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November 18, 2016

Learning From Ohlone History Today

Corrina Gould, Native American educator and activist, on what students and adults alike can take away from her unique program at OMCA

By Claudia Leung, Digital Communications Specialist

Twice a week, from October through December, groups of lucky students from Bay Area schools get an opportunity to spend an hour learning with Corrina Gould. As a Native American educator at OMCA, Gould teaches a portion of OMCA's School Programs called California Indian Living. In an interactive presentation, Gould shares about her cultural heritage, identity, and the ways in which Native Californians are continuing to teach and honor their traditions. Students are then invited on a Docent-led tour through all three galleries to learn more about the impact of California Indians throughout the state. For many students, Gould provides exposure to points of view that they haven’t heard before. She’s an open and personable teacher, whose flexibility and creativity in the classroom leaves a lasting impression, which is part of her vision to bring people together to preserve sacred Native sites.

Claudia Leung: Who are you and what do you do here at the Oakland Museum of California?

Corrina Gould: I am Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone. My ancestors have always been here in the East Bay. I grew up here in Oakland, what we call the territory of Huichin. I became involved with the Museum as an educator about five or six years ago. I’ve also been involved in work with the Docents, I did some work with some with the baskets that are in the collection here, and I’ve done openings for some of the exhibits as a tribal person from this land. But the most consistent path I’ve been on here is as an educator with fourth and fifth graders in a program called California Indian Lifeways. They changed the name this year to California Indian Living. I’ve really enjoyed that we’ve changed the format.

CL: What kinds of changes you made to your presentation over your years as an educator here?

CG: I talk about present-day stuff a lot more. I talk about current issues and talk about our history in a way that really brings it to the present. In previous years, I hadn’t talked about the shellmounds so much. For us, those are our sacred touchstones here in the Bay Area. Nobody would know they existed unless we talked about it. I’m really happy that the Oakland Museum of California worked with CyArk to create a flyover video of Emeryville so that people can have a visual, because I think that most people don’t understand what the shellmound would have looked like a long time ago without all these buildings.

CL: Do you mind giving a brief description for people that may not know what a shellmound is?

CG: Shellmounds are the burial sites of my ancestors. They’re ceremonial grounds. They always exist where freshwater and saltwater meet. For thousands of years, we lived along the Bay. In the communities where we lived, we buried our ancestors, like any other community in the world. We just happened to build these up. They were called shellmounds because we ate a lot of shellfish. Isn’t it beautiful to think that we could just go out to the Bay and eat as much shellfish as we wanted? We can’t do that today. When someone passed away, they would be buried in soil, and then a layer of shell and stone. We knew that the Bay gave us life, so it was a way of commemorating that as well. Over thousands of years of people living here, those shellmounds became huge. They became monuments to our people. There were over 425 of them that rang the entire Bay Area at one time. And virtually none of them exist anymore.

CL: Why do you think the California Indian Living program is important?

CG: I think it’s awesome that Native people are able to partner with an institution. Sometimes as American Indian people, we have adversarial relationships with museums because they hold some of our sacred items or our ancestors. The Oakland Museum of California has done a really good job on incorporating Ohlone voice, by allowing us to do presentations, by allowing there to be a voice in the galleries. We’re trying to build this bridge between our communities now.

It gives me joy that I’m able to talk to young people, and to speak our truth as California Natives that went through all of this colonization, and to show them that we’re still here. As a grandmother, I think it’s important that the continued oral history of our people is given to other people so that they can appreciate where they are in this world.

In the Bay Area we forget. So many different people live here. A crazy amount of languages, over 70 different languages, are spoken just here in Oakland, right? All these people are coming from all over the world, but never have an idea of who were the first people that lived here. There are no monuments that talk about us. If we’re talked about, we’re talked about in the past. We are able to talk about our resilience; that we’re not in the past. I think it’s important for young people to see a live Native person, to know that we still exist. It then becomes their responsibility as guests of somebody else’s territory, to keep on talking about that and telling that story.

CL: I like the phrase that they’re “guests” here. It was just Halloween, and in your presentation, you mentioned how Native regalia is not a costume. When you bring up these issues that might be challenging for young people to hear about for the first time, how do you decide to talk about them?

