Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose
Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose have been organizing together for more than two decades. We had the pleasure of sitting down with them to hear about their vision Indigenous cultural survival and self-determination in the Bay Area, and what keeps them going when times are tough.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Co-directors, Indian People Organizing for Change
Where did you grow up and what was the cultural context of your upbringing?
Corrina Gould: I was born and raised here in Oakland. I graduated from the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, which is an alternative high school that was set up during the civil rights movement. While I was there, I got involved in activism, and I did anti-militarism work in flatlands schools in Oakland. We did work around the country setting up anti-militarism programs in different parts of Detroit, Denver, and Boston. I also did a lot of work inside of social service agencies for American Indian community in the Bay Area. Johnella and I started working together back in 1998. Similar to today, there was this big boom in the economy and gentrification because of the dot-com era. We were trying to figure out how to organize for the indigenous community in the Bay Area that was being invisibilized by City Councils because their issues weren't at the table: homelessness, veteran health, drug and alcohol issues, and sacred sites preservation.
Johnella LaRose: I was born in Los Angeles raised on the reservation in Utah. I traveled all over with my father and family - my father was in the military. I graduated from high school in Portland, Oregon, and came to California. But while in Portland, around that time when I was in high school, like a junior or senior, there was a lot going on Indian country. I think as a native person, there was no other choice for me. What was I gonna do? My father wanted me to join the Airforce. And I said, “I would do that, Dad, except for one problem; I can't salute the flag.” I saw that history was happening and I wanted to be part of it. I was a teenager after [the American Indian re-taking of] Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, so there was just no other path for me. I think we have a responsibility. This is the path the Creator put me on. I came down here to California to raise a family. I was a union carpenter for twenty years and then Corinna and I started working together in 1998.
Can you tell us a story about how you became politicized?
Johnella: There are 425 shellmounds that are documented in the Bay Area. In 1907 Nels Nelson, an archaeologist from UC Berkeley mapped all the shellmounds. He saw how beautiful they were and he thought, “I have to map this area before is destroyed,” and of course, they were destroyed. In 2005 I came up with this idea that we should walk the shellmounds. We were gonna acknowledge and honor these places and find out where people really lived before. Because everything is covered up by cement and so all that history gets erased. We don't ever have to think about what we're doing we are just living. And we are living in somebody else's land. Because of the way colonialism works in this country and the mindset that we work under is that we don't have to think about that. You don't think about it as stolen or occupied land we just think that, hey, is here for the taking.
So we put tobacco down and said our prayers, we invited a lot of friends. We have a close relationship with the Nipponzan Myohoji buddhist sect in Japan because of the uranium used in the atomic bombs that were dropped by the U.S. on Japan in 1945. The uranium used to fill the two bombs was mined from the Four Corners region, very near Indian country. There are huge issues with nuclear waste contamination and pollution from uranium mining in Indian communities there. We have this powerful connection to the Japanese through that. So in 1976, the Japanese people came over. Some nuns and some monks, and part of their sect was that they were to go to these different poor communities and build peace pagodas and temples to connect with the people here in this country in order to understand the United States government, but also to make peace. They came on a walk with us, we had all these Buddhists with all these drums, and they're like, “What are these Indians doing with all these Buddhists?” But we have a long history of 50 years with them now, almost. We just started walking in 2005 and we walked for 22 days. We walked the whole Bay, which is almost 300 miles. We had people from all over the world who joined in, people from Nova Scotia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand - just everywhere.
How did your understanding of the word "sacred" change through that experience?
Johnella: I think that as Native people, we are directly connected to the land through ceremony through song through language, so “sacred” is not something foreign. It is part of who I am as a human being. I am not saying I'm not learning anything - I am learning a lot every day. But as far as sacred goes, I think of it like this: if someone says to me, “This tree is really sacred to me”, then it is going to be sacred to me as well. That is the whole point. It’s something that is special, that you want to preserve and you don't want to destroy. So I am going to support you in that.
