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Native American peace activists hold Bay Area walk

Julie Hernandez

On Nov. 28, participants of the Shellmound Peace Walk completed a 280-mile walk around the Bay Area to pay respect to ancestors of the Ohlone nation and raise awareness of sacred Ohlone shellmound sites that have been desecrated by development. Over two weeks, an estimated 300 people walked in peaceful demonstration.

The Peace Walkers, led by local Native American leaders and Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists, began their journey on Nov. 15 and visited 425 shellmounds, the remains of villages and burial sites of the Ohlone people, who were the original inhabitants of the Bay. They trekked from Vallejo to Pt. Pinole, El Cerrito, Alameda, Oakland, Hayward, Fremont, San Jose and San Francisco, ending at the shellmound in Emeryville, where Bay Street Mall contentiously stands.

Walkers gathered at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland on Nov. 14, to kick off the fourth annual demonstration. The gathering room at the IFH, decorated with murals of desert scenes and indigenous dwellings, was alive with voices, drums and excitement. A banner hung over a table of women distributing flyers and newsletters. The banner read: “Save the Shellmounds. Protect All Sacred Sites. You can’t respect the living until you respect the dead.”

Johnella Larose, who organized the Walk, wore a hot pink cast on her leg with Shellmound Peace Walk written in bold Sharpie marker. Although she described the organizing as “rag-tag” in the beginning, starting by going door to door to raise awareness of Native American issues, she has grown the Walk to the large event that it is today.

“I’m not going to walk, but I’ll be there,” she said. “We promised to do it for four years,” she said.

Larose is an advocate for protecting the sacred sites, burial grounds and artifacts of native people. “To me it’s about honoring and being the voice of our ancestors,” she said.

The night began with a welcome and blessing. The group cheered loudly for their guest speaker, activist, environmentalist and writer, Winona LaDuke. LaDuke spoke of the ways in which sacred sites and monuments have been taken and destroyed, and how reclaiming them and rebuilding the relationship with the land is the only hope for reconciliation.

“Conquest is not sustainable,” said LaDuke. “Empire doesn’t last.”

She commented on the elimination of native names to claim ownership over land, and the re-naming of sites after white men who massacred native groups.

“A problem I have is the naming of a large mountain after a small man,” LaDuke said.

An elder named Wounded Knee gave the blessing of the food.

“Tomorrow we will be on a journey across the Bay Area to protect sacred sites and burial sites of our ancestors,” he said. “We will walk on a journey with prayer, and every step we take will be for our ancestors.”

Corrina Gould, co-organizer of the Walk, said it was very well organized and received. “We had more information to give to people [this year],” she said. Gould described the reactions of people who observed the demonstration on the streets. People in cars honked and waved in recognition.

She mentioned one particular case in San Francisco, where a young man in a business suit, straight from an interview, joined and walked for three miles in spite of the rain.

Gould also recognized the people who participated in the Walk for most or all of the almost-300 miles. “The people who were in it for the long haul got a good sense of why we were walking,” Gould said.

Although there are no large walks of this kind planned for coming years, there are several smaller events being planned, in hopes for greater local involvement.

“We want to have one each season so local people can participate more,” Gould said. “In the springtime we are going to walk into Indian Canyon, which is the only Ohlone-owned land,” Gould said.

Other ideas include a two to three-day walk in Oakland and Concord, and speaking with lawmakers about recognizing the Ohlone tribe and ending the desecration of sacred sites.

“We want people to see the cities they live in in a different way,” said Gould.