Why are none of the native tribes in the Bay Area federally recognized?


Hey Area is where we find answers to the questions you ask. KALW listener Isabella Tilley asked, “Why don’t any of the native tribes in the Bay Area have federal recognition?” The answer is complex. Who has it, who doesn’t and why is just the beginning. In this story, we hear what federal recognition is and why it matters to tribes.

In the Bay Area, some tribes have federal recognition. Seven tribes of Sonoma and Marin counties are recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the BIA. But the answer to Isabella’s question is complicated in part because when the BIA began identifying homeless Indians in California in 1905, it often renamed and rearranged tribes – using names that had no meaning for them.

Charlene Nijmeh: They named us Verona Band after a train station. But that wasn’t our name.

Johanna Miyaki: Charlene Nijmeh is the Tribal Council Wife of the San Francisco Bay Area Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. She says the tribes do not need federal recognition to exist, but recognition identifies them as a social political group prior to California becoming a state and therefore eligible for federal status.

Charlene Nijmeh: We were first recognized as a social political community in 1906.

Johanna Miyaki: The tribal councilor says federal recognition helps tribes establish infrastructure, including securing land. In 1906, the BIA created a listing federally recognized tribes in California

Charlene Nijmeh: They found a specific community in Alameda County, the Pleasanton and Niles groups these two groups, we were the same people, we were families living very close to each other. This is how we were first recognized.

Johanna Miyaki: What happened to Muwekma Ohlone is common. According to the most recent census data, California is home to more Native Americans than any other state in the country. Today, there are nearly 200 native tribes in California. Statewide, just over half of these tribes are federally recognized. And some native tribes in California have started coming together to support each other and honor their shared ancestry, culture and history. In the spring, the Muwekma Ohlone joined tribes from across the Golden State for the first annual “Cali Native Night” in San Jose – a celebration of and for the native peoples of California. Charlene Nijmay started the night with a field reconnaissance.

Johanna Miyaki


Johanna Miyaki

March 11, 2022 San Jose, California: The four directions, east, south, west, and north are recognized in the altar that was displayed at the center of the ceremony at the first annual Cali Native Night

Charlene Nijmeh: On behalf of our people, Muwekma Ohlone, we would like to offer an official welcome to our ancestral homeland…

Johanna Miyaki: With the help of a neighboring Bay Area tribe, the Muwekma Ohlone performed in public for the first time in 125 years at Cali Native Night. Some Bay Area tribes received government land as well as federal recognition. The Muwekma Ohlone were also promised land. But, in 1927, a controversial BIA agent submitted a report to Congress stating that they no longer needed the land.

Charlene Nijmeh: What the BIA said is that we have withered, our community has ceased to be a social political community, which is not the case.

Johanna Miyaki: Nijmeh says the Muwekma Ohlone Indians exist and still need the land they were promised. They have evidence that over 550 active members still live in the Bay Area today. That’s 550 Bay Area residents who can trace their lineage to the same federally recognized tribe that the BIA has renamed the “Verona Strip.”

Charlene Nijmeh“Here’s the thing about the federal recognition process that people don’t understand is that the process is only for tribes that have never been recognized by the federal government, that the government has never identified them . We were already identified.

Johanna Miyaki: A federal court has agreed that the United States recognized Muwekma Ohlone as an Indian tribe. But the BIA says the Muwekma Ohlone have not shown continuous activity as a tribe since 1900. Charlene Nijmeh says they have never ceased to be a tribe.

Charlene Nijmeh: It was through the strength and resilience of our ancestors and our great-grandmothers and grandmothers that we were able to stay together. without a land base.

Johanna Miyaki: The Muwekma Ohlone are still trying to prove their existence, well over a century after being recognized by the federal government. And they are just one of many tribes still fighting for their ancestral land.

Charlene Nijmeh: We are still a landless tribe and we are still together.

Johanna Miyaki: San Francisco State University journalism professor Dr. Cristina L. Azocar wrote the book, “The News Media and the Indigenous Struggle for Federal Recognition. She says there are serious misconceptions about federal recognition.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: It is important to understand that tribes do not seek federal recognition to open casinos. Tribes do this to exercise sovereignty rights with the federal government.

Johanna Miyaki: Dr Azocar is in reference to the powers, privileges and communities that come with federal recognition.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: Federal recognition does not mean benefits, it means that tribes have the right to govern themselves, to provide their people with services such as health care, education and cultural revitalization.

Johanna Miyaki: California natives date back to 740 AD in the land that is now the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, many of their descendants still live across the Region and belong to organized tribal groups. But without federal recognitionthey can’t govern themselves like sovereign nations. This means that they are subject to the laws of the states in which they live. Without recognition, the tribes do not benefit from the same health, housing and education services. as Indigenous tribes with federal status. It also leaves them landless without control of their own cultural artifacts and ancestral remains.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: Tribes gain federal recognition in two main ways. The first is through what’s called the Federal Recognition Process, or FAP. This requires tribes to collect a lot of information and it usually means hiring historians, anthropologists and others with expertise in collecting historical information.

Johanna Miyaki: Doctor. Azocar says tribes can also gain federal recognition through the legislative process — such as an act of Congress. They both have the same challenges of providing endless documentation that often no longer exists. Dr. Azocar is indigenous herself and says her tribe faced similar challenges when seeking federal recognition.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: We could not produce the historical documents required to prove that we were really Indians. This act of genocide on paper reclassified all Indians as Negro or White.

Johanna Miyaki: Another way many Native Americans lost proof of their Native identity is through racist laws. Some states have reclassified everyone as “white”, “colored” or “mestizo”, making it difficult for descendants to prove their native ancestry. Indigenous leaders call these bureaucratic obstacles “genocide on paper,” a form of erasure on paper. For native tribes seeking federal recognition, obtaining the correct documents is only a daunting part of the process.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: The main challenges that tribes face for federal recognition are the funds needed to do so. It costs a lot of money to pay the experts needed to collect documents and even the legislative process requires paying lobbyists.

Johanna Miyaki: The process is so expensive and complex that many tribes don’t even try. Charlene Nijmeh says the fight doesn’t stop there. They must also fight to preserve their culture.

Charlene Nijmeh: I honestly feel, what we’re up against… is this erasure policy.

Johanna Miyaki: Native tribes in California have come together to make their presence known and visible with public events like Cali Native Night and campaigns on college campuses. As public attitudes begin to change, hopefully their calls for federal recognition will be heard.

Thank you for asking this important question, Isabella.


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