Corrina: The Bay Area is full of sacred places, but nobody sees them. That was the important part of the walk - making the sacred visible and known again. For us, it was not only about the sacred sites and paying attention to the ancestors that were there; it was really about remembering the Ohlone people. That was really important because in the history books and any place else we are totally erased, we don't exist anymore.
On the walk we go to these crazy places that people don't think are sacred. There is a Shellmound at Broadway and 12th - my ancestors were there. If you go to Jack London Square, there is a Shellmound under there. So all this places we walk to and we pray. Because there are buildings on it doesn’t mean the place is not sacred. At some point there were villages that were full of life. Full of laughter, and song, and people living there.
One of the shellmounds we continue to fight for is the West Berkeley Shellmound on 4th and University. It’s this big empty parking lot and now they want to build a five story building on top of it. This was the first village site that we know of - nearly 6,000 years old. Babies cried, people lived along the water, people ate fish. That site shouldn't just be important to Native people; it should be important to everybody that now lives on this land.
Can you tell us the story of the West Berkeley Shellmound and the continued struggle to protect that site from development interests?
Johnella: We have always known that the West Berkeley Shellmound was there, and so has the City of Berkley. The City of Berkley actually landmarked it in 2002, but there were businesses close by that didn't want that designation in case they wanted to sell their place. It was on the 1909 map as the oldest one recorded. Then Standing Rock took a stand on April 1st and our struggles coincided - there is something happening in the world that needs to be paid attention to. We went and spoke up at zoning meetings, publicly saying that we didn't want this development to happen. It’s because of our last 20 years of walks and occupations that people even understand what a shellmound is, how they are on Ohlone territory, and why it might be important to stand along Ohlone people and their struggles. We've been able to get a lot of allies and accomplices that have been able to help support us; we've got over 1800 people who wrote letters on our behalfs saying that they didn't want the development to happen. In the fall, even if they lose at Zoning they will probably take it to the City Council and we are hoping that we have enough support on City Council to stop it there.
Why did you create Indian People Organizing for Change & the Sogorea Te Land Trust? What is your vision for how these organizations will support Ohlone organizing and liberation in the Bay Area?
Corrina: IPOC started because we began getting a lot of phone calls from different places in San Jose and other places that had begun to find bodies as more and more development was happening in the Bay Area. And then in 2011 we were one of the lead organizations that retook the land at Sogorea Te’ (in Vallejo). We began to start asking: how do we do this organizing work? How do we do it in a different kind of way? What other tools can we have? And that is how the Sogorea Te’ land trust was born.
Johnella: If we could have made a land trust at Sogorea Te’, we might still have that land. Our spiritual, mental, physical health is directly connected to the land. Once you know something is special then you have a responsibility to it. Right now we have no responsibility to land. We just float around and spend money. I’m guilty of it, too. I think that if we don’t have the space to walk around, air to breathe, and trees to look at, we can’t be connected to ourselves. And that’s dangerous.
Why are you not a 501c3? How does that help you achieve your political aims?
Corrina: IPOC is always going to be a grassroots organization. We are not looking ever to get a 501c3. It gives us the freedom to reoccupy land if that's what we want to do. Gives us the freedom to talk about politicians the way we want to talk about them and support them if that's what we want to do. It gives us the freedom to say and do what we want to do, because it is a grassroots organization, and everybody has a say on what happens.
Why are you focusing on creating a land trust?
Corrina: The Ohlone people have no recognition. In fact, no Californian Indians along the coast have recognition by the federal government. And I don't think that is a coincidence. Why give recognition to native people that might have something to say about what happens to some of the most beautiful, expensive land in the country? So the fight for recognition is one thing, but for me there is also a specific connection to this land. This is where we originated from. This is where we come from, this is where my ancestors have always been. Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has to happen. This land trust is not just about Ohlone people-- it’s about Indigenous women from all over. Due to forced relocation policies of the US government, there are Indians from all different tribes in the Bay Area. There are indigenous women and grandmothers here, and they have ties to this land now. They need places to do their ceremonies. We need to have all those grandmothers’ voices heard and we need to be able to remember what the original teachings from this land are.
