Rethinking Public Space: Land Repatriation As Decolonization

Land theft, genocide, rape, murder, cultural annihilation; the grievance agenda of Indigenous people is a long one rampant with multigenerational historical trauma.  For many tribal communities, it is crystal clear that self-determination through land protection and acquisition is fundamental to the future and preservation of Indigenous people and culture.  What we witness in North Dakota is an important reminder that land theft remains a viable tool for the state to get their hands on Indigenous land.   

Rethinking how we use public space as sacred space versus real estate space is central to the mission of The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, “an urban Indigenous women-led community organization that facilitates the return of Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone lands (also known as California’s East Bay Area), to Indigenous stewardship.” Today, in cities like Oakland and its surrounding area, displacement due to gentrification has erased the histories of neighborhoods that have historically been home to poor people of color.  Unfortunately, Indigenous peoples’ history is frequently, if not always, erased in this narrative. Johnella LaRose and Corrina Gould, founders of The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, see land trusts as a way to repatriate land to Native people and encourage others to consider their responsibility to Native people.

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust raises money through a volunteer tax called a Shuumi.  The Shuumi Land Tax asks non-Indigenous residents to make an optional annual contribution to directly support the land trust’s work; a commitment to preserve land, establish a cemetery to reinter stolen Ohlone ancestral remains and build a community center and a roundhouse for current and future generations of Ohlone people and their neighbors to use.  No amount of money will undo the violence or compensate for the genocide of Native people but this country has a substantial karmic debt and this is just one way that they can work to help pay it off. It is an opportunity to heal from the legacies of colonialism and genocide, to remember different ways of living, and to do the work that our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.

Guided by the belief that land is the foundation that can bring us together, Sogorea Te’ calls on us all to understand that earth has literally evolved with human intervention and it needs humans to survive and thrive. The Shummi lays the groundwork for understanding how the past has influenced the present and is a small way to acknowledge this legacy and contribute to its healing. Through the land trust they remind the people living in the East Bay that they are not in America, but on Ohlone land where Indigenous people have lived before many of them arrived on this land.  

Securing land through community-controlled trusts speaks directly to the material needs of Ohone people who have witnessed violently shifting landscapes as once sacred space has become private space through real estate and European concepts of property.  They ask their community to take responsibility for the wrath of their own ancestors while re-imaging the way we use land to benefit everyone, not just Native people.

Native history is marked by continuous loss of control over land and resources. It is the reason water protectors have waged resistance against hundreds of years of genocide and colonialism. Not being in control of the land, or not being able to protect it, underscores the importance of land and resources for Indigenous people. Private land policies are as evil today as they were four centuries ago. Public space is being developed and exploited everywhere we look. If we do not begin to look at the land as regenerative and strong and long lasting beyond our own existence earth will be broken beyond repair.  

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