Political erasure of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and the complicity of silence

Illustration of Ohlone basket and symbol being painted over
Jamie Scott/Staff

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The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe has been struggling to restore its status as a federally recognized tribe for 40 years. It has been and continues to be ignored and politically erased by the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Muwekma people deserve justice, and it can only be served when the citizens in the San Francisco Bay Area demand for their Congressional representatives and senators to champion justice for the tribe of the area.

Muwekma is composed of all the known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the Bay Area who trace their ethno-historic origins from the indigenous tribes who continuously occupied these lands for more than 10,000 years.

Upon the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s, all Muwekma members were involuntarily confined at three Bay Area missions. After the secularization of the missions in 1834, those who remained in former Ohlone-speaking territory coalesced into a distinct community living on two Indian rancherias in Pleasanton and Niles, where they were able to revive indigenous cultural practices such as the sweat lodge and ceremonial dances. In 1906, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was identified and included in a census ordered by Congress to be taken of landless California tribes, making it eligible for land purchase under the Congressional Appropriation Acts of 1906, 1908 and later years.

Being identified in the 1906 census and being named in 1914 on a list of tribes eligible for receiving land by Congress effectively acknowledged the Muwekma people as an American Indian tribe. The right of sovereignty was promised in perpetuity to tribal nations, with only Congress able to terminate that status.

Although the Muwekma were known by many names, the Indian agency labeled us “Verona Band,” after a railroad station. And although Verona Band was included on the list of tribes eligible for receiving land in 1914, 1923 and 1927, Dorrington reported that the tribe was not in need of land. Verona Band was then removed from the list along with 134 other California Indian bands.

The two departmental actions of mislabeling the tribe and failing to secure for us the land base which had been mandated by Congress marked the beginning of our political erasure.

In 1925, Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist who had headed the anthropology department at UC Berkeley, further contributed to that political erasure. He declared the Ohlone people “extinct for all practical purposes” in his monumental Handbook for the Indians of California, which was published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnography Bulletin 75.

Kroeber, who had personally interviewed the elders of the Verona Band (or the Muwekma community) from 1904 to 1914, was familiar with the landless tribal community.  He would later reverse his position in 1955 when he published an article called “Continuity of Indian Population in California from 1770/1848 to 1955.” Sadly, the damage caused by Kroeber could not be easily reversed.

Even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) conceded that the Muwekma tribe had been “acknowledged” in 1927, and that our status had never been terminated by Congress, they still neglected to place our tribe on the first official list of federally recognized tribes in 1978. Even when we presented clear evidence of our existence as a tribal community from the 1700s to the present day, the BIA made a final determination not to extend recognition back to our tribe.

That was the culmination of our political erasure. After 40 years of struggling to clarify our status, I now see the purposeful actions that led to our erasure.

But the BIA has in the past corrected its departmental errors and reaffirmed the status of other California tribes, such as the Ione, the Lower Lake and the Tejon. These other tribes were all previously recognized, continue to exist to the present day and had once been left off of the 1978 list just like Muwekma had. So why not reaffirm the Muwekma tribe?

The answer is as plainly simple as much as it is plainly wrong: The Bay Area’s real estate is too expensive to belong to the indigenous population. The land was needed to mine gold, to develop cities and to build “Silicon Valley.” Technology companies built enormous wealth on stolen Muwekma lands without having to worry about the displacement of the land’s first inhabitants. Is it coincidental that today there are no federally recognized tribes in the San Francisco Bay Area?

After decades of attempts to exterminate us, political erasure was recognized as a way of ensuring a “tribe-free zone” in the Bay Area. Nothing stood in the way of the desecration of our sacred sites and ancestral remains.

These 100 plus years of injustice could not have happened without the willingness of the people and our institutions to stay silent. Those that stayed silent in the face of our injustice are complicit, and it is not enough to simply apologize for the pain and the generational trauma that continues to affect our people today. Injustice demands justice, and wrongs must be righted.

It is time to act. We need the citizens residing in our aboriginal lands to call their representatives in Congress and in the Senate, and demand the restoration of Muwekma’s status through a Congressional act.

Charlene Nijmeh is the Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.