The Politics of Erasure and the Missing Tribal Name in Bay Area History

The Politics of Erasure and the Missing Tribal Name in Bay Area History May 2021

California is known for its open and inclusive culture and the diversity of its population. The Bay Area is home to the world’s biggest companies – Facebook, Google, EBay, and Apple are the ones that immediately come to mind. The history of the state mirrors that of America itself – one of growth, acceptance of religions and cultures, progress, and prosperity. Unfortunately, there are people and cultures within the state, and in fact that are indigenous to it, that have been overlooked by the dominant society and its history. The Bay Area itself is home to over 7 million people. Few of them are aware that within their ranks are the original inhabitants and owners of this land, with a history that dates back over several milennia before the first European settlers arrived.

The Geographical Distribution of Ohlone Dialect-Speaking Tribal Groups

The Bay Area has been, for thousands of years, the home of a multitude of intermarried aboriginal tribes who spoke regional dialects of the Ohlone language. The name is a variant spelling of the Oljon Thamien Ohlone-speaking tribe from the Pacific Coast north of Santa Cruz who were Missionized into Mission San Francisco between 1786 and 1793. The Ohlone tribes in general were also referred by the Spanish name “Costenos” or coastal people based upon the relatedness of their languages from the Monterey Bay area northwards to the greater San Francisco Bay Area which was later deployed by various 19th century linguists, and later by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as “Costanoan.” Today, the ethnonym Ohlone has been misapplied to be inclusive of all native groups that inhabited the region. Some scholars have suggested that there were over 50 independent tribes that spoke the interrelated Ohlone dialects, and each tribe consisting of multiple villages numbered up to and over 500 people.

The Politics of Erasure and the Missing Tribal Name in Bay Area History

These Ohlone dialect-speaking tribal groups occupied a large area of land running from the lands surrounding the greater circum-San Francisco Bay region to the south of Monterey Bay. This encompassed the counties of (as we call them today) San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and northern Monterey. Although, these geographical homelands of the Ohlone-speaking tribes were extensive, however, the size of the combined population is not known, due to the introduction of diseases and colonization, the greater Bay Area may have held a population approaching 30,000 people. This population figure is calculated when considering the fact that over 6,000 neophytes were buried at the 3rd Mission Santa Clara Indian Neophyte Cemetery between 1781 and 1818, and another 2000+ are burials at the location of the 4th Mission Santa Clara cemetery nearby. Pre-mission Spanish-contact expeditions had reported seeing a very large number of native settlements in this region, often with over 120 people living in each village. In 1777 Father Serra noted that in the region surrounding the 1st Mission Santa Clara that: “A large population of gentiles surround the site, such as we judge there are more than forty rancherias within a radius of five leagues [approximately 13 miles], of a people that we may call Tares, since that is the name they give to men.” In another case at a large village which the Portolà expedition in October 1769 named a large Quiroste Ohlone village Rancheria de la Casa Grande by Whitehouse Creek, after the large Túupentak (ceremonial roundhouse) that could hold the entire village of approximately 250 people. Father Crespi wrote:

“Here we stopped close to a large village of very well-behaved good heathens, who greeted us with loud cheers and rejoiced greatly at our coming. At this village there was a very large grass-roofed house, round like a half-orange, which, by what we saw of it inside, could hold everyone in the whole village. Around the big house they had many little houses of split sticks set upright... ”

The Muwekma Ohlone

Among the surviving Bay Area missionized Indian Ohlone lineages from the 19th and 20th centuries are the present-day Muwekma. These people have a long history of residing in the San Francisco area, based on archaeological evidence of human occupation for over ten thousand years. They never left their aboriginal homeland, and it is where the enrolled Muwekma families of today continue to live.

From time immemorial, the origins of the Muwekma people are lost in the mists of time, but their modern history begins with the Spanish invasion of California in 1769. At the time the Hispanic empire expanded into Alta California, the Muwekma ancestors occupied what is today San Francisco, San Mateo, much of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and parts of Napa, Solano, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz Counties. The records of the Spanish Missions San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Jose are the first written records documenting the baptisms, marriages, and deaths of the Muwekma families. From 1776 to 1836, Spain, along with the Catholic church, converted the tribe to Christianity, and reduced the tribe’s population into several mission-based communities that resided predominantly in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.

Shattering the Myth that the Ohlone were Never Federally Recognized

The notion that the aboriginal inhabitants of North America were one large homogenous group is a myth. There are today 574 federally recognized Native American tribes (in various categories), and this number does not include the many smaller historic tribes that are still fighting for recognition. Another myth that was shattered, by the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe on May 24, 1996, was a positive determination that the tribe was under the federal jurisdiction of the Indian Service Bureau (aka BIA), and waiting for land purchase for landless Indian tribes in California, through the Congressional California Indian Homeless and Landless Acts of 1906, 1908, and later years. The Muwekma Tribe is one tribe that was federally recognized because of those federal actions in 1906, one year after the discovery of the 18 unratified treaties of California dated 1851-1852. A man living in San Jose named Charles E. Kelsey, serving as the secretary for the Northern California Indian Association brought evidence on the conditions of California Indians to the United States Senate in 1904, and he and a clerk requested that the seal of secrecy be lifted on a packet of documents which was labeled California. Those unratified treaties were the only legal instrument that the federal government had to take land from Native American Tribes. Charles E. Kelsey who was named as Special Indian Agent for California Indians visited the tribal rancherias in Pleasanton and Niles, and made a partial Special Indian Census, thus bringing the tribe under his direct jurisdiction. Even though, land was recommended for purchase for the Muwekma, no land was ever purchased, and the tribe, has remained landless ever since.

The Muwekma families later enrolled with the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the 1928 California Indian Jurisdictional Act from 1929 -1932, and again from 1950 to 1957, and during the third BIA enrollment period from 1968-1971. In the 1950s checks for $150.00 per head of household were issued as a settlement for the value of 8.5 million acres of land (with interest back to 1852) that the California tribes were to receive, and in the 1970s checks for $668.61 were issued once again for the value of 64,425,000 acres of land, as just compensation for the theft of California lands from the aboriginal people.

Today the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is active in revitalizing their language and traditions, being stewards over their ancestral heritage sites, and educating university students, faculty, and staff about their history, as well as developing educational museum displays for the general public and school groups.

As the philosopher George Santayana stated:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To learn more about the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, its activities, and objectives, and to participate in what the tribe is doing, click here.