The group — which now numbers 550 members in the Bay Area, many in San Jose and Pleasanton — traces its ancestral lineage to aboriginal villages that extended from the tip of the Marin headlands and north edge of San Pablo Bay through Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and portions of Napa, Santa Cruz, Solano and San Joaquin counties.
Federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign nations. That designation allows a tribe's members to receive government benefits such as housing, health care and education funding and more recently, special dispensation to open lucrative casinos.
The Muwekma began petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for federal acknowledgement as an Indian tribe in 1989 and received a determination in 1996 that their group had received "previously unambiguous recognition" from the government. But in 2001 the bureau denied the Muwekma's request for federal tribal recognition because the Muwekma did "not meet all seven criteria required for federal acknowledgement." The Muwekma failed to present sufficient evidence that they were "the same tribal entity that was previously acknowledged or as a portion that has evolved from that entity," according to court documents.
The Muwekma sued in 2003, saying the tribe has a paper trail of descendants that were recognized on government rolls.
But Reggie B. Walton, a district judge of the District of Columbia, said surviving as Indian descendants is not the same as surviving as an Indian tribal entity.
It is '"obvious that Indian nations, like foreign nations, can disappear over time ... whether through conquest, or voluntary absorption into a larger entity, or fission, or dissolution or movement of population,'" Walton wrote, quoting a 2001, 7th Circuit Court decision regarding the Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana.
"Should a tribe cease to exist, it follows that the federal government would no longer have a trust relationship with that entity," Walton wrote. "The Muwekma thus needs to demonstrate it did not cease to exist after 1927."
The judge also said the Muwekma's claims are barred by the statute of limitations because the tribe could have pursued a cause of action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs at several dates in time, as far back as 1927.
The Muwekma filed an appeal to Walton's decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals on Nov. 22.
Land, the most visible benchmark of tribal status, appears to be the crux of the Muwekma's predicament. Through treaties and government land purchases in the 1800s, tribes throughout the country were delegated property as a means to settling "the Indian question," and those land designations also established them as sovereign nations.
But California Indian tribes were not part of the land/reservation equation, having first been supplanted and then devastated by the mission system under Spanish rule.
Bounty-hunted for their scalps in the late 1800s by white settlers and subjected to continuous acts of violent racism into the early 20th century, Muwekma survivors retreated to the Spanish-speaking Californio rancherias, where they were better accepted, said Alan Leventhal, a San Jose State University archaeologist who has worked with the tribe.
In the early 20th century, the government set about purchasing land for the surviving landless Indians. Indian rancherias in southern California evidence those land purchases.
But northern California tribes did not fare as well, Leventhal said. Many, including the Muwekma, were politically erased by a government administrator's decision in 1927. L.A. Dorrington, the Office of Indian Affairs superintendent charged with locating the tribes that would receive land, in 1927 specifically did not recommend purchasing land for the Muwekma and other tribes, according to court papers.
That decision politically erased the Muwekma, who were even termed "extinct" as a tribe by noted anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, who later rescinded the comment.
Should a group of people who were previously disenfranchised by the government be expected to conform to a government-constructed definition of a tribe?
Leventhal doesn't think so.
"It's gestalt. This is how colonial systems operate. It is the continuation of a colonial system (where) you are made invisible or erased from the forum. If you appear, you are viewed with contempt," he said.
"The politics of erasure" has also worked to the advantage of some tribes that are claiming ancestral heritage to lands in the Bay Area where they never lived, Leventhal said. In the new world of big-money investment on tribal lands, the Muwekma pose a significant threat to the power brokerage, Leventhal said.
Muweka Tribal Chair Rosemary Cambra could not be reached for comment. But she has said in the past that her goal is to provide access to higher education and good, stable housing for the tribe, especially for elders.
Colin Cloud Hampson, an attorney for the Muwekma, said he could not comment due to the ongoing case. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has not returned requests for comment.
Leventhal said the appeal is the most crucial step for the tribe; he does not think the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case. Many other similarly situated tribes in California are watching the Muwekmas' case, he said.
Court documents pertaining to the Muwekma case can be read below the online version of this story at www.paloaltoonline.com.