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Hey Area is a collaborative reporting project of KALW News. Listeners can submit questions about the Bay Area and if your question is selected you may be contacted to participate in telling the story behind it. What have you always wondered? Ask your question HERE or below.

Why do none of the Bay Area native tribes have federal recognition?

Muwekma Ohlone of San Francisco Bay Area Vice Tribal Councilwoman Monica Arellano (left) amd Muwekma Ohlone of San Francisco Bay Area Tribal Councilwoman Charlene Nijmeh (right)
Johanna Miyaki
Johanna Miyaki
Santa Clara, CA, April 4, 2022 - Muwekma Ohlone of San Francisco Bay Area Vice Tribal Councilwoman Monica Arellano (left) and Muwekma Ohlone of San Francisco Bay Area Tribal Councilwoman Charlene Nijmeh (right) pose in front of a traditional Native tule canoe, part of the "California Stories" exhibition at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University

Hey Area is where we find answers to the questions you ask. KALW listener Isabella Tilley asked, "Why do none of the Bay Area native tribes 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 is important to tribes.

In the Bay Area, some tribes do have federal recognition. Seven tribes in Sonoma and Marin counties are recognizedby 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, they often renamed and reorganized tribes — using names that had no meaning to them.

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

Johanna Miyaki: Charlene Nijmeh is the Tribal Council Woman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. She says tribes don’t need federal recognition to exist but recognition identifies them as a social political group that predates California becoming a state and therefore eligible for federal status.

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

Johanna Miyaki: The Tribal Councilwoman says federal recognition helps tribes to establish infrastructure, including getting land. In 1906, the BIA created a list of federally recognized tribes in California

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

Johanna Miyaki: What happened to the Muwekma Ohlone is common. According to most recent census data, California is home to more Native people 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 California Native tribes have started coming together to support each other and honor their ancestors, their shared 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 California indigenous people. Charlene Nijmay began the night with a land acknowledgement.

March 11, 2022,  San Jose, CA: Altar at First Annual Cali Native Night
Johanna Miyaki
Johanna Miyaki
March 11, 2022 San Jose, CA: 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 welcoming to our ancestral homeland...

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

Charlene Nijmeh: What the BIA has said is that we have withered away, our community stopped being a social political community, which is not the case.

Johanna Miyaki: Nijmeh says the Muwekma Ohlone Indians do exist and still need the land they were promised. They have proof of more than 550 active members still living in the Bay Area today. That’s 550 Bay Area residents who can trace their lineage back to the same federally recognized tribe that the BIA renamed the “Verona Band.”

Charlene Nijmeh: “Here's the thing about the federal acknowledgement process that people don't understand is that process is only for tribes that were never acknowledged by the federal government,that the government never identified them. We were already identified”.

Johanna Miyaki: A federal court acknowledged the United States had recognized Muwekma Ohlone as an Indian tribe. But the BIA says that the Muwekma Ohlone have not shown they have been continuously active as a tribe since 1900. Charlene Nijmeh says they never stopped being a tribe.

Charlene Nijmeh: By the strength and resilience of our ancestors and our great grandmothers and our grandmothers is that we've been able to stay together.” without a land base.

Johanna Miyaki: The Muwekma Ohlone are still trying to prove they exist, well over a century after they had already been federally recognized.And they are just one of many tribes still fighting for their ancestral land.

Charlene Nijmeh: We’re still a landless tribe and we're all still together.

Johanna Miyaki: San Francisco State University Journalism Professor Dr. Cristina L. Azocar wrote the book, "News Media and the Indigenous Fight for Federal Recognition." She says there are serious misconceptions about federal recognition.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: It’s important to understand that tribes do not seek federal recognition to open casinos. Tribes do it to exert the rights to sovereignty with the federal government.

Johanna Miyaki: Dr. Azocar is referring to the powers, privileges, and communities that come with Federal Acknowledgment.

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

Johanna Miyaki: California Natives can be traced back to 740 AD on the land that is now the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, many of their descendants still live throughout the region and belong to organized tribal groups. But without federal recognition, they can not govern themselves as sovereign nations. This means they are subject to the laws of the states they live in. Without recognition, tribes don’t get the same health, housing and education services as Native tribeswithfederal status. It also leaves them landless without control of their own cultural artifacts and ancestral remains.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: There are two main ways that tribes get federal recognition. The first is through what’s called the federal acknowledgment process, or FAP. This requires tribes to collect a lot of information and it usually means hiring historians, anthropologists, and other people with expertise in gathering historical information.

Johanna Miyaki: Dr. Azocar says tribes can also get federal recognition through the legislative process — like an act of Congress. They both have the same challenges of providing endless documentation that often no longer exists. Dr. Azocar is native herself and says her tribe ran into similar challenges when they sought federal recognition.

Dr. Cristina L. Azocar: We couldn't produce the required historical records to prove that we were actually Indian. This act of paper genocide reclassified all Indians as either negro or white.

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

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

Johanna Miyaki: The process is so costly and so complex, many tribes don’t even try. Charlene Nijmeh says the fight doesn’t end there. They have to fight to preserve their culture, too.

Charlene Nijmeh: I feel honestly, what we face ... is this politics of erasure.

Johanna Miyaki: California Native tribes have been coming together to make their presence known and visible with public events like Cali Native Night and campaigns on college campuses. As public attitudes start to change, there is hope that their calls for federal recognition will be heard.

Thanks for asking this important question, Isabella.