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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Sacred ties Sacred ties (May 08, 2002)

Local Indian tribe fights for federal recognition

by Sue Dremann

Thousands of people will gather this weekend for the 31st Annual Stanford Powwow. Dancers, singers and vendors will represent tribes from throughout the West. Amid the feathers and flash of native regalia, however, one small tribe of native people with a long history tied to this place has remained relatively unnoticed.

The land on which the tribes will dance once belonged to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and underneath the dancing, the jewelry sales and fry bread a greater struggle goes on. The Muwekma Ohlone are locked in a battle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the reaffirmation of their status as a federally recognized tribe. Their status, the Muwekma maintain, was never rescinded by the United States, but -- in the words of the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- "withered away" through government negligence.

A federal district court has given the bureau until Aug. 8 to file its final determination on the tribe's status.

A myth hangs over the tribe, begun in 1925 by the well-known California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who wrote in reference to their culture, "The Costanoan [Ohlone] group is extinct so far as all practical purposes are concerned." Thereafter, the word "extinct" became standard lexicon when applied to the Muwekma and other local tribes.

But the Muwekma are very much alive; and if the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Branch of Acknowledgment and Research reaffirms the tribe's status, the Muwekma could finally gain access to health care, aid for college educations, housing -- and land.

Land could give the small tribe of 475 a large presence in the Bay Area -- one that cannot be ignored. If it receives federal recognition, the tribe could potentially open a casino in the Bay Area. (Namely, the East Bay.) Rosemary Cambra, the tribal chairwoman, said it is part of the Muwekma's aspirations for self-sufficiency.

That quest has led to some negative characterizations in the press. An article in the Metro portrayed the Muwekma as fat cats bankrolled by a mysterious group of investors, and described offices with an inlaid marble conference table.

"They saw what they wanted to see," said tribal administrator Norma Sanchez. That selfsame table was actually made of synthetic materials.

The Muwekma view such characterizations as part of the double standard to which Native Americans are held. According to Cambra, partnering and investment money -- two mainstays of modern business that no one questions when it relates to corporations -- come under scrutiny when applied to the tribe.

Understanding the Muwekma's quest requires an understanding of its history: The tribe never received substantial compensation for its ancestral lands, which include San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo and part of Santa Cruz counties to Contra Costa, Alameda, parts of Napa, Solano and San Joaquin counties.

In 1950, along with other California tribes, some members received $150. A second payment in 1972 yielded $668.61 per tribe member. In comparison, the regional gross product for the nine counties of the Bay Area was more than $307 billion in 1999, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments.

"The payments included the deductions of all federal monies spent on California Indian tribes since 1852," which included every blanket ever given and every bullet used to kill an Indian, the Muwekma wrote in their tribal response to the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this year.

Until 1924, Indians were not considered United States citizens. Previously, under Mexican and Spanish law, all California Indians were Mexican citizens. As such, they would have enjoyed the same rights as white Spanish and Mexican citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo -- including land title signed when Mexico ceded California to the United States.

After the Gold Rush exploded in 1848-1849, the government, not wanting Native Americans to own land with potential mineral wealth, refused to ratify 18 treaties signed with California Indians in 1851-52. The Indians lost more than 70 million acres of treaty lands.

Subsequent laws dissolved the rancherias on which they subsisted and allowed Indians to be exploited as indentured servants.

For the last 22 years, the Muwekma gathered several thousand pages of historical, anthropological and genealogical documentation to support their assertion it has always been a federally recognized tribe.

The tribe points to a 1910 map that specifically recognized 30 members of the "Verona Band of Alameda County," as well as documents that also support the designation on the map. The Muwekma can trace its lineage directly to the "Verona Band," so named by the government because of the proximity of the tribe's two rancherias to a rail station near Pleasanton, said Alan Leventhal, tribal ethnohistorian.

The "Verona Band" became a federally recognized tribe in the Special Indian Census of 1905-1906 that was undertaken by the Bureau of Indian Affairs' precursor, the Indian Service Bureau.

Special Agent C.E. Kelsey documented the "Verona" while assessing the needs of California Indians. Kelsey and others urged Congress to appropriate monies to purchase lands and home sites for all landless California Indians after witnessing the tribes' deplorable living conditions.

The assessment ended abruptly in 1927, Leventhal said, when then-Superintendent L.A. Dorrington dismissed the need for a home site for the Muwekma's ancestors.

According to records, Dorrington also dismissed the needs of 134 other California Indian bands and tribes, in what Dorrington's replacement, O.H. Lipps, later characterized as "gross negligence or crass indifference."

The significance for today's Muwekma is twofold: Dorrington's act in effect disenfranchised the Muwekma's ancestors from any active recognition by the government. Dorrington did, however, designate the tribe as a legitimate entity under his jurisdiction. "He didn't terminate them; he just made them fall off the radar screen," Leventhal said.

The Muwekma began the petition process for reaffirmation in 1989. Things were looking up in 1996; the government made a positive determination of "previous unambiguous Federal Recognition." Two years later, the Muwekma was placed on "Ready Status" and "Active Consideration" lists. But the tribe was listed 24th. At a snail's pace of 1.3 petitions processed a year, it would be more than 20 years before officials would even get to the Muwekma's petition.

Since the Muwekma was only the second tribe on the list to receive previous recognition, the tribe filed a lawsuit to speed up the process. On June 30, 2000, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered their petition fast tracked, setting a precedent. In a separate ruling, Urbina gave the government until Aug. 8, 2002 to file its final determination with the court.

Another round of disappointment befell the tribe last July. The government issued a proposed preliminary determination, saying the Muwekma hadn't met three out of the seven criteria for federal recognition status.

Specifically, the tribe had failed to prove that it "has identification as an Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis; comprises a distinct community at present; (and) has a governing body exercising political influence or authority within the group."

The Muwekma has spent an additional six months repackaging its documents, and adding new ones to answer the preliminary determination of the bureau's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research.

It has been 96 years since the "Verona Band" was first federally acknowledged. On Aug. 8, it will know whether its struggle will come to a close or if it will have to pursue the battle through the courts.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe will have booths at the Stanford Powwow. For more information about the Muwekma, visit their Web site at


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