Berkeley Returns Land to California Tribe

After a protracted legal battle, the city is returning a sacred site currently used as a parking lot to the Lisjan Ohlone

By Native Science Report staff

A Google Street View image of the parking lot. Once the site of a 20-foot-tall shellmound, the 2.2 acre parcel will be used for ceremonies and native gardens.

In an encouraging reversal, a parking lot will be converted to a sacred site in northern California.

The historic deal to return the 2.2-acre Berkeley site, consisting of a parking lot and otherwise undeveloped land, to the Lisjan Ohlone following a years-long campaign occurred in mid-March, amid much celebration.

“The City of Berkeley and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation joined together to right a historic wrong, resulting in the rematriation of our oldest Shellmound and Village site to its original people,” said Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Lisjan Nation. “This is not only the largest urban sacred site victory in California’s history, it’s also among the most culturally significant for the Lisjan people.”

The site originally was a ceremonial and burial site hosting a 20-foot-tall mound of shells the size of a football field. The mound was razed around the turn of the last century, and the shells were used to line Berkeley roadbeds. Now the area will be a place for Indigenous youth to learn about their heritage and traditional dances and ceremonies, and serve as an oasis for pollinators and wildlife as well as Native medicine and food.

“The site will be home to education, prayer and preservation, and will outlast every one of us today to continue telling the story of the Ohlone people,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín at a celebratory press conference in Berkeley about the March 13 agreement. 

The legal fight over the three-block parcel started in 2018 when the land owner, Reugg & Ellsworth LLC, sued the city over its denial to allow the Berkeley-based company to construct a 260-unit apartment building with associated retail space, according to the Associated Press.

This month’s agreement involved a $27 million payment for the land to the foiled developers. The City of Berkeley contributed $1.5 million and $25.5 million came from the Sogorea Te Land Trust, which will hold the land title. Like the matrilineal Lisjan Ohlone and the campaign for the return of the sacred site, the land trust is led by women.

The effort benefited from a $20 million contribution to the land trust from the Kataly Foundation, thanks to a voluntary annual contribution by non-Indigenous people living on historically Ohlone land to support the return of ancestral land to the Indigenous community. 

The Ohlone lived in the coastal Californian Bay area, from Vallejo in the north to Carmel in the south, for thousands of years before being decimated first by the Spanish inhabiting the area and then by the Americans who claimed it from Mexico. The seven nations that had been enslaved at the Spanish missions comprise the Lisjan Ohlone: Chochenyo (Ohlone), Karkin (Ohlone), Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Delta Yokut and Napian (Patwin).

Story published March 27, 2024

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