By Sharon Adams and Jose Luis Fuentes
On April 13, 2011, bulldozers were scheduled to arrive at a sacred Native American site in Vallejo, California. They were going to rip open the earth, tear up plants and ancestors, to pave paradise and put up toilets—literally.
But before that could happen, a dedicated group of indigenous people and Earth activists occupied the sacred site. Many, including activists Wounded Knee DeOcampo and Corrina Gould, trace their lineage to the area and had been fighting the desecration of the site for over a decade. Their pleas to consider Mother Earth and their ancestors’ remains had been ignored.
So the people took action. They occupied the site, set up tents, and lit a ceremonial fire that burned for 109 days, until the first-ever conservation and cultural easement was granted to a Native American tribe in California.
The organization Sacred Sites Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes (SSP&RIT), formed to oppose desecration of the site, reached out to the National Lawyers Guild for Legal Observers® and legal support. Jose Luis Fuentes, from Siegel & Yee, a law firm in Oakland, took the litigation lead and immediately negotiated an agreement with Greater Vallejo Recreational District’s (GVRD) attorney and the Vallejo city attorney dictating that the city give notice before evicting peoples at the site and setting the stage for negotiations.
Jose Luis raised questions about the City’s title to the land under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (9 Stat. 922). Guild members Sharon Adams, Micah Clatterbaugh, Michael Siegel, and Chris Oakes spent many hours reviewing original land title records. They learned that native peoples called the site Sogorea Te, and that indigenous Ohlone, Miwok, Patwin, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, and the Cortina Band of Wintun Indians and others lived and held ceremony there for thousands of years. As late as 1860, missionaries sent expeditions to Sogorea Te villages to conscript native people for the San Francisco mission. After the Mexican-American war, Sogorea Te, along with all other conquered land, was transferred from Mexico to the U.S. under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Some 160 years later, there were holes in the City of Vallejo’s chain of title to Sogorea Te/Glen Cove, and they were used as leverage in negotiations with the city.
And meanwhile, the ceremonial fire burned night and day, rain and shine, and native people held ceremony for the salmon run, for Mother Earth, and for their ancestors. The American Indian Movement (AIM) articipated. Fred Short, the spiritual leader for AIM, was often at the site, and other AIM members provided crucial support.
Under California state law, it was too late to challenge the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and the project had received final approval. Instead, SSP&RIT asserted rights as Native Americans under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. California state law interacts with federal law with complicated and interwoven requirements about Native American issues. Moreover, the law is written for the benefit of property owners, giving easy steps for dividing and conquering Native Americans to clear up issues that may be raised by tribes.
Also under California law, when native remains are found, or where there is other evidence of a sacred site, the property owner must consult with the Most Likely Descendant (MLD). The MLD must be either federally- or state-recognized. A single person is the MLD, and this person is authorized to make final decisions (within limited state-granted options) unless challenged by a petition for administrative mandate pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure § 1094.5.
Despite concrete historical, archaeological, and scientific evidence that Ohlone, Miwok, and other native tribes lived and prayed at Sogorea Te, the members of non-federally recognized tribes, who could link their ancestry to the land, were not consulted about development of the Sogorea Te sacred site. GVRD consulted with the MLD and received no opposition to GVRD’s plans. This fact was always in the background of the 109-day occupation.
The group continued researching various avenues to resolve the matter, receiving guidance from Denver Guild member Andy Reid. A state law was identified that permitted recognized tribes to own a “conservation easement” to “protect a California Native American prehistoric, archaeological, cultural, spiritual, or ceremonial place.”
Jose Luis Fuentes ultimately helped negotiate a settlement with the city, the state-recognized MLD tribe, and SSP&RIT, granting a conservation and cultural easement to the MLD’s tribe, commonly referred to as a “cultural easement.” This cultural easement grants to tribes the right to hold ceremony and to preserve Native American culture over sites, in this case the entire fifteen-acre site. In addition, the City agreed to scale back its construction plans, and that there would be no toilets.