Effort to protect sacred site heats up
Some 50 demonstrators marched on City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 25 to protest the development of an Ohlone sacred site and burial ground in north Santa Cruz, in what was the latest action in a seemingly growing movement to respect indigenous rights.
The site, known commonly as “the knoll,” sits on a 32-unit housing development currently under construction near Market Street and Branciforte Creek. Indigenous and environmental activists alike have opposed plans to develop the knoll since the inception of the idea, but opposition has ramped up in recent weeks after the bones of what is believed to be a Native American child were discovered.
The diverse group of marchers, calling themselves the Save the Knoll campaign, filled the chamber of a closed council meeting that day in an attempt to ensure their voices were heard. Citing the large number of people present, Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty permitted a 20-minute public comment period.
Of the approximately 10 people that spoke, many giving teary statements, the common themes were the need to respect the rights and beliefs of indigenous people and to push the city of Santa Cruz to not participate in what they say is the continuation of colonization and pattern of cultural genocide in the United States.
“Santa Cruz has a chance to make history,” Tomas Gomez told the council, “an opportunity to say we will not continue the desecration of indigenous people or our lands.”
Demonstrators also presented a petition with 862 signatures, which Jennifer Charles, a Save the Knoll volunteer, says they collected in less than a week. “That we could collect that many signatures so quickly shows how much this matters to people,” she says.
The city council could not take any action because the issue was not on its agenda. However, the mayor and several council members stated how seriously they were taking the matter and indicated that they would push for a special session the following week to discuss it.
The march on city hall was the most recent action taken by the Save the Knoll campaign. On Aug. 19, several volunteers delivered a letter to the KB Homes president in Pleasanton, Calif. The note demanded KB Homes revise their construction plans and stated that the people of Santa Cruz are “resourceful and creative” and will take any action deemed appropriate to stop the desecration of the 6,000-year old site. Likewise, an Aug. 15 demonstration at the construction site drew 100 people.
For most in the campaign, the development of the site represents the continuation of centuries of colonization and disrespect of indigenous people. The passion to protect the site is made even stronger because the Ohlone Nation, an indigenous tribe that once inhabited the land between San Francisco and Monterey Bay, was largely wiped-out by Spanish, and then European, settlers. It is believed there are no full-blooded Ohlone people left, and their decedents receive no federal recognition and no land rights. The Save the Knoll campaign is demanding this history be recognized, that the wishes of Ohlone people be respected, and that the city buy the knoll or that KB Homes donates it so that it may be preserved.
While opponents to the development question why the city approved the plan to begin with, their concerns don’t appear to be landing of deaf ears. Vice Mayor Don Lane, who has been working on this matter with planning department staff and KB Homes says they are discussing the idea of KB Homes selling the lot so it can be preserved as open land as well as the possibility of KB Homes forgoing construction on the knoll and building on another, less sensitive area. However, he says the city is constrained.
“It seems unlikely [we] can come up with the funds to buy the lot. And, since the land is owned by KB Homes and they have an approved building permit, the city doesn’t appear to have any legal authority to require anything more of them,” Lane says.
Additionally, the second option is difficult because the city has already acquired land near the site to protect an endangered plant species and several heritage trees due to an earlier lawsuit by the California Native Plant Society, and thus there don’t appear to be any other locations left that can be built upon.
“We are trying hard to have a productive role in creating a positive outcome that works for the Ohlone people, KB Homes, and for our entire community,” Lane says. “But, it will require flexibility, creativity, good will and generosity to reach that positive outcome.”