People gathered at Joaquin Miller Park on Thursday for an announcement of an agreement between the city and an Indigenous group to place a nearby plot of land back under Native control. Credit: Amir Aziz

The city of Oakland plans to return five acres of Joaquin Miller Park to permanent Indigenous control, in one of the first cases of a municipality giving land back to Native people.

Under the proposed “cultural conservation easement,” Oakland would retain ownership of the designated area, but the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust would have nearly full control over the use of the land, for cultural, environmental, and educational uses, in perpetuity. 

“This is a way for us to take this land and reimagine what it might have looked like,” said Corrina Gould, co-director of Sogorea Te’ and tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, at a press conference Thursday. 

“We have a vision of a place in the hills that overlooks our territory, that holds us in a basket. It’s a way for us to tell our story as Lisjan people, and to engage our relatives from all walks of life into stewarding this land,” she said. 

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust was founded in 2015, by Indigenous women who’d been working for many years on efforts to facilitate the return of native and sacred urban land in the Bay Area.

The plan to return the Joaquin Miller site has been in the works since 2018, when Mayor Libby Schaaf first met with Gould after watching the documentary “Beyond Recognition.” Schaaf asked Gould if she saw opportunities for giving land back in Oakland. Sogorea Te’ members searched for a culturally significant location and zeroed in on Sequoia Point off Skyline Boulevard, which features a flat, paved overlook with an expansive view of the city and bay, as well as a thick grove of trees. 

“Today we are letting healing begin,” said Schaaf at the press conference, held at a shady spot above Joaquin Miller Road. “Today is the day when we acknowledge the harm that government and colonialization has done to the first people of this land. The original sin of Native genocide that happened right here on this land was just the beginning of additional exclusionary laws and acts that have happened over generations.”

City officials and Sogorea Te’ members pose with the rendering of the structure that the land trust envisions for the site. Corrina Gould and Mayor Libby Schaaf stand directly on either side of the display. Credit: Amir Aziz

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, City Councilmember Sheng Thao, whose district includes Sequoia Point, will host a community meeting on Zoom with the land trust, to discuss the proposal. Eventually, the plan will require City Council approval. 

“When I was first shown this by Corrina Gould, my jaw dropped,” Thao said. “Not just because of the beauty, but what it means to give land back. This is just the beginning.”

At the event, Gould unveiled a rendering of a structure envisioned for the site, designed to look like an inverted Ohlone basket. Gould said the only remaining baskets used by the Ohlone people are owned by the British Museum.

Other ideas for the land include seasonal ceremonies, replacing invasive plants with species native to the area, and opening an educational center, Johnella LaRose, co-director of the land trust, told The Oaklandside.

The area will continue to be open to the public, and the hope is to make it a comfortable place for many people and communities that may currently feel unwelcome in the hills or the park, LaRose said.

“People don’t know this exists, then when they come, they’re profiled,” said LaRose, who’s Shoshone Bannock and a member of the Ute tribe.

The agreement between Oakland and Sogorea Te’ comes at a moment of increasing calls for reparations in the form of property returned to Indigenous peoples. The United States Army and white settlers waged a genocidal war against California’s tribes in the mid-1800s. One of the primary goals of this state-sanctioned violence was to steal land for gold mining, agriculture, and building settlements and cities. Surviving Native peoples have carried on cultural traditions and have increasingly asserted their rights to the land since the 1960s.

At several points throughout the press conference Thursday, community members led a call-and-response chant of, “Land back!”

Gould said she and her collaborators began working on “sacred site protection” in the Bay Area at a time when most residents were unfamiliar with even the terms Ohlone and Lisjan.

“Who knew that 20-plus years later, the land would start to come back to us in bits and pieces,” she said. 

Part of the Sequoia Point property is a flat, paved lookout over the bay. Stretching alongside it is a thick grove of tall trees. Credit: Amir Aziz

While nonprofits and land trusts have been facilitating land returns to Native groups for some time, this appears to be the first time a city is giving public property back, said Brendan Moriarty, who manages the city’s real estate and is working on the easement. He said the agreement will include protections against future city leaders reversing the deal. 

“We may come and go, but the property rights are forever,” he said.

After publication, The Oaklandside heard from several readers who pointed out that the city of Eureka also gave a 200-acre island back to the Wiyot tribe in 2019, making that city the first to voluntarily transfer land back to Native ownership.

Darin Ranelletti, Schaaf’s housing policy advisor, said that deal differed from the Oakland agreement in that it occurred through a federal trust process, whereas Oakland’s approach will “convey land rights directly to the land trust.”

The city will retain the right to go on the land in an emergency, such as a wildfire or red flag day, and can help manage the property. 

Schaaf noted that the city could eventually sell the land to Sogorea Te’, but said that would be a bureaucratically complicated process.

The easement plan has been widely embraced so far, said several people affiliated with the project, including the chair of Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, a group that works on preserving and improving the land.

“We couldn’t be more delighted with this—they’ll be wonderful neighbors,” said Dale Risden, noting that the land trust shares the Friends group’s mission of environmental stewardship. 

Because Oakland is the first city to pursue this process, Gould said she hopes the agreement will serve as a “blueprint” for others.

“My hope is land back all over California, everywhere,” she said.

This story was updated after publication to note that the city of Eureka previously transferred land back to a Native community as well.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.