SANTA CLARA -- The effort to preserve the city of Santa Clara's last remaining open space intensified Sunday as a group of Ohlone Indians bearing drums, snapping clapper sticks and chanting prayer songs rallied in support of the campaign.
The gathering came as the city is eying part of Ulistac Natural Preserve off Lick Mill Boulevard as a possible place to relocate a soccer complex. The current soccer site would be converted into a parking lot for the new 49ers stadium.
In the 1990s, city residents fought to turn Ulistac from a weed-ridden former golf course into a preserve -- and have since spent 10,000 hours filling it with native plants. They want the property taken off the list of possible sites and preserved for perpetuity, as they say was originally promised.
The Native Americans joined the rally to save the park because Ulistac (pronounced OOH-le-stack) was once home to an Ohlone village and is named after an Ohlone chief. The park is believed to lie atop an Ohlone burial ground.
"It is not a coincidence that the community continues to embrace this particular place," said Charlene Sul, chairwoman of the Confederation of Ohlone People, at the rally. "The healing here is so strong that to wipe it out would be devastating to the Ohlone and the community too."
To make a symbolic statement, about 40 Indians and their supporters marched 5 miles to the rally from the Santa Clara Mission -- where the tribe had been virtually annihilated during in the late 1700s, said Corrina Gould, an Ohlone organizer who lives in Oakland.
After the march, more than 150 people attended the rally, including many who count on the sun-drenched park as a refuge to hike, bike or walk their dogs on the bank of the Guadalupe River.
'The last pocket'
"It's the last pocket of open space in the middle of suburbia," said Ryan Taylor, a De Anza community college student who was taking his 17-month son out for a stroll Sunday.
The park has five habitats, including wetlands and woodland. It is also home to hundreds of birds, butterflies and other creatures, making it a popular field trip spot for local teachers.
Last month, members of the Audubon Society saw three birds that are rarely spotted in the area -- the blue grosbeak, red-bellied sapsucker and hooded warbler, said Julie Rose, who lives across the street and helped organize the rally.
"The reason why many of us moved here was the park," she said.
City officials have said that only about 11 acres of the park would be used for the soccer complex. But the Save Ulistac group noted that the complex would host more than 500 games a year and said the brightly lit fields would scare away wildlife.
Rally organizers are hoping the city will wind up scrapping the soccer complex, as city officials have discussed recently, in favor of a larger sports complex -- at a different location -- for a variety of sports, including cricket, soccer and volleyball.
With the inclusion of the Native Americans, Sunday's rally harked back to protests of the 1960s and '70s. But organizers are also making heavy use of modern methods to round up supporters, including Facebook and email, as well as canvassing door-to-door.
Regardless of the City Council's decision about Ulistac, activists vow to put the issue on the ballot.
If the soccer complex is approved, they plan to reverse the decision via referendum. That would mean collecting some 5,000 signatures in 30 days.
Even if the council chooses another site, activists still plan to put an initiative on the ballot -- to preserve the park forever. They said they would have six months to gather about 15,000 signatures.
"We view it as our civic responsibility to save this land," said Sally Brett, a retired engineer helping to lead the effort. "As (anthropologist) Margaret Mead said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.'"
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.