CG: Talking about slavery and mascot issues, about regalia versus costume—it’s important for us as adults to know that young minds can actually hold this as fact, that this is something bad that’s happened. When you know that something bad has happened, then as you get older, it’s something that you don’t want to redo, right? I have them for such a short amount of time that I have to be able to say these truths. They’re eventually going to be adults, and they’re going to be making decisions. If at some point during this small presentation that I have with them, I’m able to change their worldview about something, then that’s my opportunity and that’s my responsibility. Maybe next year, they’ll be like, “Oh, I remember when we were at the Museum last year, and that Ohlone woman said we shouldn’t dress like that.” Eventually that consciousness-raising will allow us not to be mascots anymore—will allow Ohlone people and other Native people to actually be human beings here in our own territories. I think it’s important for adults to talk to young people. I think it’s the adults that have a hard time hearing it.

CL: I was going to ask what kind of reactions have you gotten from the children, and then from the adults, either the teachers or the parent-chaperones. I’m sure it ranges.

CG: The kids always get it. You straight up ask them “Is slavery a good thing?” They’re like, “100 percent no way.” Many of the adults are hearing this presentation for the first time themselves—they may have grown up and have gone to school and never heard it. It’s really hard to take in something like that and know that you’ve been told a lie, right? And want to argue about it maybe, because they’re bought into this idea of holding onto those myths that we as a country hold onto. If parents or teachers want to engage afterwards, I’ll talk with them. But I think people are overwhelmed with all this new information that they’ve never heard before, and are trying to take it in. I hope that I’ve been able to be a good teacher for them as well.

CL: What do you hope that the youth come away with from this experience?

CG: I hope that they understand that their experience is not too different from Ohlone kids a long time ago, and that Ohlone kids are still here. That Ohlone people were actually really smart, and that they learned how to deal with nature around them, their world, and that we still are among them. I hope they leave knowing that it’s okay to learn about this stuff and to be inquisitive.

I also hope that I am able to provide some context for them to have pride in who they are, in knowing that their ancestors were really smart, knowing that they had sacred sites of their own, that there are special places they can go to. And by them answering questions and feel good about themselves by doing that and participating. That’s what I hope that the young people walk away with.

CL: At the end of your presentation, you invited students to bring their families out to Emeryville on the day after Thanksgiving for the annual demonstration that you do there. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CG: In 1999, the City of Emeryville got some federal funding to clean up a brownfield that was there. Their city was super poor. We went to the city council meetings and asked them to please clean it up and to allow this space, which was the largest of the 425 shellmounds, to be an open green space, a place where Ohlone could talk about our culture. To no avail, they decided to go ahead and put this mall up there.

Now, on the corner of Ohlone and Shellmound Way, they have a tiny little hill and a metal basket that’s supposed to portray thousands of years of our ancestors. It’s a fight that we didn’t win, but we’ve been able to educate thousands of people every year. The crowd that comes to help us give out information every year gets larger and larger. It’s an invitation for everybody to come. We started out with about 20 of us the first year. To now have over 300 people show up and understand that this is a place that still has our ancestors interred in, still is a place that is sacred to us, is amazing. We pray and sing and eat and laugh. It’s like a homecoming for a lot of people, they see each other once a year there.

People are beginning to understand that there are these connections. We don’t have to do this as human beings anymore. There has to be a way of not totally getting rid of somebody’s culture in order to survive. How do we do that so that a mall is never built again on one of our sacred places?

CL: You’re also involved in a lot of different work in the Bay Area, including co-founding Indian People Organizing for Change, which focuses on the preservation of shellmounds as well as other sacred sites. You’ve served on the board of directors of several organizations that do environmental as well as educational issues. You’ve worked with American Indian Child Resource Center, and you’ve also been featured in a short PBS documentary, Beyond Recognition, about the fight to preserve sacred land despite being a non-federally recognized tribe. How do you think your work here at the Museum as an educator connects to the other work that you do in environmental and social justice?

CG: I really want to talk about the people who are protecting sites as protectors, not protestors, of these special places. Teaching gives me the ability to get our word out to a larger audience about sharing these places and protecting them.

I like to engage people from all walks of life to participate. We recently had a prayer vigil at the oldest shellmound in the entire Bay Area, in West Berkeley on Fourth and University. This place is not only sacred to Ohlone people, but it’s the oldest inhabited place in the entire Bay, and it’s in danger of being destroyed by development. We invited interfaith people to come and pray at this place. How does that sacred site connect to what the protectors are doing in North Dakota, connect to the people that are down in the Amazon protecting their water, connect to the folks that are protecting the forests up in Montana?

As human beings, we’re all a part of this environment. I feel like we are at a place in this life and in this world where things are shifting and changing. People have to be willing to learn about each other and live together again, because we’re going to need each other in order to survive. It’s all connected. It’s important to figure out how those connections work so that you can bring more people into it, rather than keeping people out.

California Indian Living is annually offered through OMCA's School Programs. Learn more

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.

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