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4 Native Women Redefine Security and Fight for Sacred Places

Native women are amazing—and these four are no exception. They are fighting for sacred sites and security for their people.

“Welcome to Ohlone territory! We are still here, and we are still on our lands where we have always been,” said Ann Marie Sayers, Mutsun Ohlone, director of Costanoan Indian Research, in her opening remarks at the Resilience of Sacred Places: Defining Security—dialogues held over two evenings in July 2015 on the connection between sacred sites and security that were hosted by the Sacred Land Film Project and the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California. Four Native American women and defenders of indigenous cultures and sacred sites shared their perspectives on notions of homelands and security.

Ann Marie Sayers, Mutsun Ohlone, born and raised in Indian Canyon, west of Hollister, remarked that this was the best time to be alive as a California Indian since contact. She was alluding to the bounty on the heads of Native men, women and children during the Gold Rush, in some instances 25 cents for a scalp. Sayers used the Allotment Act of 1887 to reclaim land that had been in her family for centuries at Indian Canyon.

RELATED: California Gold Rush Begins, Devastates Native Population

“I am living the dream to live on the same land as my great grandfather,” she said. Given that Native Americans did not have traditional religious rights and freedom to practice their cultural rituals until 1978, Sayers has offered her great grandfather’s trust allotment to all Indigenous Peoples who need traditional lands for ceremonies. “My mother believed when the ceremonies, songs and dances stop, so does the Earth.”

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“You are not in Berkeley. You are in the village of Huchiun,” said Corrina Gould, Chochenyo Ohlone, co-organizer for Indian People Organizing for Change. Gould noted that her perspective on security is tenuous because she belongs to a California tribe that is not federally recognized. Gould shared her feelings of anguish and dispossession in the very territory where her ancestors lived for thousands of years: “I don’t feel secure because the federal government does not recognize us as human beings. We have to fight those who see us as a special interest group but not as American Indians who have homelands here.”

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Corrina Gould works as the Title VII Coordinator for the American Indian Child Resource Center.

Gould has been on the forefront raising awareness on the removal of ancient ancestral burial grounds and shellmounds throughout the Bay Area. Among the most egregious was the removal of one of the largest shellmounds in Emeryville to make way for a shopping mall.

RELATED: Black Friday Brings Shell Mound Protest

“This shellmound was 600 feet in diameter and 30 feet in height. It was on an 1859 survey map, and it was so large that it was a point of reference for people sailing into the Bay,” she said. Despite protests and requests to keep the shellmound intact as a critical cultural site for Ohlones, the City of Emeryville removed bodies of Native Americans that had been interred centuries. “This represented thousands of years of my ancestors,” she said emotionally.

Gould said nearly 12,000 of these remains are currently in the possession of the University of California, Berkeley, locked away and piled on shelves. Gould’s vision now is to create a first Native women-led land trust, where the ancestral remains stored at UC Berkeley and other museums can be re-interred. Gould said the removal of burial grounds was a way of perpetuating cultural genocide, an attempt to strip away notions of identity, “security” and dignity.

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Pennie Opal Plant, who is of Yaqui, Choctaw, Cherokee, Mexican and European ancestry, defined security as a state of health and balance of “all life on Mother Earth’s belly.” Her life’s work is to draw attention to what frontline communities are experiencing living in the refinery corridor of the Bay Area, where five large oil refineries operate, often in close proximity to communities of color. Opal Plant co-founded the Refinery Corridor Healing Walks, along with other members of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Idle No More, to highlight the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel industries and their threats to community safety and security by pollution and crude-by-rail development projects. “We are all related and everything is connected,” she said. “I encourage everyone to think what they can do for the future of next generations.”

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Pennie Opal Plant draws attention to what frontline communities are experiencing living in the refinery corridor of the Bay Area.

Chief Caleen Sisk, tribal and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, expressed security as one that affirmed the sacredness of water. The Winnemem, known as middle river people, have an inextricable link to water—their ancestral homelands located over millennia along the McCloud River. The Shasta Dam drowned this long legacy of histories and many sacred sites and burial grounds. “Dams are archaic, but we are so bought into the idea,” she said.

Sisk has been a vocal opponent of the proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would further destroy the remaining sacred sites of her tribe. She shared that her heritage and elders—“teachers of rivers”—taught her that security is the health of the springs and the gushing waters in the middle falls on the McCloud River.

Courtesy Winnemem Wintu

Tribal and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu, Caleen Sisk, was at the event to speak as well.

RELATED: Stop Damming Indians: Dancing Against Shasta Dam Raise

“When the spring is dry, that is a sign of an unhealthy world,” she said. “We were a salmon state, and we had the two largest rivers,” she said. The Shasta Dam wiped out the salmon and the river was diverted to thirsty fields of agribusiness in drier lands to the south. Sisk also raised concerns about Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal of the Twin Tunnels project, which would export water from the San Francisco Bay’s Delta to the San Joaquin Valley to suit what she described as powerful lobbying forces of corporate agriculture.

“We need organic community systems, which have cisterns to harvest water and live in balance. We need to learn to live off the grid. Human rights by itself will not lead us to the future. We also need the rights of nature secured,” she said.