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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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"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.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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