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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.

Wednesday, Mar 28 2007
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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.

Levanthal, the ethnohistorian, calls what happened to the Muwekma "a quintessential example of the politics of erasure." He adds, "A government bureaucrat arbitrarily and mistakenly declares that a people no longer exists, and now 80 years later their descendants still struggle to force the government to acknowledge the obvious."

That struggle has been nothing if not frustrating.

After several years of exhaustive genealogical research and filing thousands of pages of documentation with BIA in 1995, the tribe waited for more than a year for the agency to issue a letter merely confirming its "previous unambiguous recognition." The Muwekma were then placed on a waiting list of tribes seeking recognition. Based on the agency's resolving fewer than two such cases per year, it appeared likely that the Muwekma wouldn't get their turn until at least 2020. With the current generation of tribal elders growing older, Cambra says, "We didn't have that kind of time."

To expedite its case, the Muwekma sued the BIA, accusing the agency of unreasonable delay in considering its petition. In 2000, a federal judge ruled in the tribe's favor and gave the agency two years to act.

In 2001, as the deadline approached, BIA rejected the tribe's application, despite a few months earlier having granted recognition to two other tribes who weren't on the waiting list and whose circumstances closely matched those of the Muwekma. Astonishingly, one of those tribes was Koi Nation, whom the outgoing head of the BIA, Kevin Gover, granted recognition by executive order on his final day in office. As first reported by SF Weekly, Gover, who now teaches Indian law at Arizona State University, later went to work as a lobbyist on the Koi Nation's behalf during its failed push for the Oakland casino.

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Ron Russell

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