By Jana Kadah. San Jose Spotlight.
San José leaders want to delve into the history of the local Indigenous community in an effort to understand the past and recommit to greater inclusion in the future.
San José Council members Peter Ortiz, Dev Davis, David Cohen, Domingo Candelas and Bien Doan propose a study session to learn more about the relationship of the Muwekma Ohlone people, an indigenous tribe in Santa Clara County, with the rest of Saint Joseph. The study session is scheduled for early next year, Ortiz said.
Ortiz hopes that by fully knowing the tribe's background, city officials will be more aware of how to engage the Muwekma Ohlone in discussions about developments that could affect their lands.
“We hope that local experts from San José State, Santa Clara University, anthropological leaders and stakeholders will be part of these conversations,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight.
The idea for a study session came about when Charlene Nijmeh, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, asked the city earlier this year to support the tribe's resolution calling for federal recognition. Recognition would allow the Muwekma Ohlone people to establish their own tribal government, as well as receive some federal benefits such as health care, housing services and protections.
“Federal recognition recognizes the sovereignty of my people, and what sovereignty means is being able to govern ourselves and remain on our 10,000-year-old lands,” Nijmeh explained to San José Spotlight. “The other thing that has always been important to Muwekma is that the repatriation is done to ensure that we are at the table to protect our ancestors when they are discovered (during development).”
Lands sacred to indigenous tribes have been desecrated by development across the country. Locally, the development at 180 Park Ave. unearthed more than 50 human remains during construction in 2022, believed to be related to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. It was stopped for an archaeological evaluation, but development eventually continued, Nijmeh said.
The Muwekma Ohlone are ancestral to San Francisco, San Mateo, most of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and parts of Napa, Santa Cruz, Solano, and San Joaquin counties. Like other California tribes, the Muwekma Ohlone were subject to brutal colonization largely by the Spanish between 1776 and 1836.
Alan Leventhal, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University, said that's the story most people know. But what people don't understand is that the Muwekma Ohlone people are still an active part of society, he said, despite the tribe's declining numbers.
Until the 1930s, the Muwekma Ohlone still spoke their native language and at one point owned more than 64 million acres of land, although the federal government forced the tribe to give it up for just $688,051, Leventhal said. And although the Muwekma Ohlone tribe has been recognized by the U.S. government since 1905, Leventhal said the government removed them from the federal register in 1927 when it was decided their numbers were too small.
The Muwekma Ohlone faced repeated setbacks from 1928 to 1971 in attempting to gain federal recognition as a tribe. In 2002, the federal government rejected them again.
Still, tribal leaders persisted. They worked with state leaders over decades, and last year, state Sen. Dave Cortese introduced California Senate Joint Resolution 13 to gain state support for federal recognition of Muwekma Ohlone, but the initiative failed in committee.
Nijmeh said that's when the tribe realized it needed to work together with municipal governments to help put pressure on the state and, in turn, the federal government, despite many broken promises. This study session is a step forward in repairing these key relationships, he said.
“I told the city to go to the experts to get their opinion on who survived the genocide that occurred here in the Bay Area. That is what they are doing,” Nijmeh told San José Spotlight. “They want to get to the truth and they will get it.”
In 2003, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe numbered approximately 600 members. Today, there are only about 100 living in Santa Clara County, Nijmeh said, as members are forced to leave their ancestral homes.
Ortiz is optimistic that by holding a study session, the city will further support the Muwekma Ohlone people who live in and around San José to feel included in government decisions.
“Many of them are relearning their language, appropriating their dances and spiritual practices,” Ortiz stressed to San José Spotlight. “It is important for us as a government to support these populations and guide them as they essentially reclaim their heritage.”
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