Settling into campus

Berkeley Got Back

When everyone is attending class, pipetting in a laboratory or studying in a library, I relish in those rare moments of a nearly empty campus. Especially now, when the hot flash of September transitions into cool October, my body gladly welcomes the warmth from the bold sun, tempered by brisk breezes.

I greet my old friends, Willey Redwood and Centennial Tree, one named in honor of Samuel Willey, one of the founders of the College of California, and the latter memorialized in remembrance of Robert Gordon Sproul, the UC Berkeley president from 1930 to 1958. Near Faculty Glade, my ears catch trickles and chimes of Strawberry Creek streaming down its intended course across campus. Urban planning and nature are found in irreproachable harmony.

The campus is alive and breathing.

But peace only lasts as long as ignorance gives me bliss. Despite its stunning appearance, UC Berkeley, like much of the United States, is tainted by a history of dispossession of indigenous land and culture. Nature has been open for public consumption at the price of settler-colonialism, a system in which settlers claim total and “rightful” ownership of land already occupied. To ignore the sacrifices that have been made to create this campus ultimately condones the misuse of this land.

Before, the native Huchiun Ohlone tribe aimed to treat Strawberry Creek and surrounding land with respect and care. Currently, many students are unaware of the history behind their campus, a tradition of dispossession, pollution and oppression of native peoples introduced by Spanish explorers during the late 1700s.

Colonizers imagined modern civilization through destructive ecological practices and invasive species, such as cattle, which led to soil disturbance and disbalance of the ecosystem in the region. After the Gold Rush brought miners to the Bay Area, a land once sacred to the Huchiun Ohlone tribe, surrounding regions bore signs of putrefaction from profit and capital gains.

Transferring from Oakland, the University of California (then called the College of California) continued these settler-colonial practices when it chose Strawberry Creek as the prime location for our campus. Over time, we have forgotten what the land has lost. By disregarding the land’s past, where natives once cultivated and shared this space, we lose a sense of reverence for what is present and what we are naturally given.

In the name of progress, both in learning and innovation, society silences the lives of indigenous peoples in America. Berkeley — the city and the campus — shares this dark past. Berkeley’s distinguished anthropology professor Robert Heizer admits that his department treated “California Indians as though they were objects.” For the sake of “science,” Berkeley archaeologist Edward Gifford compared skulls from collections of indigenous remains to test eugenic theories of racial difference. Even today, West Berkeley Shellmound, a sacred site housing piles of artifacts, is facing commercial development, while some ancestors of the Ohlone people argue that this land is “the oldest place people ever lived.” With claims of progression came efforts to dehumanize an entire population, their culture, voice and land.

I am a student, and I am a settler.

When I step onto campus, I reap the benefits of a drastically changed landscape. The Ohlone tribe never polluted Strawberry Creek with sewage and irrigation systems. Instead, they collaborated with the creek and aimed to respect their food, water and bathing source. Unfortunately, by the 1920s, the steelhead trout ceased to exist because of the sewage, urban runoff, chemicals and litter. We argue progress is inevitable, but is destruction of the land and its people a necessary consequence? Will we face the same fate by continuing this practice of dispossession?

As I head to class, I notice the flyers on Sproul Plaza, stepped over and stamped as certified litter by the end of the day. My eyes cannot help but focus on the murky waters of Strawberry Creek. I witness the campus changing by the minute. To remain complacent and enjoy campus amenities without actively deconstructing settler-colonial logic is sanctimonious.

True progress is inclusive, interactive and honest. Berkeley was the first city in the United States to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor indigenous communities and clear the misconception that Columbus discovered a “New World” — a world that was already occupied. What has transpired in America’s history, Berkeley’s history and our university’s history is unforgivable. Progress, however — or improving UC Berkeley as a leading academic institution — is attainable if we hold ourselves accountable to existing environmental and human ethical issues.

To be shameless is far worse than being shameful of exposing past mistakes. There is still time to include indigenous narratives, acknowledge their presence and history on campus and share the land under tenets of respect and ethical consumption. This land, or this campus, is only precious when we treat it as so.

Dohee Kim writes the Friday column on UC Berkeley’s past and present. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dohee_nicole ‏.