SAN JOSE — For decades, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe has been striving to regain its federal recognition but has encountered resistance from federal officials who hold the power to help reinstate it. With that process seemingly at a standstill, Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh says she is determined to find alternative routes to secure the tribe’s future in its homeland of 10,000 years.
During a panel on the tribe’s history and future at the Harker School in San Jose on Thursday, Nov. 2, Nijmeh shared that federal recognition is the key to unlocking crucial benefits for the tribe, including the ability to acquire land for permanent housing. That would help reduce the mounting pressures of gentrification affecting its 614 members. However, the tribe isn’t waiting passively for relief.
“Last year we established our 501(c)(3)-status land trust, the Muwekma Ohlone Preservation Foundation,” Nijmeh said, “in order to start acquiring land and working on these housing goals for our tribal citizens while we wait for the inevitable justice of federal recognition for Muwekma.”
Federal recognition establishes a tribe as a sovereign entity in the eyes of the federal government, enabling the tribe to engage in a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. That status also opens up access to a range of privileges, programs and services tailored for tribes, including access to health care and economic development funding.
“By recognizing our existence, the federal government concedes that we deserve a future,” Nijmeh said. “It concedes that we have a right to nation-build and to pursue all of our dreams and aspirations as a people.”
For Muwekma, federal recognition would also allow the tribe to repatriate ancestral remains that are currently housed at the University of California at Berkeley. Under the Native American Graves Protection Act, the university can only return the ancestral remains to a federally recognized tribe.
The federal government originally recognized Muwekma as the Verona Band of Alameda County, but the tribe effectively lost its status because of the negligence of a federal official in Sacramento in 1927. This situation was further exacerbated by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who declared that the tribe was extinct in the ’50s. In the ’90s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs clarified that the tribe’s status was never officially terminated since neither Congress nor any executive agency formally rescinded the recognition.
The tribe has worked diligently to prove it has remained a cohesive unit through two successive waves of colonization, first by the Mexican government and then by the United States government. It has furnished evidence in the form of census documents, DNA tests and more.
Laura Jones, university archaeologist and executive director of heritage services for Stanford University, Lee Panich, chair of the department of anthropology at Santa Clara University, and Michael Wilcox, Stanford University professor and tribal historic preservation officer for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, shared some of that evidence during Thursday night’s panel.
Despite the evidence, neither the BIA nor members of Congress, the two paths available to the tribe to regain its federal status, have shown a willingness to support the tribe. The Bay Area’s Congressional delegation, including Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-District 14), Ro Khanna (D-District 17) and Anna Eshoo (D-District 16), has declined to endorse Muwekma’s federal recognition unless the tribe relinquishes its gaming rights.
While individual members of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association and other gaming tribes have made donations ranging from $500 to $2,900 to those representatives, much larger contributions have been made to the Democratic Party as a whole. For instance, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria made a $400,000 donation to the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund and $123,900 donation to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee earlier this year.
Nijmeh shared her efforts to build support for federal recognition from neighboring tribes that currently hold federal recognition but said she has been ignored or rebuffed. Meanwhile, federally recognized tribes with intact gaming rights are making substantial donations to elected officials who point to gaming as the primary obstacle to advocating for Muwekma’s federal recognition.
“They’ve become like the colonizer,” Nijmeh said. “They are oppressing their own brothers and sisters.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that members of neighboring tribes and relatives of Muwekma tribal members have formed nonprofits in the Bay Area, asserting their distinct Ohlone tribal status. Nijmeh and the other experts on the panel said it’s crucial to clarify that the Verona Band of Alameda County, from which Muwekma directly descends, is the only Bay Area tribe ever officially recognized by the federal government.
Stanford archaeologist Laura Jones stressed that there are important differences between a tribe like Muwekma and Ohlone individuals who are indigenous to the area and choose not to be part of the tribe. Jones said she believed those divisions are another legacy of colonialism and displacement.
“They are also victims of colonialism and displacement,” Jones said, “and I’m hopeful that someday when justice arrives, that they will see the benefit of joining together with their families and potentially the tribe.”
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.
Photo caption: (l-r) Charlene Nijmeh, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe; Laura Jones, university archaeologist and executive director of heritage services for Stanford University; Lee Panich, chair of the department of anthropology at Santa Clara University; Michael Wilcox, Stanford University professor and tribal historic preservation officer for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe speak during a panel at the Harker School in San Jose on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 2. (Sonia Waraich – East Bay Echo)