March 16, 2022

People Saving Places: Corrina Gould and the Protection of the West Berkeley Shellmound

All around us, people are saving historic places. Whether they are community activists, grassroots advocates, architects, or formally trained preservationists, they each bring with them a passion for the past and a drive to protect the cultural heritage all around us. During Women’s History Month—and as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History—we are interviewing five women who illustrate the many ways we can protect historic spaces. In this interview we hear from Corrina Gould, the chair and spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, who has been advocating for the protection of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a sacred site of the Ohlone people located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Corrina Gould (Lisjan Ohlone) is the co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women-led organization uses the practices of rematriation, cultural revitalization, and land restoration to create a “thriving community that lives in relation to the land.” Her life’s work is centered around the protection of native cultural heritage—from language to traditional cultural practices along the waterways—as an ever-present resistance against invisibility, and a reminder that Indigenous people have “always been here.”

A critical piece of this work, and one of central importance to Gould, is raising awareness around the desecration of sacred sites—called Shellmounds—in the Bay Area. For the past five years, Gould has advocated for the protection of the West Berkeley Shellmound, one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2020.

A group of people gathered in a circle as part of a blessing of the land and prayer walk in Oakland, California.

photo by: Segorea Te’ Land Trust

A gathering by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust for the Blessing of Lisjan, the first land returned to Indigenous hands.

UPDATE: On March 12, 2024, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing the purchase of land containing the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site. The City has purchased the property with funds raised by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an Indigenous-led land trust based in Oakland, and will transfer the property to Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

Listen to Corrina Gould describe, in her own words, how the preservation of cultural heritage is critical to the protection of the Ohlone people’s identity and traditional homelands.

In Her Own Words

Horše tuuxi. Ka at Lisjanka
Ka at ra at Corrina

Good day relatives. My name is Corrina Gould, and I just spoke to you in our traditional language of Chochenyo. My great-grandfather, Jose Guzman, was one of the last speakers of the language, and our ancestors come from this place in the East Bay. Many people thought that we were extinct—up until about 25 years ago—when we started doing this work around protection of sacred sites.

Today, I am the tribal chair of the Confederate Villages of Lisjan. I'm also the co-founder and co-director of the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, the first urban Indigenous women-led land trust in the country. We are working to rematriate land, to protect sacred sites, and to bring culture, language, and song back into our traditional homelands again.

The work that we have been doing around Ohlone cultural heritage is important because we have to believe that our next seven generations are going to be here, [even after] our ancestors went through three waves of genocide: the Spanish missionary period, the Mexican Rancho period, and the current occupation of the United States government.

If we had not had a voice to tell people where our sacred sites were, if we did not have a voice to ask and work with institutions, to try to bring our ancestors out of those places, and to put them back into the ground in a respectful manner, then we wouldn't be doing our work as Indigenous people.

I think one of the biggest challenges for protection of Indigenous cultural heritages is our invisibility in our own homelands. It is the ability for the federal government not to recognize us as sovereign nations. There is also this lack of true history that's told in our schools, there's a lack of education of people that make this their home. And I think that is really hindering on protecting our sacred sites, [because] our values and cultures don't mix with the values and cultures of the society. Which makes it difficult for us.

A headshot of a woman standing in front of a bush with white flowers. The woman is wearing a black garment with beaded jewelry around her neck.

photo by: Corrina Gould

Corrina Gould

And so we are always having to ask for permission to pray in our own homelands from somebody else that holds onto our territories through private land ownership. We are always having to fight to protect the sacred places that everybody else thinks of as non-existent, because they don't see us. I think that those are huge challenges as non-federally recognized tribes to continue to have to stand up against developments, to tell our story of historical trauma over, and over again.

What brings me hope in the work that we are doing is to see young people standing up for the sacred again, that they are bringing back language, that they want to learn the songs that they're working with other non-federally recognized tribes to do ceremony on behalf of our salmon and waterways. That brings me hope.

To see my daughters on the waterways for the first time in a hundred years, paddling toward our villages, to see my grandchildren rooted in our sacred places and lands again, to see young people acknowledging the plants that they're growing and doing that kind of work. That brings me hope.

To know that our next generations understand the importance of holding onto the culture and what our ancestors have taught us for thousands of years.

A large painted sign in red with a black bird on the pavement with the words "Save the West Berkeley Shellmound." This is surrounded by a group of people who are advocating for the protection of this site.

photo by: Brooke Anderson

Image of the Jan. 14, 2018 Save the West Berkeley Shellmound gathering.

In my territory, the site that inspires me the most right now is the work that we've been doing on the West Berkeley Shellmound for five and a half years, we started doing this work to protect this site. It's been recognized as one of [America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places] by the National Trust.

What inspires me about it is that there are people from all walks of life, all intersections—it doesn't matter how rich or poor you are, what your gender is, what your religious background is—people come together because they understand the importance of this place, the sacredness, of this land and how it connects all of us. It grounds us in where we live now in the Bay Area.

And I think that inspires me. That no matter how many different movements are happening in the Bay Area, that this movement—particularly to save the West Berkeley Shellmound —has brought us all together to talk about, and connect our sacred site here with sacred sites around the world.

We are not finished with this fight, and we need people from across the world to help us to figure out a way to preserve this sacred site for future generations. Not just for Lisjan Ohlone people, but for everybody that lives and works in our territory, everybody that visits the Bay Area, that it's important to save these important sacred places for the next seven generations, and beyond.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

Learn More