There are many land trusts in the US but only 12 are Native-led, and almost all of them are run by men. As far as we know, Sogorea Te’ is the first one led by Native women. Why is that? When you look back through the history of human beings, particularly in Europe, there was a mentality that land was taken through men dominating it with force. This country inherited that mindset and it persists today. But like Johnella said, women have this different connection with land. We are tenders of the baskets, and all of these things that create the baskets. The medicine keepers. Our children's umbilical cords were buried in the land, and we buried our loved ones in the land. It is our responsibility as women to not only take care the babies but also to lay people down to rest. So we have this different relationship with land. But in the city we can’t have those kind of relationships anymore so we have to buy the land back and claim our power in a new way. We do that so that we can continue to be the human beings we are supposed to be and can pass that onto future generations. It happens to be that Johnella and I have our ears open to what we're supposed to do, and our ancestors are guiding us. We are actually being obedient to them, rather than putting something in our ears and listening to a bunch of crazy stuff. It’s a spiritual journey, and we are inviting everybody along on this journey with us. It is important that we figure this out, because as humans we all need that connection to land - not just Indian people.
What do you hope IPOC and Sogorea Te’ look like in 10 years?
Johnella: In 10 years I hope we will have 20 acres of the East Bay Regional Park so we can build a Roundhouse, which is a spiritual center for Ohlone people. I would aim for 50 plots of land trust property in Oakland, plus the 20 acres from the East Bay Regional Park.
Corrina: Then we will start moving to other cities, and helping Indian people there build their land and communities. We will be able to protect and preserve that land forever, for those next generations to come.
What is the Shuumi tax?
Corrina: Shuumi in our language means “a gift.” It’s way of reaching out to people that live in the Bay Area. People here are from all over the world, and most don’t know who the original people of this land are. Even if you go to school here, you maybe get a lesson about the Ohlone people in third grade and then there’s nothing talked about us ever again. There’s a lot of stores and places here that has our name attached to it but doesn’t have any history or our values attached to it. The Shu’umi tax is a way of engaging people who live on occupied territory and actively help us buy back land so we can continue to live here. It’s not just about giving back to the Ohlone people and then wiping your hands- it’s a way of beginning a conversation with your family and yourself: what does it mean to live on occupied territory and how can I live with integrity here? How do I be a good guest? Can this land or house that I own now eventually be returned to the descendants of the original people that still live here?
What are common mistakes you see ‘allies’ making in supporting your work?
Corrina: I think that the hard part is to have somebody come in - and it doesn't matter who they are - and say, “this is what you have to do.” Over the last +25 years that we have worked together, everybody has an idea and they expect you to follow through with their idea. I have come to this point in life where I say, “That is a great idea and I support you in doing that. And if that idea is going to support our work, that is great. But we are already loaded with the stuff that we have to do and you need to recognize that.”
What does it look like to be an ally to your work and movement(s)?
Corrina: I think that, as an ally or accomplice, is always good to say; “These are my skill sets and I'd like to help in some way, how could I fit somewhere?” A good ally or accomplice talks about what this work is, and brings other people into it. They have conversations with their families about what is going on and whose land this is. That they continue to tell the truth and unpack that colonial settler idea. They are able to use their resources to help us get stuff printed or they are able to help facilitate conversations with legal or with other folks that we need to have conversations with. All of these things are good because in the end is really about creating community of people that believe in the same thing.
What would you tell to your younger self, reflecting back on engaging in this work?
Johnella: Be good to yourself and get rid of things that don't work and are holding you back. And pace yourself otherwise you’ll burn out of energy.
Corrina: I think one of the great things was that, even though Johnella and I worked a lot, we also had time for fun. We took the kids to a lot of fun places. It’s really important for young people to see that you can do activism and have to have fun, too.