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The Muwekma Ohlone tribe wants federal recognition. A new group of Stanford students supports their efforts.

Justice for Muwekma, a new student activist group from Stanford, supports the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe in their efforts to achieve federal government recognition. Here’s a look at the tribe, their fight for federal recognition, and the Stanford students working to help the Muwekma Ohlone people achieve that goal.

Historical context

While 574 tribes are currently federally recognized, up to 400 other tribes in the United States still lack federal recognition. Among them is the Muwekma Ohlone tribe – a group with more than 600 tribal members whose ancestral lands include the Stanford campus.

This month of June marks the 98th anniversary of the adoption of the Indian Citizenship Actwhich granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States, and 88 years since the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which returned some land to the tribes and promoted Native American self-reliance. These years represent almost a century of continuous recovery of European immigrants war against and colonization Native Americans hundreds of years ago.

Even after the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Citizenship and Reorganization Acts, Native American communities across the United States continued to to suffer of poverty and discrimination. Access the range of services and resources available to Native Americans through the federal government depends on federal tribal recognition.

The struggle for federal recognition

For the families of the Muwekma, the fight for federal recognition has been going on for four decades, according to San Francisco Bay Area Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe President Charlene Nijmeh.

The Muwekma Ohlone tribe, formerly called the “Verona Band”, was identified as landless in the 1906 census and was included in a list of tribes to be given land by Congress in 1914, 1923 and 1927, according to Nijmeh . However, the tribe was then deleted of the list in 1978, with 134 other Indian bands of California, without communication.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) said the tribe was not listed on the official 1978 list because “the tribe became extinct for reasons yet to be determined”, according to Nijmeh. However, “the tribe has never gone away and has always been prominent,” she said.

Without official status as a federally recognized tribe, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and other non-federally recognized tribes have three routes to obtain federal recognition: by completing the administrative procedures under Part 83 of Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), by act of Congress or by order of a United States court.

In 2013, the Department of the Interior (DOI) which implements Part 83 of Title 25 received 356 letters of intent from groups seeking federal recognition. To date, 18 petitions have been recognized and 34 petitions refuse.

The lead author of the Title 25 Part 83 Recognition Regulations, John Bud Shepard, former Branch Leader of the Federal Recognition Project, referred to the settlement as “fatally flawed and impractical” during congressional testimony in 1992. The procedure “takes too long to produce results”, is administratively “too complicated”, and “decisions are subjective and are not necessarily accurate,” he said.

After decades of going through the “flawed and faulty federal recognition process”, Muwekma Ohlone tribesmen have realized that “only a grassroots movement of the community and citizens can convince political leaders”, Nijmeh said.

A class with Charlene Nijmeh, president of the Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area, and other tribal guests at Kairos House on April 12. Nijmeh and other members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe hope to build a grassroots movement. (Photo courtesy of Toli Tate)

Justice for Muwekma

This year, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe began working with Stanford students from the group Justice for Muwekma, who help the tribe implement social and historical justice campaigns on campus that focus on promoting rights and justice. welfare of the tribe, according to Nijmeh.

The group of students first initiated a class project from CSRE 196C: “Introduction to Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies,” a course taught by Professor Michael Wilcox. The course included an optional community-engaged learning section, which connected students with members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe.

The Justice for Muwekma campus activist group got to work based on the urgency of the situation, according to Wilcox.

Educating the student body about the federal recognition process is a priority for the student group because “the student body in general has very little knowledge” of the process for tribes, said John Lowndes ’25, an Alaska native and member of Justice for Muwekma. “Visibility is a huge goal,” he said. To that end, the student group is also working to fly the tribe’s flag on campus, according to Lowndes.

The group has created a variety of campaigns and projects to support the tribe, including a social media toolkit, Instagram campaign, digital murals, stickers and brochures. They also held briefings and two telephone banking events to pressure the Senate committee and Bay Area lawmakers to vote on the California Joint Senate Resolution 13 (SJR 13) which seeks federal recognition of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, according to Nijmeh. Recently, the group showed up at the 51st Annual Stanford Pow Wow to build support for the cause.

Lowndes, Evan Kanji ’22 and Lily Joy Winder ’25, all of whom became involved in Justice for Muwekma after taking Wilcox’s course, agreed that the Stanford community should be aware of the people whose lands they occupy. “Our student body is less about us and more about the tribe,” Lowndes said.

Through their work, the band members also reflect on themselves, their roles and positions as Stanford students, according to Kanji. Stanford students “should use institutional power and privilege to empower others”, and a key part of Justice for Muwekma is “to use our voices to amplify other voices”, he said.

As an Indigenous student at Stanford, Winder said she thought a lot about how to spread the passion and goals of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe for others to care about. “Fighting for federal recognition shouldn’t just be a burden on the Native American community — it should be everyone’s job,” she said.

Justice for Muwekma has become “the foundation of a new relationship between the Stanford community and the tribe,” said Wilcox, lecturer in Native American studies and CSRE and tribal historic preservation officer for the area’s Muwekma Ohlone tribe. of San Francisco Bay. .

Like his students, Wilcox said he “felt a responsibility to educate the Stanford community about the Native American community” as a member of the nation’s small population of Native American archaeologists.

“We can make change anywhere in the world we want — but we also have the same chance to make change right here on campus,” Wilcox said.

A group of five students smile at the camera.
Members of Stanford’s Justice for Muwekma chapter. The group aims to serve as a link between the Stanford community and the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. (Photo courtesy of Keoni Rodriguez)

Looking forward

Rather than creating tribes, President Nijmeh said federal recognition “recognizes previous social and political communities in the United States.”

Through this recognition, the tribe aims to secure the repatriation of ancestral remains, as well as other federal benefits. The University of California, Berkeley currently holds about 24,000 ancestral remains of Muwekma, according to Wilcox.

The Muwekma Ohlone tribe hopes to expand its movement from Stanford to other universities, and even Bay Area high schools where the tribe may have Justice for Muwekma chapters working independently to lobby for political support, according to Nijmeh.

“It is vitally important that the Stanford community set an example for others as the University resides on the Aboriginal territory of the Muwekma Ohlone people,” she said. “It takes a powerful spark to ignite a wildfire and I believe these bright, passionate, respectful and caring students are the spark we needed.”

Nijmeh also pointed out that restoring Muwekma’s status is not complicated: Congress can simply pass a bill. It is not about evidence or documentation of tribal community and continuity, which is irrefutable, she said. Rather, she said the decision of whether a tribe should be federally recognized was corrupted by the influence of already recognized tribes.

“Our rights as a sovereign people to choose their own path have been historically ignored. Our culture, our traditions, our language, our belief systems and even our children have been stolen from us. All of these attacks on our sovereignty were due to the fact that the lands we inhabited were too precious,” she said. “We must restore our sovereignty to ensure that our traditions, our culture and our language survive and are never attacked again.”