Living On Ohlone Land — What We Learned From Indigenous Women Leaders

SURJ Bay Area
SURJ Bay Area Blog
Published in
9 min readSep 3, 2017


By Micki Luckey and AJ Pluss

Left to right, Anne Marie Sayers (Mutsun Ohlone), Ruth Orta (Him*re-n Ohlone, Bay Miwok and Plains Miwok), Corrina Gould (Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone), Chief Caleen Sisk (Winnemem Wintu). Credit : Christopher McLeod

August 2017

The following is a slightly edited version of a report on the recent event “Living on Ohlone Land.” We delivered the report to the Base Building Committee of SURJ Bay Area. It is written from the perspective of white settlers who live on Ohlone land. Below, we describe the “Living on Ohlone Land” panel discussion, interspersed with our reflections on what we learned from it.

Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe chanted to greet the Ohlone as their Chief Caleen Sisk presented a basket and large feathers to Corrina Gould, who responded by placing a necklace around Chief Caleen’s neck. Pua Case, who came from Mauna Kea (Hawaii’s Big Island), offered a song of introduction that delivered a powerful statement of solidarity with the native women on the stage. Ann Marie Sayers from Indian Canyon led prayers to the four directions, with the help of her daughter, Kanyon, who then offered a song to the grandmothers. Moderator Desirae Harp closed the event with a beautiful song. These songs and prayers in their native languages created moments that gave authenticity and transcendence to the August 6 panel on Living on Ohlone Land.

Subtitled Indigenous Women Leaders Discuss Building Reciprocity With Local Indigenous Communities, the panel gave plenty of historical and current information. The panel took place August 6, 2017, in Huichin/Oakland. It consisted of Corrina Gould (Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone), Ruth Orta (Him*re-n Ohlone, Bay Miwok, and Plains Miwok), Ann Marie Sayers (Mutsun Ohlone), Chief Caleen Sisk (Winnemem Wintu), and moderator Desirae Harp (Mishewal Wappo, Diné). It was organized by the Ohlone Solidarity Organizing Group to “to dive deeper in not only acknowledging Indigenous people’s presence here, but to also practice being in respectful, reciprocal, and appropriate relationship with local Indigenous communities in N. CaliforniaWe are always in relationship with Indigenous peoples by living in, organizing, and producing events on their ancestral homelands…Organizations whose work is grounded in social justice or environmental protection have a distinct obligation to integrate local Indigenous communities and issues into their mission.” (From the Facebook page Living on Ohlone Land.)

Each member of the panel is a recognized Indigenous leader who has invested her life to work with organizations to protect their communities, environments, and sacred sites.

  • Corrina Gould has worked for over two decades to preserve and protect Ohlone Shellmounds, the ancient burial sites of her ancestors. She is a cofounder of Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC), which sponsored the Shellmound Peace Walk 2005–2009 and currently works to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound. She has also led the campaign to collect a Shuumi Land Tax in order to return land to Indigenous people through the Sogorea Te Land Trust.
  • Ruth Orta is an elder who has been involved with the Ohlone Gathering at East Bay Regional Park District for the last 24 years. Her living family spans five generations: She is a mother of seven, grandmother of 17, great grandmother of 37 and and great, great grandmother of sevens. Her message: “we are still here.”
  • Ann Marie Sayers has established Indian Canyon, the only recognized California Indian Country in the California coastal region between Santa Barbara to the south, and Rohnert Park to the north, as a safe haven for Indigenous peoples and a place for ceremony and education. As Director of Costanoan Indian Research, Inc., she works to restore ownership of cultural heritage to Native Americans and to educate government officials regarding Native American ways and rights.
  • Caleen Sisk, the Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, came from the tribe’s home in the mountains of Northern California to describe the importance of water protection and their work to restore their salmon runs on the McCloud River. The Winnemem Wintu have worked very hard to oppose the raising of Shasta Dam, a fight that is ongoing. Chief Caleen emphasized that water connects her community with tribes in the Bay Area since all of Northern California is one watershed. She explained that Mt. Shasta and Mauna Kea are connected and part of a worldwide chain of sacred mountains, and also described cooperation with Indigenous people in New Zealand to save salmon species.
  • Desirae Harp of the Mishewal Wappo tribe from the central coast of California and a descendant of the Diné Nation from the Southwest is a singer/songwriter, cultural bearer/activist, and teacher. She sings with Audiopharmacy and founded the Mishewal Ona*staTis language revitalization program.

To discuss how organizations can build relationships with local Native people into their regular work and to deepen our understanding of settler colonialism and confront Indigenous erasure here on Ohlone Territories, the panel was asked to address two main questions:

  1. What is the best way to acknowledge Indigenous peoples?
  2. How can people help Indigenous peoples’ organizations and campaigns?
Credit: Christopher McLeod
  1. What is the best way to acknowledge Indigenous peoples?

Answers to this question emphasized protocol. From their first introductions, panel participants repeatedly modeled the protocol they use to identify themselves and stressed its importance. Participation is based on recognition both of each other as people and of the land we are on. They ask that when we introduce ourselves, we give first and last name and tell where we come from, identifying features of the land like mountains and water sources. This expresses our knowledge of our relationship to our land and respect for our natural environment. For many of us that means learning more about the land we live on and its history. If we don’t already know, we need to learn about the Indigenous peoples whose territories we live, move, and travel on. (See links at the bottom of this article to learn more). We are asked to acknowledge the people behind us and the people in the future (without taking up too much space or being culturally appropriative in providing this information — we need to be aware of context, it’s not one size fits all!) Of course we want to find out who the Indigenous people we are meeting are, their language, their place, their knowledge and expertise. We need to come with respect and humility, and ask for reciprocity in the relationship. Protocol is a part of the recovery that is needed, not just a formality. Protocol conveys more than what you are, it also expresses the respect you feel.

