Sacred Sites, Ceremony, and Belonging in Ohlone Territory: A Case Study of Indigenous Survival

Date of Award

Summer 7-16-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Arnold, Philip P.


California, Ceremony, Native American, Religion, Sacred space

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Geography | Native American Studies | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | Religion | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation examines the role of sacred sites and land based-belonging as central arenas of religious orientation and cultural survival. Popularly known as Ohlone today, the distinct tribes of the San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay regions creatively revive and sustain ongoing relationships to their ancestral lands. These ancestral lands remain of vital importance to Ohlone peoples, despite being stripped of federal recognition and the transformation of their homelands into major urban spaces. This study focuses on particular places of significance often called "sacred sites" within Ohlone territories. I argue that we can understand such sacred sites, to varying degrees, as locations of sacred presences, as transnational places, and contested places where Ohlone peoples contest their erasure and reaffirm their survival and tribal sovereignty. This project engages this argument in a series of case studies of locations within Ohlone territory including California Missions and Indian Canyon (a ceremonial site) as well as endangered places like the West Berkeley Shellmound burial ground and a ceremonial site called Juristac, which non- Native landowners seek to develop into a sand and gravel mine. The concluding chapter focuses on emerging places including Café Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, and the Sogorea Te' Land Trust to also center theories of cultural revitalization and Indigenous futurity. I argue that these land relations, which are also tied to relationships to sacred presences in the land, point to the ways that Ohlone peoples draw on religious practices as they create decolonial futures.

This project is the result of nine months of fieldwork in the San Francisco Bay Area, including participation in protests and ceremonies, interviews with tribal members, and ongoing engagement with Ohlone communities over a period of six years. This work contributes to the greater understanding of Ohlone peoples as one of the only full-length studies on these tribes and communities in the contemporary period. It engages critical discussion at the intersection of religious studies and Native American and Indigenous studies, reimagining urban landscapes as enduring sites of Indigenous presence and ceremony. Ohlone homelands today include diasporic Indigenous peoples, Black, migrant, and settler peoples. This study, therefore, examines how efforts to protect Ohlone sacred sites are also occasions where solidarities are forged with those living in their homelands. This project points to the vital role of religion in the quest of Native peoples to defend their lands, establish relationships across difference, and ensure the continuation of their cultures for the generations yet unborn.


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