Gill Tract controversy highlights disregard for indigenous peoples

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Dulce Lopez/Staff

Just days after Indigenous People’s Day, or Columbus Day, the University of California Police Department forcibly removed an Ohlone elder from land that the Indigenous Land Access Committee says is sacred and belongs to the Ohlone tribe as he held a sacred ceremony. UC Berkeley is not only complicit in, but perpetuates the ongoing theft and colonization of land and violation of indigenous rights.

On Sunday, Oct. 11, ILAC and its allies began a sacred ceremony on the UC Berkeley-occupied, historically Ohlone land at the Gill Tract Farm in recognition of the 523 years of indigenous resistance to colonization. The ILAC sent a letter to the UC Berkeley administration urging a halt to the pending commercial development of the Gill Tract and invited the campus to engage in dialogue about the preservation of sacred land for the creation of a center for the study of native lifeways. The issue here is that our public university would rather forcibly remove indigenous elders in sacred ceremony and pay for security guarding their padlocked fences than engage in a collaborative and restorative dialogue about indigenous rights and public access.

The Gill Tract is land “owned” by UC Berkeley, part of which operates as a working community farm and part of which has been approved for commercial development of  a big-box grocery store and high-end senior living facilities. Students and community members have pushed for alternatives for nearly 20 years, but UC Berkeley continues to put the negligible amount of revenue potentially generated by this development ahead of student and community needs as well as indigenous rights. Access to the north side of the land for farming was only garnered after a three-week occupation in an act of civil disobedience in 2012, and UC Berkeley has made no promises for its long term protection.

A Indigenous cultures contain millennia of site-specific wisdom, and UC Berkeley has an opportunity to proactively repair the generations of damage done to Native people whose land it developed and learn from their lifeways. The theft of land by colonizers was an act of violence that is perpetuated every day UC Berkeley fails to recognize its history and invest in the preservation of public access and indigenous ceremony.

This  failure represents a violation of indigenous rights which is part of a disturbing trend of the privatization of our public university. Research agendas are increasingly dictated by biotechnology companies and tend toward knowledge that can be patented. UC Berkeley remains slow to return the remains of thousands of Native Americans long held in cabinets in the Hearst Gym basement, as required by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

UC Berkeley administration denounces the Ohlone-led group for trespassing on the Gill Tract, but takes no responsibility for acknowledging and repairing the violence of colonial  trespassing of land. In the words of Ohlone elder Hank Herrera, how can one trespass on one’s own land?

UC Berkeley’s public relations team claims that it has no legal obligation to preserve the land for indigenous access. The issue at hand, however, is not only one of legality, but of morality. The genocide of an estimated 100 million indigenous people was legal. The enslavement of an estimated 11 million African people was legal. The murder of black people every 48 hours, according to some estimates, by police is effectively legal. We live within a legal system that has been constructed to justify the theft of native land and disrespect of native lifeways. We must be guided not by what is legal, but by what is right.

Luna Fassett is a sophomore at UC Berkeley, fellow for the Berkeley Food Institute and an organizer and farmer at the Gill Tract Community Farm.

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Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article may have also implied that the Ohlone people tended the land at the site of what is now the Gill Tract and UC Berkeley for more than 10,000 years. In fact, although the Ohlone people have lived in the Bay Area for more than 10,000 years, there is no evidence to show that they tended the specific Gill Tract and UC Berkeley land for all of that time.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that access to the north side of the Gill Tract for farming was gained only after a three-week occupation in 2012. In fact, efforts to establish an urban farming program on the land were underway before the May 2012 occupation.

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