California city returns sacred tribal land to Indigenous people

By Thomson Reuters Mar 13, 2024 | 1:48 PM

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – The city of Berkeley, California, has agreed to hand over to Indigenous peoples a parking lot built atop a sacred tribal ground dating back more than five millennia.

The 2.2-acre site is part of the first human settlement on the San Francisco Bay, according to representatives of the Ohlone people, whose ancestors established a village in the area some 5,700 years ago.

“This is a historic step toward righting past wrongs and embracing a future that honors the diverse history of the entire region,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a statement.

Under the agreement, the developers who own the land will receive $27 million for the property, which will be turned over to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a group that works to return land to Indigenous people.

The trust provided the bulk of the funds after receiving a $20 million grant from the Kately Foundation, a private foundation run by members of the wealthy philanthropist Pritzker family that seeks to empower Black and Indigenous communities. The city contributed $1.5 million.

The deal ends a years-long battle over the future of the site, after the owners sued the city for blocking a planned mixed-use development of apartments and retail shops.

“This is not only the most challenging urban sacred site victory in California’s history, it’s also among the most culturally significant,” Corrina Gould, a tribal leader and co-founder of the Sogorea land trust, said in a statement.

The parking lot is the only undeveloped portion of a larger site known as the West Berkeley shell mound, which the city designated as a landmark in 2000.

Thousands of years ago, the site included a massive funerary shell mound, estimated to be hundreds of feet long and at least 20 feet high, according to Ohlone leaders. More than 400 of the mounds, used as burial and ceremonial grounds, once dotted the bay area but have all but disappeared due to development.

Spanish colonizers removed the people who lived at the West Berkeley site from their villages and forced them into labor at local missions, according to city officials. White settlers took over the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and razed the mound for shells to line roadbeds.

Tribal leaders have proposed transforming the parking lot into an open space area with an educational center and a 40-foot mound with a path that spirals to the top.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis)