The Little Tribe That Could

As descendants of San Francisco’s aboriginal people, the Muwekma Ohlone Indian tribe seldom gets much respect. But that could be about to change.

Amid heightened sensitivity on such matters, Congress in 1990 passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, often referred to by its acronym, NAGPRA. The law changed the rules for how museums and other institutions treat Indian remains and funerary objects in their possession. It requires the institutions to consult with recognized tribes, and, under certain circumstances, provides them the right to visit the collections and claim the remains of their ancestors.

Kent Lightfoot, an anthropologist and the Hearst's interim director, says the museum complies "with the letter of the law" and has repatriated an undisclosed number of skeletal remains after consulting with numerous tribes across the country. Tim White, the museum's curator of biological anthropology, defends its custodianship of the bones, saying, "They're kept under very appropriate protocols and conditions. You won't find any [bones] on display, as other institutions have done."

However, when it comes to the Muwekma — by far the largest would-be claimant of the Hearst's Indian remains — the museum is under no obligation because the tribe is not federally recognized. "If and when recognition occurs, that would change the equation," Lightfoot acknowledges. "If that were to happen and the tribe comes to us with a request, we will certainly work with them to the best of our ability."

Tribal members oversaw a massive reburial of Indian bones in the East Bay in 1989.
Tribal members oversaw a massive reburial of Indian bones in the East Bay in 1989.
Alan Leventhal, a San Jose University professor, is the tribe's ethnohistorian.
Ron Russell
Alan Leventhal, a San Jose University professor, is the tribe's ethnohistorian.

Cambra says that should the tribe gain recognition, "one of our first priorities will be to direct our attention to UC Berkeley and open discussions with them about how best to return our ancestors' remains for proper burial."

It's an area where she and the tribe — federally recognized or not — claim a considerable track record.

"I would say that Rosemary has been more instrumental in raising consciousness on the repatriation issue than anyone realizes," says Laura Jones, campus archaeologist at Stanford University. Jones' first meeting with Cambra, in 1987, while a Stanford graduate student, was portentous.

Jones recalls the day that Cambra and several other women from the tribe came to the old Stanford Museum after making an appointment to view Ohlone baskets not on public display. The women were led to the museum's basement, where skeletal remains were laid out on shelves near the artifacts they had come to see, and Cambra announced, "We want to see it all."

After Jones removed the cover to a storage tray bearing the remains of an Indian child and one of the women began to cry, she led them outside to a picnic table in the Rodin Sculpture Garden. There, Cambra intoned, "I want to know why you need to keep these people. If you don't have any reason to keep them, we want them back.'"

Two years later, after protracted negotiations with university officials — and before NAGPRA became law — Stanford voluntarily repatriated some 700 skeletal remains to the tribe for interment in an East Bay regional park. The move touched off controversy among anthropologists and archaeologists at other institutions, some of whom feared a wholesale run on their bone collections.

For a time, Cambra and the Muwekma were the darlings of Indian Country. Their having persuaded Stanford to surrender an archaeological treasure trove had been quite a feat for a tribe that the government officially refuses to admit exists.

Among the nation's nearly 250 tribes unrecognized by the federal government, the Muwekma is an unusual case. Although previously recognized as a tribe a century ago, and despite never having that acknowledgment lifted by Congress, which alone has the power to do so, the tribe in 1927 ceased to be listed on the Federal Register as federally recognized.

Whether due to ignorance or ill will, the removal was predicated on the mistaken notion that the tribe had become extinct, says Alan Levanthal, a San Jose State University anthropologist and the tribe's ethnohistorian.

Muwekma Ohlone is the modern iteration of the Verona Band of Mission Indians whose ancestry, from the time of Spanish contact in 1769, can be traced to settlements at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, Mission Santa Clara, and Mission San Jose in Fremont. No one, including the BIA, disputes the genealogical connection between Muwekma's 450 enrolled members and the Verona Band. The band was named for a train station near the Alameda County settlement where the BIA's C. E. Kelsey found dozens of the Indians living in poverty in 1906, the year the tribe gained recognition.

Driven from their Bay Area lands by settlers after statehood, the tribe had been reduced to squatting on property bought by wealthy UC Berkeley regent and museum namesake Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst. Phoebe Hearst, who died in 1919, built a palatial estate on what is now Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton and allowed the Indians to remain. Some of them became her servants.

But the tribe's luck, such as it was, took a turn for the worse.

In his influential 1925 work, Handbook of the Indians of California, Alfred Kroeber, the renowned UC Berkeley ethnographer and the person after whom the building that houses the Hearst Museum is named, observed — mistakenly, as even he acknowledged some 30 years later — that the Verona Band appeared to be extinct. Two years later, the newly appointed superintendent of BIA's Sacramento office, Lafayette Dorrington, dropped the Verona Band from the Register list of federally recognized tribes.

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