by Jewelle Gomez and Inés Ixierda
As people grow more open to discussion of the exploitation that is the history of this country, it’s become clear that the contemporary landscape is dotted with reminders of the colonialism and racism that have suppressed the cultural expression of Indigenous people. Removal of statues and other monuments to oppression are a necessary step to creating a healthy, balanced nation. We’ve seen the shadow that ubiquitous Confederate monuments have thrown over the lives of African Americans. They also provide rallying points for believers in ‘the Lost Cause’ of the institution of slavery.
Political uprisings of recent years have shown a variety of multi-racial approaches in responding to monuments to racism using strategies ranging from grassroots organizing, ballot measures, to direct actions to remove statues, names of institutions and reclaiming public space. Removing anti-humanist monuments is necessary for real democracy.
Concomitant with that work it is vital to support efforts by Native American tribes and Indigenous people to restore the cultural heritage that undergirds the healthy growth of any community. There are many places in which the lives and accomplishments of Native people might be commemorated. Tourists and sports enthusiasts are often surprised by the tribute found on King Street in San Francisco Giants ballpark. Embedded in the sidewalk are 104 bronze plaques engraved with the remaining known words of the Rammaytush language spoken by people Indigenous to the area realtors now call Mission Bay. Like many representations, the content of the installation has been reconsidered by some as time passes, The accuracy of the translations has been called into question, as has the appropriateness of tributes that are trod on by pedestrians.
Back east Sachem (Chief) Massasoit of the Mashpee Wampanoag was revered for his peaceful welcome of the colonists who invaded the U.S. The state of Massachusetts was named for him, however, there appear to be fewer than three monuments to that actual Founding Father in the entire country. In New Mexico, which is home to 19 sovereign Pueblo nations, the dismantling of monuments to colonial rule continues after decades of protest. The word
‘savage’ was scratched out of the marble on the Soldier’s Monument in Santa Fe which honoured Civil War Union soldiers who battled ‘savage’ Native tribes. Then, in 2020, on what has been called Columbus Day, October 12, demonstrators celebrated as they toppled the offending obelisk.
Across the country these monumental removals recognize the modern impacts
of historical and contemporary inequalities. On Indigenous Peoples Day 2020,
five Indigenous and two-spirit protesters were arrested in a demonstration in
which a statue of a Juniperro Serra was toppled at Mission San Rafael in Marin
County. As the statue of the notorious mission founder fell one of the women
was reported to have yelled “This is for my mother, this is for my grandmother.”
All five are facing felony charges.
In the face of these ongoing challenges and beyond the physical monuments of
brick and bronze, Native communities across the US are developing projects
that contribute to the reconnection of Native people with the land and culture
that has fed them for a millennium. Revitalization of cultural practices and
lifeways are emerging across Indian Country. Several years ago, a Wampanoag
scholar who graduated from MIT, Jessie Little Doe Baird, used a Christian
bible published in the Wampanoag language in 1663 as a kind of dictionary to
recreate her language and started a reclamation project which holds language
classes and other programs. Native food and plant knowledges, sciences, and
land care practices are re-emerging across Indian Country and urban
Indigenous areas as the Indigenous people continue to return to their
Back in what is now known as California, the Ohlone and Miwok made their home along the Pacific Coast for thousands of years despite the colonizing domination by the Mission system in the 1700s which violently destroyed homes and enslaved tribes. In that time, there was no concept of homelessness, the land was all free. While nations in other parts of the country were given treaties and land none of the treaties made with California tribes was passed into law and many of the Ohlone were deprived of Federal recognition giving their descendants little legal recourse for fighting off development and rebuilding their world.
While some nations were successful with treaties, none of the treaties made
with Californian tribes were enacted. As a result, tribes like the Ohlone were
deprived of federal recognition, leaving their descendants with little legal
recourse for fighting off development and rebuilding their world. Realizing this,
most went into hiding.
Fueled by the Gold Rush, California’s statehood was founded on genocide that
decimated the Indigenous population. Indigenous villages, Sacred Sites,
Shellmounds and burials were razed for development. It was centuries later that
the first laws attempting to include Indigenous people in what happens to
Indigenous cultural and ancestral remains went into effect. In the Bay Area, this
meant that when the tech boom led to massive redevelopment, disturbing
countless cultural sites and burials, Sogorea Te’s founders started getting phone
calls about the burials. And the Ohlone and Intertribal people started organizing to
In 2011 a grassroots group, Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) led a
prayerful take over and reoccupation of a sacred site at Sogorea Te’, known today as Glen Cove, in a 109-day encampment to protect it from development. Led by Corrina Gould (Confederated Villages of Lisjan) and Johnella LaRose (Shoshone Bannock/Carrizo), the direct action resulted in an easement, sparking the idea of using a land trust as an entity to access land for urban Indigenous people. As working Indigenous single mothers, activists and organizers in Oakland, they had long dreamed of a way to return land to intertribal and Indigenous people in the East Bay, and above all, the people whose ancestral land it is.
Gould attended a land trust conference and connected with a few other Indigenous people… but overall the “alternative land” uses were a continuation of the old boys’ clubs. They needed something different.
