Berkeley restores Ohlone land to Ohlone hands in largest give-back in CA history

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Thursday, March 14, 2024
Berkeley restores Ohlone land to Ohlone hands in historic give-back
The Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a plan to turn what is currently a parking lot atop a shell mound over to the Ohlone people.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- A tribal dance was held in Berkeley Wednesday morning to mark renewal and rematriation --- or the restoring of the sacred relationship -- between the Ohlone people and the earth.

"We acknowledge and honor the original inhabitants of Berkeley. The documented 5,000-year history of a vibrant community at the West Berkeley Shellmound. And the Ohlone people who continue to reside here in the East Bay," Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told the small crowd in attendance.

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council announced a settlement to purchase the city block at 1900 Fourth Street, which is currently a parking lot, serving the Fourth Street Promenade.

"This is the largest urban land give-back in the State of California to an indigenous tribe," Arreguin said.

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The two-acre site is believed to be part of the first human settlement in the San Francisco Bay Area. The shellmound was human-made mound of earth and place of sacred ceremonies.

"We are celebrating, today, the return of native lands to native hands," said Melissa Nelson to loud cheers. She is Chair of the Sogorea Te' Land Trust.

The land will be handed over to the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, which is planning to convert it back to place of gathering and ceremonies. It will also include an educational facility and museum about the Ohlone people.

"We want to restore the native landscape, daylight the creek that flows through this area. We want to plant native medicines, native foods," Nelson said.

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"We are listening to our ancestor who are knocking hard and saying, 'Yes!'" cried out one of the dancers during the ceremony.

Ruth Orta, an Ohlone Elder and life-long resident of Alameda County, has been fighting for the rights of her people for decades, as her family did before her.

"To honor the native people that we are standing on right here. And that's the sad part. People do not even know that we are here," said Orta, who will be 90 years old in August.

The property owners wanted to build a housing development. But it was blocked by the city, which designated the land as a historical landmark. After years of litigation, Berkeley agreed to buy the land for $27 million.

"We did eventually win a zoning application, but we never had a building permit. And we did not think we would get a building permit," said Dana Ellsworth, manager with Ruegg & Ellsworth. "We wish them well. We wish the trust well. And we are excited to see what's going to happen at the site."

Tribal leaders say this is just the first step. It can take years before work on the new project will begin.

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