Hank Herrera (at right) has a vision of how to be with the land – something ancient that can be reclaimed for the future.
It’s something he’d like to offer the University of California Board of Regents.
“Native people stewarded the land. They did not own land,” says Hererra. His Native American ancestors, the Ohlone, lived along the coast from San Francisco Bay south to the Salinas Valley for over 10,000 years before the first Europeans arrived.
He’s molded this ancient way of being with land into something that can be a pathway to a more just and sustainable future.
The idea is a Stewardship council, combining indigenous people and local community members, together with the university in a model for common land governance. It’s an approach to joint stewarding land, especially public land.
“The university could become a world leader in how to steward land,” he explains. “Private land owners could also use this model.”
The land in question is the Gill Tract Farm, an agricultural area that is the last open parcel of “class 1” soil in the urban East Bay. The original agricultural area was around 100 acres, yet today all but one-tenth has already been developed. This last remaining bit is now scheduled to be paved over for commercial development, including a Sprouts supermarket, a parking lot and a for-profit senior housing complex.
For almost 20 years, community members have struggled to preserve this remaining slice of land as a center for sustainable agriculture. During 2012 and 2013, the land was occupied by community activists in a movement that came to be called Occupy the Farm. About 200 activists tilled the land and planted multiple vegetable gardens in an attempt to preserve the Gill Tract Farm. A lush community farm remains active on the south end of the land today.
The seed of Herrera’s vision was planted as Herrera took part in the Occupy the Farm movement. The police repeatedly told protestors “You are trespassing. This land belongs to the University of California”.
“I kept turning over this thought in my head, ‘how can I be trespassing on land that my ancestors lived on for thousands of years?’” Herrera recalls.
That seed took root and grew into a sacred ceremony at the Gill Tract Farm, to honor the land and the ancestors who lived there for thousands of years. The gathering was convened by the Indigenous Land Access Committee (ILAC) – a group of Ohlone and other native people who “envision reclaiming land stolen from native peoples, honoring the land, honoring the ancestors who stewarded this land for millennia, and restoring spiritual and cultural lifeways in solidarity with indigenous people on every continent harmed by colonization” as expressed in the mission statement on their website.
The ceremony began the evening of Sunday, October 11 (just before October 12, Indigenous People’s day, aka Columbus day) and continued for two and a half days, until participants were removed by police at 6 am Wednesday morning. There were no arrests. (Image above from Wednesday afternoon, October 14, shows the remains of the ceremony circle.)
“It was a ceremony, not a protest or occupation,” explains Herrera, “The focus was on a reverential attitude and understanding our connection to the land. That feeling really came through.”
According to Herrera, there were about 60 people participating in the ceremony at its height, most of whom had not been in ceremony before. “There was reverence for the land, the ancestors, the future,” Herrera recalls.
“Through this ceremony,” says Herrera, “we are calling for the recognition of this land as Ohlone territory, and its preservation as a space for restoring indigenous cultures and practices, including the reclamation of lifeways and foodways on the land that our ancestors called home.”
“We’re not asking for them to give us title,” says Herrera, “When we use the word reclaim, we don’t mean take land from people”.
Rather, indigenous people are asking for a recognition that this land was lived on by their ancestors. The joint stewardship model proposed to the University by Herrera and the ILAC is one that draws on the indigenous concept of shared caring for the land and ancient indigenous practices that stewarded this land called California so well for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
This model of Native peoples reclaiming their roles as expert stewards of the land through cooperative Native land trust partnerships is already taking root and growing in other places. The Maidu Summit Consortium and Conservancy (a non-profit group representing the Maidu peoples of Lassen and Plumas counties) are seeking to form partnerships with local groups also focused on protecting land. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (part of the Ohlone peoples) is collaborating with the American Land Conservancy and the Sempervirens Fund (California’s oldest land trust) to steward land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
It’s a model that can open new pathways toward sharing and stewarding land.
To learn more about this model, the Indigenous Land Access Committee, and the ongoing struggle to save the Gill Tract Farm – as well as to offer support – please visit the ILAC website indigenouslandaccesscommittee.weebly.com and the Occupy the Farm website: occupythefarm.org
Dianne Monroe is a writer, photographer and Life Path mentor. She lives in Sonoma County, CA and is part of Transition Sebastopol. To learn more about her work and read some of her essays visit www.diannemonroe.com.