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.

"How do they afford it? I think you'd have to ask them that question," says Sachse.

Cambra deflects questions about the tribe's finances. To help pay its bills, the tribe has operated Ohlone Families Consulting Services, an archaeological consulting firm, since the 1980s, she says. But the business seems an unlikely candidate to cover mounting litigation costs. In a belt-tightening move, the firm closed its offices in San Jose four years ago, and its consultants, which still do occasional work for Caltrans and private developers, work from their homes, says tribal administrator Norma Sanchez.

Sources familiar with the matter say that since 1999, when the Muwekma filed the first of two lawsuits against the Interior Department (which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs), its legal tab has been picked up by Alan Ginsburg, the Florida real estate developer, and an associate, Frank Shunock.

Muwekma Ohlone tribal chair Rosemary Cambra.
Paolo Vescia
Muwekma Ohlone tribal chair Rosemary Cambra.
TV news video captured Cambra attacking an archaeologist with a shovel in 1985. She served time in jail.
TV news video captured Cambra attacking an archaeologist with a shovel in 1985. She served time in jail.

Ginsburg, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, has long been a key behind-the-scenes player in trying to bring Indian gaming to the Bay Area. His North American Sports Management Co. is the prime backer of the Scott's Valley Band of Pomo's efforts to build a Vegas-style gambling establishment in the unincorporated East Bay community of North Richmond. Until the tribe switched its allegiance to another developer, Ginsburg had also backed the Guidiville Band of Pomo's campaign for a casino next door in Richmond.

And, ironically, considering his ongoing role with Muwekma, Ginsburg was, until 2005, the financier behind Koi Nation, a 53-member Pomo band (aka Lower Lake Rancheria) that tried unsuccessfully to procure land for a casino near the Oakland airport.

Koi Nation's effort was especially nettlesome for Cambra, who says she personally introduced its tribal leaders to Ginsburg several years ago when the tribe expressed interest in launching a casino project in Lake County, its aboriginal territory. "The next thing you know, they're down here, claiming to be native to the Bay Area, and trying to set up in Oakland," says Cambra, who spoke against the Koi project at public hearings.

Was Ginsburg simply trying to hedge a bet?

"You'd have to ask him," she says. "Our position then is the same as it is now. The Bay Area is our aboriginal land. A lot of people wrote us off because we're not federally recognized. They don't think we'll ever make it. But they're about to be surprised."

Although critics believe a potential casino bonanza is the driving force behind the tribe's efforts, Cambra is quick to point out that the Muwekma's struggle predates large-scale Indian gaming. Voters approved Proposition 5 to sanction gaming on the state's Indian reservations in 1998. After the initiative was ruled unconstitutional, voters in 2000 approved Proposition 1A, ratifying Indian gaming and triggering a casino frenzy among the state's tribes. The Muwekma brought their petition for recognition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1989.

If the Muwekma get recognition, a casino is not the only thing on Cambra's mind. For one thing, there is the repatriation of the bones at the Hearst museum. Cambra also has her eye on San Francisco's Presidio.

Brushed aside by the National Park Service in the early '90s with regard to future planning at the Presidio, the tribe has stood on the sidelines and watched as officials there have dealt with other Native American groups on cultural patrimony issues that the Muwekma contend is their rightful domain as the park's claimed aboriginal people.

With a view toward an anticipated change of status, the tribe earlier this year resumed participating in talks on such matters sponsored by the park service and the Presidio Trust, which, since 1998, have had joint jurisdiction over the former Army base.

Although officially "recognized" as San Francisco's first people by the Board of Supervisors more than a decade ago, the tribe's local history is little known and even less appreciated, supporters say. Muwekma Ohlone Park — the lone city landmark bearing the tribe's name — is a weed-strewn patch of unimproved open space along Islais Creek in a heavily industrial section of the Bayview.

That, too, will change eventually, Cambra insists.

For now, while remaining cautious, the tribal leader is counting the days to anticipated judicial vindication.

Cambra even imagines how she will get the news. Although expecting a phone call from the tribe's lawyers, she'd prefer a letter. If the Muwekma's sovereignty is returned, they want to see it in writing.

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