The Lisjan people have lived in the territory of Huchiun since the beginning of time.
The Lisjan people have lived in the East Bay since time immemorial. For thousands of years, hundreds of generations, the Lisjan people have lived on the land that is now known as the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area. We did not own the land, we belonged to it. Generation after generation, we cultivated reciprocal relationships with the plants and animals we shared this place with and developed beautiful and powerful cultural practices that kept us in balance.
The Lisjan are made up of the seven nations that were directly enslaved at Mission San Jose in Fremont, CA and Mission Dolores in San Francisco, CA: Chochenyo (Ohlone), Karkin (Ohlone), Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Delta Yokut and Napian (Patwin). Our territory includes 5 Bay Area counties; Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa and San Joaquin, and we are directly tied to the “Indian Town” census of the 1920’s and the Verona Band.
The colonization of this land began with the reign of terror inflicted by Spanish soldiers and missionaries who sought to convert all Indigenous people into Catholic subjects of Spain and steal their land. The Missions were plantations, built by slave labor and sustained through brutal physical violence and extractive land practices. The Spanish brought deadly diseases, invasive species and Christian ideology based on human dominion of the natural world with devastating consequences for the Lisjan people and all living beings they shared the land with.
We have survived over two centuries of genocide and colonization during the Spanish, Mexican and American eras. Today, we continue to inhabit our ancestral homeland, fight for our sacred sites and revitalize our cultural practices.
After a brief but harrowing Mexican rancho period, Lisjan survivors faced extermination policies of the United States that aimed to eliminate California Indians entirely. In a climate of malicious racial discrimination and state-sponsored vigilante killings, most Lisjan families survived by isolating themselves and concealing their identities. Cultural and spiritual traditions were forced into dormancy or secrecy, and much knowledge perished with the passing of generations. Mexico won its independence from Spain and gave away huge swaths of land to soldiers in the army and our ancestors became enslaved at ranchos of Peralta, Bernal and others, creating adobe houses for those that were soldiers and their families. while living as slaves on the ranchos. America then won a war against Mexico and created a new kind of terror in our lands. A terror of extermination. The new State of California paid soldiers, ranchers and miners to kill native people, $5 a head and $0.25 an ear. During this time, our ancestors hid out, many of them in a place called Pleasanton today. In a tiny area called “Indian Town” made up of the native people that had left Mission San Jose. They went to work on ranches and newly created townships. We were named the Verona Band, made up of those that had been baptized at Mission San Jose. This Indian Township was near the Phoebe Hearst Family ranch and a train station named Verona which is where the historical name the Verona Band is derived from. The last round house in our area was at this place. Despite these concerted efforts to erase our history and identity, the Lisjan community forms a diverse and vibrant constellation of nations and families. Utilizing a wide array of survival strategies to navigate a profoundly altered 21st century world, we continue to revitalize our cultural practices and uphold our responsibilities to protect and care for our ancestral homeland.
Sacred Shellmounds Around the Bay
Shellmounds are sacred burial sites of the Ohlone and Coast Miwok peoples. They are considered by Ohlone people to be living cemeteries, places of prayer, veneration and connection with the ancestors. “Shellmounds are places where we laid our ancestors to rest,” Corrina Gould explains. “We actually buried them in the soil and then covered them with shell and then more soil. As the years and centuries went by, these mounds grew larger and larger. They became monuments to the people that lived here in the Bay Area.”
As settlers flooded into the San Francisco area during the Gold Rush, the leveling and desecration of shellmounds began, clearing the way for development. Noticing the rate at which the mounds were vanishing, an archeologist from UC Berkeley named Nels Nelson worked to create a map in 1909 of those which remained. His map identified 425 distinct shellmound sites ringing the San Francisco Bay. Today, only a handful of those remain in a natural state. Most lie buried beneath parking lots and buildings.
“Every single time I go to a shellmound, it eats a little bit away from who I am just because I see that there’s absolutely no respect for who we are as Ohlone people, or who our ancestors were, or anything that happened on this land prior to America being created.”—Corrina Gould, Spokesperson of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan
No Federal Recognition
Officially “unrecognized” by the U.S. federal government as a tribe, the Confederated Villages of Lisjan have no reservations or protected land bases and receive none of the rights, benefits, compensations or protections afforded to Indian tribes under U.S. laws. The Lisjan have no access to federal scholarships or housing grants, and grossly inadequate protections of cultural, burial, and sacred sites.
Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) policy requires unrecognized tribes to undergo an exhaustive and costly “Federal Acknowledgment Process” by submitting thousands of pages of evidence to prove who they are, at the expense of the tribe. The BIA criteria for recognition requires tribes to demonstrate an unbroken continuity of leadership, tribal culture and organization— woefully ironic, since historically, U.S. policy deliberately sought to dismantle that very continuity. The requirements of this process are so onerous that achieving recognition is virtually impossible, especially for tribes whose ancestors were enslaved in the California Missions. Of the eight petitions submitted by Ohlone tribes since 1988, not one has led to approval.
“For me, it does not matter whether or not this government recognizes us. My ancestors recognize who I am, and who we are supposed to be right now. And so, this work is for them.”—Corrina Gould, Spokesperson of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan
The Emeryville Shellmound and the Bay Street Mall
In 1997, corporate developers were unearthing hundreds of Lisjan ancestoral remains at the Emeryville Shellmound to begin the construction of a giant new shopping mall. Located on the edge of the Bay at the mouth of Temescal Creek, this ancient shellmound was once the largest of all, standing 60 feet high at over 350 feet in diameter.
Although the Emeryville site had previously been bulldozed and desecrated, countless ancestors remained interred in the soil— some intact and others gravely disturbed. The site had been occupied for 70 years by industrial facilities including a paint factory, a cannery and an insecticide plant, which leached toxic wastes into the soil. In the midst of a redevelopment boom, the City of Emeryville received funding to clean up the property, which was deemed a contaminated brownfield. In the gruesome scene that unfolded, untold numbers of ancestors’ remains, saturated with industrial toxins, were disposed of via incineration at hazardous waste facilities, and many more were collected and piled in a mass grave on site.
“Emeryville broke my heart,” Corrina Gould recalls. Ohlone people, concerned archeologists and other community advocates vehemently campaigned for the preservation and restoration of the site in a manner that would honor its immense cultural significance and recognize the ancestors buried there. Siding with developers and the promise of increased tax revenues, the Emeryville City Council voted to pave over the entire 19-acre site to construct the Bay Street Mall. Every “Black Friday,” the busiest shopping day of the year, the local Indigenous community holds a protest at the mall, educating shoppers and asking them to take their business elsewhere.
Although the Emeryville fight was a traumatic and painful period for Ohlone people, it was also a galvanizing experience in which many new relationships were formed between local activists and tribal members, strengthening the overall movement to protect Lisjan sacred places.
The Shellmound Peace Walks
Outraged by the ongoing desecration of shellmounds by developers and the striking lack of public awareness about Ohlone people and their sacred sites, Indigenous activists Johnella LaRose and Corrina Gould were inspired to start the Shellmound Peace Walks. With the aid of Nels Nelson’s 1909 map, they set out to pinpoint the locations of the shellmounds and create a route by which they could walk as a group to each site, to pray with their ancestors in an act of spiritual pilgrimage.
2005 Shellmound Peace Walk
In 2005, the first Shellmound Peace Walk threaded its way through the Bay Area, starting in Vallejo at Sogorea Te’, proceeding south to San Jose, and then up the western shore of the Bay to San Francisco— a 280-mile journey that took three weeks to accomplish. The walkers were joined by Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks from Japan and supporters from the local community and as far away as Australia, Nova Scotia and the Cape Verde Islands.
“It was an incredible journey,” Corrina Gould recounts, “trying to figure out where my ancestors were, trying to figure out how we were supposed to protect them, and trying to figure out: how do we educate the Bay Area about what’s right here underneath them?” Each day, in addition to the act of walking and praying at each site, the walk would bring many people together over food and conversation. “We talked about our inherent responsibility to do what is right on behalf of the ancestors and those to come,” Gould explains, “really feeling like we are that bridge between the past and the future.”
The Shellmound Peace Walk continued for a total of four consecutive years, each time covering new territory and visiting additional monument sites. The collective act of walking and praying with the ancestors at each location was both healing and transformative, and each year it created a larger and larger network of people who were ready to advocate and fight on behalf of the Ohlone and their ancestral places. In this way, it laid a groundwork for protective actions to come.
Direct Action at the Village of Sogorea Te’
Spiritual re-occupation of the Karkin Ohlone village of Sogorea Te’ (Glen Cove), 2011
Denied their Indigenous rights, silenced by the law, and dismissed by developers and governing authorities, Ohlone people have often been forced to take matters into their own hands through outspoken community organizing and, at times, direct action. Read about the Reawakening of Sogorea Te’ to learn how this activism was a seed that grew into the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.
West Berkeley Shellmound: An Ongoing Struggle
The West Berkeley Shellmound, at least 5,800 years old, is the oldest Shellmound in the Bay Area. Located along Strawberry Creek, which now runs through a culvert underground, the Shellmound remains a place of prayer for Lisjan people, despite being covered by buildings, asphalt, and a railroad. In 2016, while trenching for a new retail development, the remains of ancestors were unearthed. Despite the call of Lisjan leaders and community members to halt all development, the owners of the land are pushing forward. Currently, the City of Berkeley and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan are in a protracted court battle to protect the Shellmound.
“We’re saying, enough. Stop. This is not just cement, this is a place that was intended by our ancestors’ ancestors to be here for us for all eternity, to put down those prayers.” Corrina Gould, Spokesperson of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan
Learn more about the ongoing campaign to Save the West Berkeley Shellmound.
Indigenous Sovereignty in the 21st Century
We are in an ongoing process of recovery from the impacts of Spanish, Mexican and American policies of slavery, extermination and forced assimilation. The violent and profound disruptions brought by colonization have destroyed our balance in the world with devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of everyone who lives here. Faced with social, ecological and spiritual crises everywhere we look, we are envisioning what work to do, what path to take to bring us back into balance.
Although there are many valuable ways to support our struggle for sovereignty, one issue stands out as paramount: the need for rematriation, returning Indigenous land to Indigenous people. There is an urgent and profound need for today’s Indigenous communities to regain land bases within their traditional territories—land that can form a foundation for continued healing. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust was created as a means to establish a land base in the unceded Lisjan territory.
Sogorea Te’ Land Trust envisions life in the Bay Area in which the Chochenyo language and Ohlone ceremonies are an active, thriving part of the cultural landscape, where Chochenyo names and Ohlone history is known and recognized, and where intertribal Indigenous communities can gather, pray and practice their spiritual and cultural traditions. We seek to heal and transform the violent legacies of genocide, colonization, and systemic racism that continue to impact our urban Indigenous communities. We are doing the work our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.