By Loretta Bonifacio
City College is expected to finalize a formal Land Acknowledgement Initiative to recognize the college’s occupancy on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land by June. The Ramaytush Ohlone are the original peoples of the San Francisco Peninsula.
According to the initiative’s resolution, a land acknowledgement will be “offered with respect and purpose at all City College of San Francisco public meetings and gatherings, including sports and cultural events.”
Once the constituents of the Participatory Governance Council grant their approval, the resolution will move to the chancellor. With the chancellor’s recommendation, the Board of Trustees (BoT) can vote on the initiative.
As it stands, the Administrators Association and the Department Chair Council will review the Land Acknowledgment Initiative during a Feb. 11 meeting. Thereafter, the Classified Senate will discuss the initiative at a March meeting.
If the trustees vote in favor of the initiative, a designated task force of Indigenous leaders can produce versions of the statement for campus groups to use at gatherings. The task force will also clarify vows groups can take to protect Yelamu land.
Founder and Chair of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone (ARO) Dr. Jonathan Cordero said, “Yelamu is the name used by anthropologists to identify the ‘tribe’ who lived in the area currently known as San Francisco County. They were an independent tribe of the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples.”
Accordingly, San Francisco can be referred to as Yelamu territory or Yelamu. The contemporary use of Yelamu designates it as both a people and a place, Cordero said.
The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a grassroots action network, defines land acknowledgement as “a public statement of the name of the traditional Native inhabitants of a place” by honoring “their historic relationship with the land.”
Aside from offering recognition and respect to local Indigenous peoples, land acknowledgements dismantle the gross inaccuracies of the doctrine of discovery and highlight “the true story of the people who were already here.”
While the practice is fairly new to City College, land acknowledgements are anything but — Indigenous communities have been doing them ceremonially for centuries. Typically, an Indigenous elder or community leader will offer the land acknowledgement. Countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have embraced similar statements for decades.
Former City College student Helen Pinto and Interdisciplinary Studies instructor Leslie Simon co-authored the Land Acknowledgement Initiative’s resolution in Spring 2019. The resolution is a living document that will continue to be developed in consultation with Cordero, various Indigenous scholars, Dr. David Palaita of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, a BoT task force, and City College staff.
But how exactly did the Land Acknowledgement Initiative begin? Like the Frida Kahlo Way Initiative, which successfully renamed Phelan Avenue to honor the artist, a queer person of color, the Land Acknowledgement Initiative’s origins take root in Interdisciplinary Studies (IDST) 3: Introduction to Museum Studies. The course was co-taught by Simon and City College instructor Ann Wettrich, who placed a “strong focus on decolonizing and indigenizing museums,” Simon said.
Simon noticed how various museums that “have a lot to account for regarding their stolen objects and racist hiring practices were instituting land acknowledgement statements and policies.”
Pinto, who was enrolled in IDST 3, became committed to ensuring that City College would adopt a land acknowledgement. Using the $500 award from her Avotcja Jiltonilro Diversity and Social Justice Scholarship, Pinto researched how other institutions have published land acknowledgments.
Pinto first experienced a land acknowledgement delivered at a San Francisco History Days event in March 2019. “I remember hearing a quote from [activist] Kanyon Sayers-Roods that really inspired me: ‘There’s nothing about us without us.’” Pinto and Simon collaborated with Sayers-Roods when they first drafted the initiative’s resolution.
Fortunately, Pinto and Simon were not the only people on campus seeking change. In Aug. 2020, the student-led CCSF Collective urged the Board of Trustees to address 34 community demands — one of which called for the creation of a land acknowledgement. Trustee Alex Randolph responded but did not follow up after requesting a meeting with the Black Student Union (BSU) and the collective.
Later, the collective circulated a petition requesting a public response by the board’s Aug. 27 meeting, but did not receive one.
As outlined on their official website, the collective demanded the trustees to “center the BIPOC [Black; Indigenous; People of Color] CCSF Community. Be proactively anti-racist, fulfill BSU’s demands, and revitalize the AFAM [African American] Studies department and Ethnic Studies & Social Justice Collaborative. Increase student support, and do a Ramaytush Ohlone land acknowledgment.”
The collective’s founder and City College student Eira Kien said, “land acknowledgement is always necessary and oftentimes the ‘first step’ in addressing how we are on stolen land.”
Student Trustee Vick Chung, fully backed the collective. Chung envisioned that the demands would eventually be enacted as goals for the board.
Regarding the college’s adoption of a formal land acknowledgement, Chung understood that deep introspection accompanies delayed societal change. “In ritualistically reflecting on the fact that we are not natives to this land, over time, I believe we will program ourselves to become less tolerant of xenophobia and nativism,” Chung said.
City College’s Queer Resource Center (QRC) led the way during their T-House online event series in Nov. 2020. QRC Student Lab Aide and event host, Charlie Garcia-Spiegel, encouraged participants to view a published land acknowledgement on the T-House website.
In solidarity, the acknowledgement reads: “This space, while virtual, was organized by staff and student workers residing and working on stolen Ramaytush Ohlone land in Yelamu, colonially known as San Francisco, and on stolen Lisjan Ohlone land in Huchiun, colonially known as Oakland.”
The QRC’s call to action is an invitation “to reflect on where you are logging in from, and to form meaningful relationships with the Indigenous communities of your area” by contributing to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and Shuumi Land Tax.
The college faculty took a similar measure. AFT 2121, City College’s faculty union, officially adopted the Land Acknowledgement Initiative and its resolution on Dec. 22, 2020. 89% of City College faculty are AFT 2121 members.
AFT 2121 President Malaika Finklestein supported the initiative because land acknowledgements help “raise awareness of peoples and cultures that are too often invisible.”
Finklestein added that the AFT 2121 “values social justice and wants to see those values reflected in our college community. The resolution is in alignment with those values.”
Cordero is optimistic of the potentially positive results land acknowledgements can generate. “The land acknowledgement ‘movement,’ so to speak, has gained traction in the past few years, and we hope it will lead to some significant change for Indigenous peoples,” he said.
The change Cordero references would be action-oriented: the return of land, effective public assistance programs, and disbursement of resources.
But once the Land Acknowledgement Initiative is passed, what happens next? Cordero recommends that organizations and government agencies prioritize building and sustaining relationships with Indigenous peoples. “The development of relationships are foundational to getting other needs met,” Cordero said.
The next step would be to implement changes in education, which can be monumental. “At educational institutions, develop curriculum at the 4th grade level and beyond,” Cordero said. “Bring in local people to speak to supplement the content around indigeneity in general — this is a benefit of building relationships.”
“Institutions like CCSF, SFSU, and UCSF have the opportunity to raise the visibility of local Indigenous peoples,” Cordero added. Some U.S. colleges have embraced this by establishing memorandums of understanding with local tribes.
To learn about and support the Ramaytush Ohlone, visit their official website at Ramaytush.com.