Spiritual Conquest chronicles Indigenous futures beyond desecration

Claire Urbanski


When Claire Urbanski attended a talk given by Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, her education began. In the 2013 address, Gould described a storage room below the University of California Berkeley's Hearst Gymnasium swimming pool, where at the time the remains of an estimated 12,000 - 15,000 Ohlone ancestors were kept—only a fraction of the Indigenous human remains collected by the University of California.

The information horrified Urbanski, who had then just moved to the city of Oakland, which—along with the rest of the East Bay Area—is located on Lisjan Ohlone homelands. “How is it possible that I had been entirely ignorant of this?” she asked. The UC Berkeley still holds nearly 80 percent of its original collection of Indigenous human remains, making it among the largest of such collections in the world.

Urbanski, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute, has been working with Lisjan Ohlone leadership to protect and return Ohlone sacred sites to Indigenous stewardship. At the final Faculty Research Fellows talk of the academic year, she shared her ongoing book project titled Spiritual Conquest: Desecration and Colonial Capitalist Extraction on Stolen and Sacred Lands, where she maps the ongoing struggle of the Lisjan Ohlone and other Indigenous peoples against state and capitalist interests.

For most non-Indigenous Bay Area residents, Indigenous dispossession is perpetuated through a complete lack of awareness—or worse, disavowal of—“the profound terror, trauma, and grief” that exists on the land beneath our feet.  

In Spiritual Conquest, Urbanski argues that the desecration of Indigenous sacred sites and theft of Indigenous dead are imperative to the consolidation and reproduction of the United States’ colonial capitalist empire. This reproduction is further entrenched by settler colonial relations to land, she contends. For most non-Indigenous Bay Area residents, Indigenous dispossession is perpetuated through a complete lack of awareness—or worse, disavowal of—“the profound terror, trauma, and grief” that exists on the land beneath our feet.  

To support her thesis, Urbanski chronicles the widespread practice of Indigenous human remains collection and burial ground desecration carried out by research institutions and capitalist interests across the United States, where UC Berkeley is one offender among thousands. Within the context of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, she highlights the legal battle to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound, a 5,700-year-old Ohlone sacred site and burial ground. Despite its significance to Ohlone and Bay Area Indigenous communities, the Shellmound remains a site of repeated violation and legal contestation. The Lisjan Ohlone and their allies are fighting against the development of a new luxury condo-retail complex on its grounds, a project that would, if completed, destroy the possibility of returning the land to what Tribal Chair Corrina Gould envisions as “a living cultural space” of song, dance, and prayer.

Whether by institutional or capitalist extraction, Urbanski documents the transformation of land as an idea. She traces the Indigenous belief that one cannot “own” land but instead belongs to it and contrasts this conception against the settler colonial logic of land as “property that can be possessed, and from which value can be derived.” Settler colonial visions of land extend far beyond the West Berkeley Shellmound, however. Despite the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which is intended to provide legal protections for some Indigenous burial grounds, sacred sites continue to be devastated. Recent high-profile examples of such destruction include the 2016 bulldozing of Standing Rock Sioux burial grounds during construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the 2020 explosion of Tohono O’odham burial grounds during construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Spiritual Conquest encourages its audience to become alive to the horrors of colonial spiritual terror and Indigenous sacred site desecration, pulling back the veil on relationships between settler colonialism, capitalism, and the destruction of Indigenous lands and life. In exposing how “colonial capitalist systems have always hinged upon extractive relations with the Indigenous body in both life and death,” Urbanski hopes her book will contribute to ongoing struggles for Indigenous liberation. In closing, she stressed the importance of supporting Indigenous women-led movements, such as the Bay Area’s Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which Urbanski argues is creating collective liberation—not only for Indigenous peoples—through the restoration of Indigenous ways of relating with land.

Through its rich and unflinching analysis of a nation built upon the continual assault of Indigenous ways of living and dying, Spiritual Conquest urges non-Indigenous peoples to recognize spiritual terror not as a bygone era but as an ongoing process of Indigenous dispossession that, in Urbanski’s words, “is and must be reproduced every single day in order for the settler colonial state to exist.” By refusing to disavow the reality of spiritual terror and joining in Indigenous movements to end it, Urbanski shows that “our collective ability to be transformed, to learn to relate with land and with one another in ways that are beyond colonial extraction,” become possible.