In recent years, the Land Back movement has been gaining momentum in California and beyond, rooted in the longstanding struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, the return of ancestral lands, and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to self-determination.
Prior to European contact, California was home to over 100 distinct Indigenous nations, each with their own languages, cultures, and ways of life. However, the arrival of European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries brought with it a wave of violence and displacement, as Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their lands and subjected to assimilationist policies.
I recently spoke to Jonathan Cordero, founder and Executive Director of The Association of Ramaytush Ohlone (ARO), a non-profit organization for the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples, a historically displaced tribe. The ARO includes the Ramaytush Ohlone Land Trust which works to acquire, gain access to, or co-manage lands within the groups ancestral homeland.
In the below interview, Jonathan told me about the work and objectives of the ARO, some of the obstacles to the Land Back movement and also how this work intersects with discussions of our ecological responsibilities.
Christopher Marquis: Can you please share a bit about your role as Executive Director of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone and highlight a few current projects?
Jonathan Cordero: The Association of Ramaytush Ohlone (ARO) is the non-profit
organization for the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples (www.ramaytush.org). As a result of colonization, we are an historically displaced tribe. We are not at present eligible for federal recognition, and so we rely upon the philanthropic community for support. The ARO was formed in 2022 and includes the Ramaytush Ohlone Land Trust. Our primary purposes, in addition to acquiring land and revitalizing our culture and community, are to fulfill or responsibilities as Native peoples: 1) to care for our Earth Mother in the same way that she has cared for us for millennia and 2) to care for the people who reside in our ancestral homeland, especially members of disadvantaged communities.
I am Founder and Executive Director of the ARO and Gregg Castro is our Culture Director. We are in the process of hiring more staff in now our second full year. As anyone who has ever founded a non-profit will likely tell you, the first year was trying at times yet rewarding. With our various partners, we successfully applied for a few large grants for ecological restoration. One of the projects is the Sunset Natural Resilience Project that will create and restore a green corridor between Golden Gate Park and Lake Merced along Sunset Boulevard and the Great Highway. Other projects include increasing stream flow and fish passage in San Pedro and Pilarcitos creeks. Also, we are working with the Friendship House and The Cultural Conservancy to acquire land from the City of San Francisco in order to create an Indigenous-led urban farm.
Marquis: For those who aren’t familiar, can you explain the land back movement – how it is a pathway to return homelands to Indigenous peoples?
Cordero: The Land Back Movement is of course not new, but the idea of giving land back to Native peoples has received increased attention in the past few years due in great part to the impact of the broader racial justice movement. For example, the tearing down confederate statues in the East translated to the tearing down of statues of colonizers in California. There has been an increased awareness of and attention to the tragic consequences of colonization in California, especially the genocidal consequences of Spanish and Mexican colonization, and the more formal State-sponsored genocide of California Indians in the mid-1800s.
Spanish/Mexican/American colonization was premised on the removal of Native peoples from their lands and their enslavement in the California missions, their forced relocation onto reservations, and/or their literal elimination as a people. For many the obvious solution to removal and its tragic consequences is the restoration of Native peoples to their ancestral lands or the legal ownership of land elsewhere. Colonization, however, was not defined only by the removal of Native peoples from their land—colonization was accompanied by a whole set of colonial institutions, like the economy and law. In addition, colonialism and capitalism forever changed the natural world, and so giving land back, while beneficial, does not restore what was also lost—our wholeness as Native peoples. Native peoples are defined in great part by their intimate relationship with all of nature, of which we are a part. The act of simply reacquiring land, now owned as property, does not actually restore the state of our original relationship with our Earth Mother. In other words, loss of land means so much more than simply the loss of property to Native peoples.
Also, I should say something about the idea of land back, especially as it is characterized in some of the decolonization rhetoric. Those who adhere to the ideals of decolonization sometimes position themselves as advocates for land back and make the mistake of speaking on our behalf. Some even make specific requests for land in order to position themselves as the saviors of Native peoples. Determining what is in the best interests of Native peoples without our prior consultation and approval, especially when done with an accompanying the heir of superiority, positions settlers (non-Natives) as saviors of Native peoples. We are perfectly capable of making our own decisions about what is in our best interests. We should determine when to ask for what and from whom.
