Sequoia Point: Sogora Te' Land
Today I went walkin' with Johnella LaRose, co-founder of the Sogorea Te' Land Trust, an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. Several years ago, when I first heard about Sogora Te', I was inspired by the whole idea of Indigenous land trusts, which create a breathing space in the madness around owning property. I'd been wanting to meet Johnella since I heard she was on the FOJMP board. Sogora Te' has been a member of FOJMP since 2020, and the Ohlone people who they protect were here, of course, long before Oakland, before Joaquin Miller, for some TEN THOUSAND YEARS.
She was dressed in a bright orange vest so it was easy to spot her as I pulled into the Sequoia Bayview parking area. She carried a garbage grabber and a big plastic bag, and I thought for a minute she'd put them in the car while we walked...but instead I began seeing what she saw. She pointed down the hill where bags of trash blackened the green valley. (If you are a user of Sequoia Bayview trail, please step across the street—carefully—and report this dumping ground to Oakland 311. The more notices they get, the more likely the city will clean it up.) Johnella comes up once or twice a week to pick up garbage, but this is too much for one person!
I offered to carry the bag, and we headed up the Big Trees trail to tour a section of the park that has been donated to the land trust by the city—although it is still part of the park. "Mayor Schaaf is very interested in rematriation," she said, climbing over a fallen log, of the long legal process that made this a reality in 2020.
We talked about the plan by park volunteers to fence off the illegal trails that carve the hill away from the main pathway. The first thing she showed me was an enormous uprooted tree that had fallen across a bike path during the big rains in October. Funny story. “I had literally been praying for some help blocking these trails,” she grinned behind her mask. Bikers have been wearing loops up hillsides, staking out their own territories for high-tech fun through the beautiful passage.
Around the corner from this valley, she showed me an area that will become a sacred space for quiet, with benches and plantings. No cell phones or talking aloud. "We need more digital detox zones," I said, leaving my camera in my pocket. We don't even realize how hooked in we are to our alternate universe.
My trash bag was getting heavier by the minute, as she filled it with paper masks, broken bottles, cigarette butts and packets, recyclable bottles, and even the occasional used condom.
We came to a wide empty parking lot, with crumbling stone walls that had been certainly part of the WPA project in the 1930s. “This will be our cultural area,” she said, “starting with a shipping container here—” she gestured to a space with her grabber— “where we will have an educational center, and store tables and chairs for seniors” In the next, circular parking lot, which used to be Oakland's “lover's lane,” she shared the vision of a domed iron structure with a hole in the roof for viewing the sky. This proto-observatory, just down the hill from Chabot, will be visible from the Dunn trail below, and the vistas around it will bring scope to the Ohlone homeland.
We walked back past the downed giant, where I was filled me a deep, physical sense of peace and justice and possibility that this land I was walkin’ had a great purpose, to cast off historic trauma and begin something new. I felt a soft joy of possibility, that on this 3-acre plot of Earth, hearts and hands were coming together to create reconnection. It also gives me a deep, fulfilling happiness to know the Ohlone people are not past tense, but future.
There's a line in my Joaquin Miller song that goes, “Yerba Buena (good herb) - the Ohlone used to drink the tea for breakfast!” I first wrote those words in 2006, wanting to acknowledge the first peoples. But now I will put that line in present tense, and include Sogora Te' in the notes. Not a park stakeholder, but the living people of the land we call a park.
As we walked back along the road, we shared stories of Mills College (we‘re both alumnae; please sign this petition to save it), The Boxcar Children series, Swiss trash separation, and cozy Swedish laundry rooms, dreaming of greater innovation and solutions. She loaned me a glove and I started picking up bottlecaps and pulling plastic out of the dirt like some mighty trash warrior. Then we stopped and checked our fitness apps; she sometimes logs four miles, lugging heavy black bags of ignorance and disrespect back to the trash bins. We agreed that trash pickup would make a great fitness program!