The blue shroud that hangs over Ohlone land at dusk – the land now occupied as Oakland and San Francisco – makes it hard to tell what is sea and what is sky. We look out from a high ridge, feeling the long roots of redwoods holding the earth that kept us from falling. We are guests of the women of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, who build relationships with people and accept title to land to carefully rematriate it to Indigenous care. Together, we imagine what it would feel like to build a roundhouse on this ridge, a place for ceremony and dance, the first roundhouse to be built in Ohlone territory in 200 years.
Something between a moan and a shout arises in my gut: that familiar, inarticulate longing for a homeland whose stories and soil make up the bones of my body, a need to touch land that cares for me and requires my care. As someone concerned with black American relationships to land, I am often aware of the living impact of having an identity based on displacement. This beautiful vista focuses my attention on where that knowledge lives in my solar plexus. I think of the oft-touted phrase about being “the descendant of stolen people living on stolen land” meaning that I am indigenous, but not to this place. I am considered indigenous to land that has not been touched by my own ancestors for eight generations or more. My belly understands what it means that I could only be a guest in that place, as well as this one. A guest who no longer knows the trees or the ceremonies or the protocols for entering that community, even if I could know its name.
Black relationships of care to land demand the telling of stories of the land and the people who lived upon it. It further demands that those stories be true. One truth is that most black Americans are descended from people brought here both to labor ceaselessly and to dispossess Native people from their land. Sometimes this knowledge leaves me feeling like I have nowhere to stand. Acknowledging that I am the descendant of weapons, even if they were not used of their own volition, requires me to step into a particular relationship with Indigenous women and occupied land. I must learn to be invited, rather than to occupy. I must consider the sovereign role of giver and receiver of care as the alloidial right to territory rather than the colonial (his) story of ownership.
I must stand on a ridge looking out at Ohlone territory, peering into a future that makes possible a place for my own complex and disquieting rememory.