Reps. Eric Swalwell, Ro Khanna reluctant to support Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s federal recognition

Representatives Ro Khanna and Eric Swalwell.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that there is no dispute that the entire San Francisco Bay Area — not just the East Bay — is the ancestral home of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

A Bay Area tribe has been trying to get federal recognition ever since its people were falsely declared extinct more than a hundred years ago, but local members of Congress are reluctant to support that recognition unless the tribal nation is willing to give up its right to gaming and stop one of its consultants from publishing articles critical of the representatives, according to a recently released audio recording.

On Monday, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe released a recording of a January conversation between Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh and her husband and members of Congress, including Reps. Eric Swalwell and Ro Khanna, in which the representatives tell the chairwoman they’re supportive of the efforts to restore federal recognition, but suggest only if it includes an anti-gaming provision and the chairwoman bring an end to the reproachful articles on the website SF Inquirer.

“There’s a lot of support in this room, but there’s going to have to be a reset on your side of the arrows that are like being aimed at my colleagues,” Swalwell said.

Khanna said the representatives “stick together” and they would not support the tribe over the disapproval of Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, who are the senior members of the delegation and to whom they show deference. He also added that he was “shocked” that Nijmeh would suggest that the members of Congress are colonizers.

“Let me tell you, I understand colonialism,” said Khanna, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. “My grandfather was in jail for four years with Gandhi in fighting for, against the British; that’s colonialism. It’s disrespectful of his struggle and the people who really fought colonialism to imply that, frankly, almost anyone in the Congress, let alone Zoe Lofgren, is engaged in colonialism.”

Despite being critical, Nijmeh said the articles on the website are the truth and that protecting the tribe’s gaming rights was about protecting its sovereignty, not a signal that the tribe had intentions to open a casino, to which she said she was personally opposed.

“While our congressional delegation’s behavior has been unbecoming and we haven’t received an apology, it is never too late to do the right thing and sponsor legislation to restore justice for Muwekma with full federal recognition,” Nijmeh said in a statement to the East Bay Echo. “Their lack of political courage in deferring to Lofgren and Eshoo’s political demands is out of step with their own constituents who support Muwekma.”

Shortly after the meeting, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council passed a resolution censuring Eshoo for “diminishing the issue of the Tribe’s existence into a trope about Indian casinos,” as well as pointing to the behavior of Swalwell and Khanna as inappropriate.

“The Bay Area delegation appear to have a colonialist mentality demonstrated by an abject lack of respect and engaging in overt hostility, particularly Congressman Eric Swalwell who claimed we are ‘shooting arrows’ for addressing political battery in a press release, and Congressman Ro Khanna who purported that we don’t understand colonialist actions as much as he does,” the resolution states.

The tribe is trying to gain federal recognition because more than 12,000 of its people’s ancestral remains are being held at the University of California, Berkeley, and they cannot be returned until the tribe is federally recognized because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the resolution states.

Khanna did not respond to request for comment and Swalwell’s office responded he was unavailable by publication time.

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