‘This land is coming back to us’: Berkeley community garden gifted to Ohlone land trust

An anonymous donor paid $435,000 to save part of the Ashby Community Garden in Southwest Berkeley and has given it to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has been given a community garden on Ashby Avenue by the family of a UC Berkeley student who wanted to return Ohlone land to Indigenous stewardship. “It’s amazing for us; this beautiful idea that this land is coming back to us in this beautiful way,” says Corrina Gould, chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan and co-director of the land trust. Credit: Zac Farber

Thanks to an anonymous donor, a private Southwest Berkeley lot most recently used as a community garden has been passed to an Ohlone land trust.

The lot went on the market in September for the first time in two decades, with an asking price of $500,000 cash. The garden was closed, and plants removed. It was one of two privately owned side-by-side lots on Ashby between Mabel and Acton streets tilled by residents since 2004, with permission of property owners. Together, the lots have been known as Ashby Community Garden.

When the eastern lot went up for sale, garden supporters launched a campaign to buy the 3,920-square-foot lot at 1376 Ashby Ave. There were hopes the city would make a contribution. 

Supporters also reached out to several land trusts, including the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, run by Indigenous women. 

News of the situation was spread by social media, traditional media, city meetings and word of mouth. 

Carrie, a South Berkeley apartment dweller who asked that her last name not be published, weeds her plot in the Ashby garden in November. Credit: Kate Rauch

A student at UC Berkeley, who wants to remain anonymous, was struck by the idea of returning Ohlone land to Indigenous care, said Corrina Gould, co-director of Sogorea Te’ and chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, which includes many Bay Area Ohlone tribes. 

Working with her parents, who are local, the student’s family purchased the lot and donated it to the trust, Gould said. The selling price was $435,000. 

“It was just a sweet story,” said Gould. “It’s amazing for us; this beautiful idea that this land is coming back to us in this beautiful way.”

The trust is also in discussions about purchasing the adjacent, western, garden lot at 1370 Ashby Ave., Gould said. The owner of that parcel reached out to the trust, she said. If a deal is reached, the land would be paid for by the trust.

Gould said the student whose family donated the eastern lot felt strongly about the concept of paying shuumi, a voluntary contribution from non-Indigenous people living on traditional Ohlone lands to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which facilitates the return of Bay Area property to Ohlone stewardship. 

Formed in 2015, the women-led trust’s mission is to help heal historical wounds from colonization, and care for ancestral territory with respect for the land. The trust also focuses on preserving Ohlone culture and language.

Shuumi means gift in Chochenyo, the local Ohlone dialect.

The trust calls it rematriating land, because in Ohlone tradition, Gould said, women make decisions about settling and gathering and growing — “when to bring life to the earth and when to leave it.” 

The trust will rename the Ashby Community Garden, Gould said, but maintain its purpose. The trust intends to partner with the gardeners and the community groups “already working the land,” she said, so neighbors can gather and grow and share food. 

The garden has been run by the nonprofit We Bee Gardeners. Home to a variety of community educational and volunteer programs, it is a mix of individual and communal plots. 

Gould said land trusts are integral to their surrounding neighborhoods, and believes recovering Indigenous practices can benefit the health and well-being of entire communities. The goal, she said, is for everyone in the Bay Area to “reimagine the world in abundance.”

Gould praised the users and founders of the community garden. 

“They’ve been there a long time; they’ve vested their time and energy,” she said. “Neighbors there want to put their hands in the soil. It’s exciting. This is an amazing opportunity to work with people and show them that we’re still here, and how to share the land, and how to love the land with reciprocity. It’s going to be super fun.”

The garden is rich with pollinator plants that attract bees and butterflies. Credit: We Bee Gardeners

“Everyone I’ve spoken to is excited and supportive,” said Bonnie Borucki, a longtime gardening coordinator of the Ashby plots. “It’s what we’ve been hoping for.”  

The land has come “full circle” she said, from Indigenous stewardship to Indigenous stewardship. 

“This choice to be a catalyst for rematriation and returning it to Ohlone hands means it will never be destroyed or thoughtlessly misused,” said Nora Shourd, secretary of We Bee Gardeners. “Our gratitude to Sogorea Te’ for seeing clearly that the land is sacred and means everything is immense.”

Borucki and Shourd also expressed thanks to the parcel owners who allowed the vacant parcels to be used as neighborhood gardens.

“A large part of the story has been the families who have been tolerant and supportive of the garden by letting us be on it for so many years,” Shourd said.

Before Spanish colonization in the late 1700s, the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, made up of six tribes, lived in what’s now Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa and San Joaquin counties. They are one of several geographically distinct Ohlone nations, each with their own language. This population was decimated after explorers, colonizers and missionaries moved into California, bringing disease, usurping land and forcing settlement.

Sogorea Te’ is the name of a Karkin Ohlone village and burial site located in Glen Cove in Vallejo. The founders of the trust were deeply involved in efforts to save the site from development – undertaking years of action and advocacy. Eventually, a cultural easement was established to protect it. This partially collapsed later with disagreements, including among some of the Ohlone advocates, according to the Sogorea Te’ website.

Sogorea Te’, headquartered in Oakland, was established as a nonprofit in 2016.

The trust oversees several properties, including a quarter-acre site in East Oakland called Lisjan, with gardens, a rain-water catchment system and an emergency response hub, called a Himmetka, with water, food and supplies. 

It’s partnering with the nonprofit Planting Justice on a two-acre lot in Oakland. Now the site of a robust permaculture plant nursery, Planting Justice has plans to give most of the land to the trust. 

The trust also partners with the Gill Tract community garden on UC Berkeley property in Albany, as well as with gardens in Richmond, El Sobrante and West Oakland.

This is all part of an international wave in returning land to aboriginal and Indigenous peoples, and preserving and protecting their cultures, Gould said. Interest, passion, and belief in this movement are heightening, she said, notably in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

“I feel like the ancestors are answering our prayers,” Gould said. “We’ve been doing a lot of praying on how to bring them home.” 

Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.