At our follow-up discussion with SURJ Base-Building, one of this blog’s authors, Micki, shared with participants what learning about Indigenous protocol meant to her:

I came up with the example of when I went to the occupation at Sogorea Te (Glen Cove, near Vallejo.) I just showed up and said, “Hi I’m Micki,” walked around, briefly met a couple of people, and gave money. It was basically like when I visited Occupy Oakland downtown. Given what I learned from the panel, I can ask, HOW WOULD I DO IT DIFFERENTLY. In advance of my visit I would learn either through phone calls or web sites who might be there and what they need. I would introduce myself fully and take time to learn the name(s) of people I talk with. I would ask about their relation to the land and share a bit about mine. I would bring food and other items that I had learned would be useful, such as flashlights, batteries, or dishes. I would welcome future connections, either by repeated visits or learning if they would be coming to Oakland.

To practice this with the Base Building Committee of SURJ Bay Area, we had people turn to their neighbors to introduce themselves and tell where they live or have lived, the Indigenous peoples whose territory it is, and if they know Indigenous names for the land, mountains and water. Given more time, people can also describe the current organizing that tribes in their area are doing.

One part of protocol is the land acknowledgment that we use to open our meetings. Land acknowledgements have become a practice throughout Turtle Island, mostly by groups doing racial justice work. They are much more common in Canada than the US. The article “Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements” by âpihtawikosisân gives some important background and thoughts on land acknowledgements that complement what we learned from the panel. With the practice of land acknowledgements, we have an opportunity to name and respect the people whose territory we meet and work on, disrupt dominant narratives that invisibilize Indigenous peoples, and “center Indigenous priority on these lands” (âpihtawikosisân). As we have learned from Indigenous peoples, it is also important to honor the earth that sustains and nourishes us, and recognize our relationship to this land as uninvited guests. As a practice we do weekly, we have identified that land acknowledgements are a space for ongoing education, both for the person who prepares to speak as well as the meeting attendees. We try to work against any tendency for the practice to become rote: some Indigenous people critique acknowledgements if done just to check off a box or if they become repetitive. Here is our synthesis of lessons learned about the practice of land acknowledgements from the panel and âpihtawikosisân’s article:

  • If done in a group of settlers, acknowledgement should encourage reflection and discomfort in speaker and audience.
  • Speak in present tense when referring to Indigenous peoples. Saying “this was once Ohlone land” or something similar can suggest that Native people are not living today and can uphold the normalization of settler colonialism.
  • Recognize that settler colonialism is ongoing. Examples of this range from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline to Ohlone peoples’ current fight to save the West Berkeley Shellmound from desecration and development.
  • Learn from Indigenous people’s writings, websites, etc.
  • Tie acknowledgement to action. This last practice may be the most important one. In our meetings we try to research current campaigns and upcoming actions led by Ohlone people or other Indigenous peoples and announce them at meetings. Action can go deeper than this. As mentioned above, building relationships with Indigenous people, as well as other non-Native accomplices, is an important piece of action.

The second question was, how can non-indigenous people help indigenous people’s organizations and campaigns? In their answers to this question, the Indigenous women indicated that their ongoing work and campaigns described above offer many opportunities for people to help. They stressed that offers to help should not create more work for communities already stretched to the limit! Therefore it is important to ask what they need and what we can do for them. It may be as simple as bringing our own rake and work gloves for a visit to Indian Canyon. There is always a need for money and sometimes a need for bodies to attend meetings and events — or to block the bulldozers if it comes to that.

In our follow-up meeting with SURJ Bay Area’s Base Building Committee, we asked people to turn to their neighbors to describe what next actions they would take. We also provided a list of suggestions:

  • Give to the Shu’umi land tax and encourage our workplaces and organizations to do so.
  • Join the Run for Salmon.
  • Work against the enlargement of Shasta Dam
  • Spend a day helping out at Indian Canyon with your family/coworkers/friends/students/etc. For more information and how to arrange this, go to the Indian Canyon Life website.
  • Interrupt the colonial narrative whenever possible: Send letters to the newspaper, attend alternatives to “Columbus Day” and Thanksgiving (such as Thangs Taken at La Pena in Berkeley), protest celebrations of Missions.
  • Learn about Indigenous history and current organizing from Indigenous sources. Show and discuss films about sacred sites. Study and learn the history of the genocide of Native Americans in our area.
  • Last and certainly not least: Oppose development at the West Berkeley Shellmound.

Upcoming events:

Friday, Sept. 8, 3–4pm: Prayer ceremony at the W. Berkeley Shellmound — 1900 4th St., Berkeley

Sept. 9 to Sept. 23: run4salmon from Segorea-Te to the McCloud River

Wednesday, Sept. 13: Rally on the steps of Berkeley City Hall on M.L.K. blvd. for the 10th anniversary of the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Thursday, Oct. 26, 7pm: First of three lectures on the Shellmounds at the Hillside Club in Berkeley.

Kudos to the organizers of “Living on Ohlone Land.” The event raised close to $9000 from ticket sales and donations. More than that, it gave the audience a time to reflect on our own roles, responsibilities, and motivation to participate and take actions now and in the future.


Watch “Living on Ohlone Land” here:

To find out whose land you are on: — Great resource with information about much of North America — Map showing traditional communities and languages throughout the Bay Area



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SURJ Bay Area Blog

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