Standing Rock comes to Berkeley through work of Native American activist
Ohlone Indian activist Corrinna Gould, member of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan tribal group, is photographed in a parking lot opposite Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley on Feb. 22. Gould is leading a drive to stop a mixed-use development on Spenger’s Fourth Street parking lot. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
BERKELEY — In 1999, as Emeryville looked to develop a former industrial site along Shellmound Street, Corrina Gould was among a group of activists who proposed an alternative vision to the City Council.
“We asked them to leave it as open space, and a place for Ohlone people to come and pray for our ancestors,” said Gould, an Oakland resident and longtime Native American activist. “But this was the dot-com era. There was a big push for gentrification. Emeryville said it needed the money, and so they created what was supposed to be a ‘green’ mall.”
Today, with almost 400,000 square feet of shops, 383 homes, a hotel and a 15-screen cinema, Bay Street Emeryville describes itself as a social hub whose character is “drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play.”
But more than a decade after the center’s opening, Gould remains undeterred, attending Black Friday protests at the shopping center each November to urge people not to shop on the burial grounds of her ancestors. The site once contained the largest Indian shellmound in the Bay Area until its top was lopped off in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, she finds herself embroiled in another battle to preserve an Indian shellmound site from development, this one in nearby Berkeley. A residential-and-retail complex is planned at 1900 Fourth St., on part of the city-landmarked West Berkeley Shellmound site currently serving as a parking lot across the street from Spenger’s Fish Grotto.
Gould, 51, who is Chochenyo Ohlone and has three grown children, speaks often in public about how her culture has been “invisibilized” since the days her ancestors were “enslaved” at Missions Dolores and San Jose starting in the late 1700s. In her day job, working for a nonprofit, she advocates for American Indian students in the Oakland public schools under a federal Title VI grant.
“She has been consistently providing opportunities that are inclusive of people of all faiths to come together and share their grief, hope and respect for the original peoples who lived and still reside in the East Bay,” said Wendy Kenin, a former member of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission.
In the years following the Bay Street mall battle, Gould and her allies opposed, or sought to modify, projects in Brentwood, San Jose, Fremont, Pleasanton and Vallejo, with mixed success.
“We played catch-up for a number of years,” she said. Drawing a lesson from Bay Street, she added: “It was a matter of how do we get there (protecting the land) before that (development) happens.”
In 1999, Gould and a friend, Johnella LaRose, co-founded the advocacy organization Indian People Organizing for Change. In the ensuing years, Gould gradually broadened the movement, teaching Indians as well as the general public, including some city officials, about water and land issues, shellmounds, “reengaging people,” and discussing, “What does it mean to be an American Indian in an urban environment and still have these cultural traditions that you’re supposed to live by,” she said.
Oakland resident Chris Oakes, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, calls Gould “an amazing leader” with “an ability to speak with ferocity.”
“I’ve traveled with her where she has made various speeches and done talks, and the part that never fails to surprise me is the consistency of which she spits pure fire wherever she speaks,” Oakes said. “She speaks in such a way that is hard to ignore and hard to shy away from. Her voice can be soft at times, yet her tone and impact is hard as a rock.”
In 2005, LaRose got the idea to do a shellmound walk, and convened a meeting of activists.
“We sat at a coffee shop and mapped it out in about three weeks, from Vallejo to San Jose, up the other side and across the Bay Bridge, ending up on Alcatraz for Thanksgiving,” Gould said. “We had people from Cape Verde Islands, Australia, Japan, Nova Scotia, and all over the U.S. joining us on that walk. Eighteen miles a day, for three weeks. We camped or stayed in churches, and stopped at each place we knew there was a shellmound, and talked about it and prayed.
“They were just about all desecrated,” she added, “but still we prayed.”
The shellmound walk became an annual event over four years.
She and other Native American as well as non-native activists say the Fourth Street site is part of the oldest human settlement in the Bay Area, going back possibly as many as 5,700 years. Local historian Richard Schwartz has documented more than 400 findings of human remains since the 1870s within the vicinity of the parking lot. Just last year, remains of five individuals were found during trenching work at another project right across Fourth Street.
A 1900 Fourth representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the past year, Gould and her allies have held meetings, circulated petitions, set up the CrowdRise fundraising website Save the West Berkeley Shellmound, and more recently, spoke at public meetings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Zoning Adjustments Board.
On Feb. 2, the landmarks commission recommended that part of the project’s draft environmental impact report be “withdrawn, re-written and recirculated.”
Gould, meanwhile, pitched an alternative vision for 1900 Fourth St. to the commission: an Ohlone Memorial Park. She envisions it with a 40-foot mound, a dance arbor and facilities for learning.
“Corrina’s cultural obligation to honor and protect what’s left of the shellmounds and Ohlone village sites is really inspiring,” said Toby McLeod, director of the Sacred Land Film Project at the David Brower Center, who is working with Gould on the alternative vision. “We have a chance to work under native leadership to restore a sacred site.”
He also drew a parallel to the oil pipeline protest in North Dakota led by Native American activists that has drawn national attention. “Standing Rock comes to Berkeley.”