In 2012, Sogorea Te’ Land Trust was formed as an urban Indigenous women led land
return entity. A land trust is an organization that takes legal stewardship of property to
protect it and can be in charge of management and maintenance of natural resources or housing or other community purposes. Land trusts may be private or municipal in nature and often create protections that stay with the land in perpetuity. Forever.
The Bay Area is second only to Los Angeles in the number of Native Americans who make their home here, and most do not own or have access to land of any kind. While the land trust
has access to land for gardens and ceremonial uses, they do not currently “own” any land and without federal recognition, local tribes couldn’t protect the land without traditional ownership deeds. Local governments are emergently co-operative in part because this area has the most expensive real estate market in the country. But of course, for every element of work on the land there are municipal and state fees to be paid, permissions to be asked.
The first piece of land was rematraited by Planting Justice and returned through easement access in East Oakland, right along a waterway of Gould’s ancestors. Here at Lisjan, the women began building an arbor, a ceremonial site and prayer space for Ohlone people, which is the first in centuries. They’ve also begun planting tobacco, echinacea and vegetables and developed language classes and cultural revitalization efforts. They are working to build alternative land bases, sovereignty, and wellness for urban Indigenous people.
While this work is based in the territory of Huchiun, the trust is collaborating with other nations to build land return and Rematriation movement resources. The Land Trust wants to help other Indigenous people establish access to land. Those interested in pursuing the land trust dream need to become familiar with their local land use regulations and rules, survey the parcels of land to discover who holds them and to understand the tax base of the
“properties.” In addition, environmental research is vital to be certain the land is suitable for sustainable planting.
Legal consultation is also crucial. Sogorea Te’ collaborates with Sustainable Economies Law Center which is a legal collective that offers collective and people-centered approaches to help navigate the tangle of laws that must be faced. Any group embarking on a land trust project would need to engage with some legal consultants, real estate research and engagement with local regulations. While this can seem daunting, there are resources available and new strategies and approaches in fields of legal and property studies are
emerging around Indigenous land return.
A unique support for the land trust’s work is a voluntary honor tax called “Shuumi” paid by supporters and allies. Beyond a mere charity donation, Shuumi specifically recognizes there is a living legacy of colonization and asks allies to engage with this history and support Indigenous led land work. The land tax goes directly to support the Sogorea Te’s rematriation work. In addition, as a nonprofit, Sogorea Te’ operates under numerous grants. Funding is an element of the project that has to be considered by anyone considering a similar work and wherever you are, engage the tribal people whose land you are on.
Sogorea Te’ is fully cognizant of the historic undermining of the prosperity of Native nations. The Mission system claimed Indigenous land and enslaved its people in ways that have made it almost impossible to create ‘generational wealth,’ that is land or funds to be passed down as inheritance. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the problems from hundred years are also the problems of right now. Tribes are still working today to protect the local remains of ancient Shellmounds which are sacred burial places from developers determined to dig up Native American remains turning sites into commercial properties.
Where the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has planted and built people are given a place to mourn, ancient medicines are grown and the butterflies come back. The philosophy behind the Trust’s work is to be not accumulative but rather transformational, utilizing small land parcels around the area to empower Indigenous residents. This work is seen by the Collective members as a part of a personal healing journey as well as a path to learning a different way of being in the world.
Recognition of Native people and land acknowledgements at the opening of events and meetings is significant but it is only a start. Mere acknowledgement without action or connection supports erasure. Healing historic harms requires tangible steps towards real transformation. Ultimately, non-native people and projects need to begin shifting access to resources and actually return land.
And it’s beginning to happen. While some monuments are falling, others are being built. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is among those creating living tributes to Indigenous peoples survival, resilience, and hope. Its tangible, everyday practices offer a glimpse into the possibilities of repair, rematriation, and Indigenous led futures.
This piece was created through online conversations between Jewelle Gomez and members of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust for the Dismantling Racism in Public Art Toolkit by Barbara Mumby.
Contributions to this piece were made by Sogorea Te’ Land Trust members Inés Ixierda, Nazshonni Brown And Vick Montaño.
Photographs by Inés Ixierda.
She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; two California Arts Council fellowships and an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission.
Her fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals. Among them: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; Ms Magazine, ESSENCE Magazine, The Advocate, Callaloo and Black Scholar. She has served on literature panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and the California Arts Council.
Inés is an interdisciplinary Mestizx artist and media maker with a background in youth
work, decolonial nonprofit administration, and community organizing. She leads STLT’s
art and media engagements, coordinates projects, organizes events, and works on the
land with plant medicines.
Nazshonnii is a STEM educator and mechanical design engineer working on both land
and office projects. She is passionate about STEAM education and advocates for
exposure and opportunities for underrepresented groups, especially Black and Native
Born and raised in the village of Huchiun, “so called” Oakland. Victoria, Yaqui/Mexikah, is
a two-spirit visual/digital artist, Po scholar, and creator behind “Land Acknowledgements are not Reparations” graphic. They are out on the land cultivating traditional medicines.