capitalist society. Having to buy back your sacred land, for that amount of money, is somebody else's karma. But now it's free, forever. 

And so I just wanted to say thank you, first and foremost, to all of the supporters, those people that those thousands of grandmothers that held off traffic, David Solnit, who did the artwork. The thousands of people that sang with us and stood with us along the way, those that supported our rematriation efforts in all kinds of ways: those who just prayed quietly, wrote letters, called their City Council members to remind them. 

The next part of this dream would be to see this vision, that we all came together to see. We are just about to go into escrow, and that is going to take about a month. And so we're not quite there yet. But the dream of a big party, with music and food and artwork and poetry and prayer and fun. We're going to celebrate this together. And then we'll dream about what's next. 

Because I hope, in this lifetime, to see my grandchildren playing in Strawberry Creek, and along that land again. And we can hope and pray that every fourth grader that has to learn about us will come to that land and learn about the history and the resiliency of our people, and the thousands of people that helped us to get there.


Fiona McLeod

I hope to see that too. Thank you for joining me today, Corrina. 


Corrina Gould

Thank you so much, dear. Take care. 

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