Ariel Luckey stood before 80 people, most of them Jews, talking about a homeland — not the Jewish homeland, but the land of the Ohlone indigenous peoples, who once were the only inhabitants of what is now the Bay Area.
“What does it mean to be on this land? What does it mean to be a Jew on this land?” he asked the audience. “How do we engage with this question?”
Held at Urban Adamah on Nov. 18, the evening event was the first in a what Luckey, a theater artist and director of operations at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, hopes will be a series of public workshops to show how Jews can and should support the Ohlone people, using the lens of Jewish identity.
It’s part of a movement organized by Luckey and Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont called “Jews on Ohlone Land,” which will support the work of indigenous organizers.
“Our own liberation as Jewish people and our own healing as Jewish people is interrelated to the liberation and healing of other communities,” Luckey said.
The Ohlone are not one tribe, but a collection of indigenous groups with different languages and different customs. They lived from the Bay to Big Sur, and were the peoples who created the shellmounds, places of burial and sacred ritual.
In 1909, a survey found more than 400 shellmounds still standing in the Bay Area; today there are few left above ground. Most have been paved over, like at the Bay Street shopping center in Emeryville, or at the parking lot in West Berkeley that is currently the site of a fight over development.
During the mission period, from about 1769 to 1833, Ohlones were enslaved and forcefully baptized, and once the land became part of the United States, they were further persecuted and discriminated against. Vast numbers were killed.
Today, Ohlone descendants are organizing for the return of small parcels of land, and for the preservation of what’s left of the shellmounds.
“Jews on Ohlone Land” supports one such effort, that of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a nonprofit run by Ohlone women, including Corrina Gould.
“We appreciate the work of our allies leading the ‘Jews on Ohlone Land’ [series] and addressing settler colonialism in the Bay Area,” she told J. in an email. “The Jewish community in the Bay Area has been an amazing support in participating in the Shuumi Land Tax and leading ally work.”
What do Ohlone rights have to do with Jews — or, as Noily put it, “What’s Jewish about this?” — was part of what was explored in the workshop. With Noily’s guidance, participants discussed what was similar and different between the story of the Jews and the Ohlone, touching on violence, the desecration of ceremonies, cultural and linguistic disruption, and the contrast between the diaspora of the Jews and the situation of the Ohlone people, who have been on the land for thousands of years.
For Luckey personally, it was a visit to a desecrated Jewish cemetery in Europe that made him see in a new light the Ohlone fight to preserve shellmounds where their forebears were buried.
“I related to the story of the shellmound in a totally different way,” he said. “And I realized this has happened to my people, too.”
One of the main goals of “Jews on Ohlone Land” is to encourage participation in the Shuumi Land Tax, an initiative of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. The land tax is a voluntary self-tax for Bay Area residents living on Ohlone land. It’s progressive, based on rent or size of property owned. For institutions, it’s a percent of budget.
If the workshops spread, so too will participation in the “tax,” organizers said.
Luckey said they’ve had around eight workshops at camps and institutions so far, though the Urban Adamah session was the first open to the general public.
Noily and Luckey hope others will take it even further, not just as a way to contribute financially, but also to find a way to live on Ohlone land in a non-destructive way that recognizes the history in the soil.
“This project has been transformative and healing for us as well,” Luckey said.