SAN JOSE LEADERS want to dive deeper into the history of the local Indigenous community in an effort understand the past and recommit to more inclusion in the future.
San Jose Councilmembers Peter Ortiz, Dev Davis, David Cohen, Domingo Candelas and Bien Doan are proposing a study session to learn more about the relation of the Muwekma Ohlone people — an Indigenous tribe from Santa Clara County — to wider San Jose. The study session is planned for early next year, Ortiz said.
Ortiz hopes that by fully learning about the tribe’s background, city officials will be more aware of bringing the Muwekma Ohlone into discussions involving development that could affect their lands.
“It’s our hope to have local experts from San Jose State, Santa Clara University, anthropologist leaders and stakeholders to all be a part of these conversations,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight.
The idea for a study session was sparked 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 acknowledges my people’s sovereignty, and what sovereignty means is being able to self govern ourselves and to stay on our 10,000-year-old homelands,” Nijmeh told San José Spotlight. “The other thing that’s always been important to Muwekma is that repatriation is being met to make sure we are at the table to protect our ancestors when they are uncovered (during development).”
Desecrated by development
Lands sacred to Indigenous tribes have been desecrated by development across the country. Locally, the development on 180 Park Ave. unearthed more than 50 human remains during construction in 2022, thought to be related to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. It was paused for an archaeological assessment, but the development eventually went on, Nijmeh said.
The Muwekma Ohlone are ancestral to San Francisco, San Mateo, most of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and portions 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 anthropologist lecturer for San Jose State University, said that is the history most people know. But what people fail to understand is the Muwekma Ohlone people are still an active part of society, he said, despite the tribe’s dwindling numbers.
Up until the 1930s, Muwekma Ohlone still spoke their native language and at one point had more than 64 million acres of land — though the federal government forced the tribe to give it up for a mere $688.51, Leventhal said. And although the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was recognized by the U.S. government dating back to 1905, Leventhal said the government removed them from the federal registrar in 1927 when it was decided their numbers were too few.
“I (told) the city go to the experts, get their input on who survived the genocide that happened right here in the Bay Area. So that’s what they’re doing.”Charlene Nijmeh, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe
The Muwekma Ohlone faced repeated setbacks from 1928 through 1971 in attempting to get federally recognized as a tribe. In 2002 the federal government rejected them again.
Still, tribal leaders persisted. They worked with state leaders throughout the decades and last year, state Sen. Dave Cortese introduced California Senate Joint Resolution 13 to get the state’s support for federal recognition of the Muwekma Ohlone — but the initiative failed in committee.
Nijmeh said that’s when the tribe realized it needed to work in tandem with city governments to help lobby the state, and in turn, the federal government — despite many broken promises. This study session is a step forward in repairing these key relationships, she said.
“I (told) the city go to the experts, get their input on who survived the genocide that happened right here in the Bay Area. So that’s what they’re doing,” Nijmeh told San José Spotlight. “They want to get down to the truth and they will get the truth.”
Priced out of ancestral home
In 2003, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe numbered roughly 600 members. Today, there are only about 100 living in Santa Clara County, Nijmeh said, as members are being priced out of their ancestral home.
Ortiz is optimistic that by holding a study session, the city will further support the Muwekma Ohlone people living in and around San Jose to feel included in government decisions.
“Many of them are relearning their language, owning their dances and their spiritual practices,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “It’s important for us as a government to support these populations and guide them as they essentially reclaim their heritage.”
Contact Jana Kadah at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.