Silicon Valley, Newsom, and Bay Area Democratic careers have been built upon the stolen lands of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe
February 24, 2023 By Breeauna Sagdal
CASTRO VALLEY, Calif.—The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is locked in a century-old holding pattern, fighting to be restored to federal recognition. The fight began in 1927, when an Indian Affairs Commissioner with conflicts of interest, purged Bay Area tribes from the federal registry. Originally recognized in 1906, the Muwekma Ohlone’s genealogy has been traced back to the Verona Band of Mission Indians, nearly eradicated after Spanish contact in 1769. The tribe was hunted, first by the Spanish, and then by California’s first Governor, Democratic slave-owner Peter Burnett, who issued scalping bounties when gold was found on tribal lands. Burnett however, is perhaps most famous for the "Burnett Lash Laws," implemented during his time as an Oregon senator.
In an attempt to reconcile the atrocities of racism, multiple broken treaties, genocide and the homelessness of indigenous peoples, Congress created the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). Congress then passed new laws and appropriated funding, requiring the BIA to buy land for “homeless indians.”
However, the government never found land for what they called the Verona Band tribes, and similar to what is happening today, the tribe took a back seat to the special interests protected by local power brokers. Essentially, a loophole has been exploited that exists within the registry system; any tribe not recognized by the federal government is neither entitled to lands or services.
As a result, none of the contemporary Indigenous groups whose ancestors lived in the central San Francisco Bay Area or Monterey Bay areas are recognized as tribes by the federal government.
Today, the more than 600 enrolled members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe remain committed to the reclamation of their ancestral lands, bones, and artifacts. Unfortunately for the tribe, these lands essentially encapsulate parts of the San Francisco Bay, and Silicon Valley–arguably the most expensive real-estate market in the State of California.
Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Charlene Nijmeh, has been touring the Bay Area and Washington D.C. in her push for justice. Recently, Nijmeh shared the story of her people, the history of near-extinction, and the conflicts of interest still influencing continued colonialist behaviors, during a U.C Berkeley TedTalk.
Ironically, congressional Democrats, who have campaigned on reparations and anti-racism, are now at the forefront of Muwekma oppression and “colonialism,” demanding the Tribe forfeit economic development rights in order to attain federal recognition. In other words, no nation-building, only access to select government services.
Eshoo, who famously demanded the censorship of political opponents as “misinformation,” has refocused her oppression to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, as they fight for their right to nation-build. According to a press release from the tribe;
“Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh was invited to a meeting that became unexpectedly hostile with five members of the Bay Area congressional delegation, in which one of the members claimed she was 'aiming arrows' at the members by communicating discrepancies in members and staff claims in public and private communications. Another purported the Tribe doesn’t adequately understand colonialism, and another mentioned he didn’t know the Tribe.”
Pennsylvania born and raised Congressman Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said that the Tribe didn’t understand colonialism as much as he does. Congressman Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., claimed that it would be hard to work on helping the tribe if they “aim arrows,” at Congress–in an upset related to the tribe's communications with the press, exposing recent events. And Congressman Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif, claimed he didn’t know who the Tribe was, which is either dismissive or ignorant of Bay Area history.
One source explained the situation on background, and later provided a statement; “it’s kind of difficult when you are working for someone you believe in and they pull this kind of embarrassing behavior, especially to this Tribe, simply fighting for justice. I thought it’s what we are all here for.”
No one, including the BIA, disputes the tribe’s ancestry. According to the tribe, they just want their ancestors' remains returned, and the right to prosperity and nation-building, not handouts.
The Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council is reportedly in communication with the California Attorney General’s office. The Tribe’s spokesman Jonathan Lockwood, penned a letter to AG Rob Banta, whose father walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK was a staunch ally of the indigenous peoples, and the letter underscored that support, in an inspirational appeal to an honorable man.
“Attorney General Rob Banta has the opportunity to stand up for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and not only insert ethics into the Bay Area political machine, but correct atrocities of the past,” Lockwood writes. “The Bay Area delegation is perpetuating colonialist policies by attempting to extort the tribe and put conditions on their federal recognition. People don’t know the ugly foundation of the West Coast as a white supremacist haven of slave-owning Democrat politicians."
“Their frameworks are still in place, being weaponized against marginalized groups, and upheld by the current politicians who enjoy the benefits of building their careers on Muwekma lands, while denying the Muwekma people justice, as they campaign on equity and justice for all,” Lockwood concluded.
Lockwood pointed to the fact that not only have the attorney general and Bay Area delegation built their careers on Muwekma lands, but so has California's Gov. Gavin Newsom. According to Lockwood, Newsom’s office has been made aware of the political battery faced by the Tribe, yet has heretofore remained silent on the issue.
According to sources familiar with the situation, the Tribe is hopeful that their relations with the AG’s office will produce results, as Banta’s office could have a tremendous impact on the outcomes.
While the Tribe has vast support from the community and its leaders, the road to recognition has still been an uphill battle, even in 2023 with advanced societal awareness. Recently, Democratic operatives have whispered about Chairwoman Nijmeh’s political motivations and are concerned about her desire to run for Congress. Nijmeh dispelled those murmurs, sharing that her current focus is the Tribe’s recognition. The San Francisco Chronicle’s self-important Shira Stein cheapened the Tribe's fight for recognition as a ploy for gambling rights, echoing Lofgren’s propaganda. Stein even went so far as to speculate that federal recognition would give the Muwekma Ohlone an unfair advantage, claiming a casino would come next. Fortunately for the Tribe, other papers in the Bay Area have countered the Chronicle’s blatant bias.
Lockwood says if Nijmeh did run she’d have vast support from constituencies needed to win in California, and that she would get national support too.
“Chairwoman Nijmeh is a formidable leader, she has alliances from the Muwekma Lands to the United States Capitol,” said Lockwood. “Everywhere we go, people say she should run. People in the Bay Area are outraged and sick of failed leadership, corruption and entrenched career-politicians.”
Despite these apparent attempts to undermine their efforts, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe has not lost support, backed down or succumbed to political suppression. Undeterred, Nijmeh and her staff are heading to the United States Capitol in March to continue congressional relations amid its push to attain the restoration of their federal recognition.
According to Nijmeh, the delegation will also be joined by advocates including; academics, faith leaders and students from Bay Area schools and universities.
“The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is thankful for the vast amount of support we have in the Bay Area, and we are looking forward to bringing the message of Justice for Muwekma to Washington, D.C.,” said Nijmeh. “The California delegation has the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, restore our recognition, honor their commitments and create a freer, more just future.”
In addition to meeting with the state’s senators, Nijmeh will be rekindling talks with the Bay Area congressional delegation. While meetings with Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Congressman Jay Obernolte, D-Calif., went well during the Tribe’s last trip, the meeting with the congressional delegation from the Bay Area was a departure from their districts’ support of the Tribe.
“The Bay Area is behind the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. The congressional delegation should listen to their constituents and uphold agreements with us,” said Nijmeh. “I think we can move on from colonialist diatribes and racist policies, and that starts with legislation to restore our federal recognition without economic sanctions.”
Please help us to continue telling these vital stories, by making a donation today!
Editor's Note- While this article deviates from the Dakota Leader's usual focus on South Dakota State policy, we believe this story is vital to recognize in the broader context of water and land rights. As Congressional Candidate and member of the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Tribe, Bruce Whalen, has stated many times over, "what has happened to our people is now happening to every American across the country." --Breeauna Sagdal