Marquis: Can you discuss some of the obstacles to getting land back?
Cordero: For us, and likely for many other unrecognized tribes, the lack of capacity is the primary obstacle to getting land back. If someone offered us 1,000 acres mid-year 2022, I would have said “no thank you.” At that time, we did not have the financial, legal, and human resources necessary to manage, tend, and/or develop the land. Acceptance of the land at that point would have been burdensome, not beneficial. Many unrecognized tribes in California lack the capacity to receive benefits and/or to participate in restoration projects precisely because they lack capacity, so grants and programs designed to support our interests should be accompanied with funding for capacity building.
On the other hand, entities who want to donate land or estates often place contingencies on that giving. In many instances the policies and procedures of land trusts themselves inevitably impede their ability to give us back our own land. Also, imagine what it must be like to have to ask for you own land back and then to have to fulfill a set of capitalistic and colonial requirements to do so? In the San Francisco Bay Area land trusts and their staff collectively have made millions and millions of dollars in the management of our stolen land over decades, and we certainly do appreciate their efforts to prevent McMansions from dotting the Pacific Coast. That said, you might think that a five-hundred acre return of land might seem reasonable and possible in light of the profits generated over decades from the purchase and sale of our land.; however, the legal obstacles and internal policies of land trusts prevent the simple transfer of land without a conservation easement. As sovereign peoples in our own land, we refuse to have land returned to us with contingencies in place, other than those already in place by city, county, state, and federal governments.
The obstacles, however, are not insurmountable, even though we have been told frequently that it is “impossible” for organizations to do land back differently. Instead of a conservation easement, a cultural easement based on shared values and principles might be more agreeable to Native peoples. The City of Oakland, for example, has worked through numerous legal and political obstacles and has given land back to Native peoples of the East Bay (Visit https://sogoreate-landtrust.org/ for more information).
Marquis: What types of partnerships is the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone involved with to develop and advance local stewardship programs?
Cordero: Because the ARO is a small non-profit, comprised of only a few members of our tribe, our capacity to manage large grants or projects is severely limited. For that reason, the assistance of our partners is absolutely necessary. We are fortunate to live in an area with a number of superb organizations and resources for ecological restoration, such as the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, the California State Coastal Conservancy, The Cultural Conservancy, and many others. We work very hard at establishing and maintaining relationships of integrity with all of our partners.
Marquis: Tell me about your work to establish an urban farm in San Francisco and how that could be replicated elsewhere to help restore green space?
Cordero: The formation of our land trust and our legal team, have made the acquisition of land in our ancestral homeland much more possible. At present, we have a number of opportunities to acquire land. Unfortunately, most will require legal ownership, hence the need for legal assistance. I think the one project that best exemplifies our dual responsibility—to care for our Earth Mother and for the people who reside in our ancestral lands—is the creation of an urban farm in San Francisco. In collaboration with Benjamin Bratt and the Friendship House, Sara Moncada and The Cultural Conservancy, we hope to acquire land in San Francisco and create an urban farm for American Indians. The farm will be a center for Indigenous youth programming, for support services for Indigenous people in recovery, and for workforce development. The project is entirely Indigenous-led and will include an urban farm and ceremonial gathering space, all of which will be consistent with Native ecological practices. We hope that the farm will be a model for others. Thus far, we have received support from the federal government, including the EPA, President Biden, and Vice President Harris. Most importantly for the ARO, the urban farm serves as the realization of our responsibilities.
Marquis: Anything else you would like to add?
I think it is incredibly important that the public understands what Indigenous sovereignty means. We are sovereign in our own lands, whether or not we are federally recognized. Indigenous sovereignty, sometimes referred to as original sovereignty, preexists and is not dependent upon federal recognition (i.e., tribal sovereignty). In fact, tribal sovereignty depends first upon the recognition of the sovereignty of First Peoples. The preservation of Indigenous sovereignty, which continues to be threatened both externally and internally, is critical to our future as Native peoples. There is of course much more to be said about this, and we will save that for anther time.