Homecoming for the Ohlone: Honoring Tribal Recognition

By Mary Ellen Hunt


If you walk into the cool quiet of Mission San Francisco de Asis, better known these days as Mission Dolores, there’s a curious, multi-tiered hut constructed out of reeds in the cemetery. That, along with a small columnar monument, are among the few hints that you can find in San Francisco of the Ohlone people who populated the Bay Area long before the Spanish settled here.

Now scattered in the mainly southern parts of California, the Ohlone–you may be surprised to learn–are not extinct as many people assume–indeed the U.S. federal government designates them “terminated.” Nine Ohlone tribes, hailing from San Jose to Pomona have applied for tribal recognition, which is granted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To date, none of them have received recognition, although one, the Muwekma Ohlone of San Jose, was once recognized, but then later declared extinct in 1931.

When you talk about his family’s background with Tony Cerda–the chairman of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe, who will be honored with this year’s Malonga Casquelourde Lifetime Achievement Award on June 3 at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of their appearances at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival–he can rattle off a detailed history of each of his forebears, starting with ancestors baptized in the Mission in 1811. He’ll tell you who they were, what they did for a living and where their lives took them, and you slowly come to realize that the recitation is partly a savoring of family threads that he can trace back two hundred years, but it’s also partly a testament constructed out of necessity. One of the criteria for attaining tribal recognition is that groups must prove a continuous lineage as a community stretching back through historical times.

A Culture Disrupted
Cerda’s ancestors were among the many thousands of Ohlone at Mission Dolores whose culture was abruptly fractured by the arrival of Spanish missionaries in California. A hunter-gatherer society with a population that many estimate in the tens of thousands, the Ohlone lifestyle dramatically shifted to an agricultural base as more and more of the members of the tribe were converted to Christianity. By the early part of the 19th century, there were hundreds of Ohlone living inside the mission walls they themselves had helped to construct.

Life in the mission, as history records, was not kind to the Ohlone. Strict rules kept the men working in the fields and confined young unmarried women to monjerias, and if a convert decided that they wanted to leave, they would often be treated as runaways–chased down and returned to the mission where they faced punishment. As with many other native populations, the Ohlone were exposed to diseases previously unknown to them, and in the close living quarters of the mission, epidemics of such diseases as the measles would run rampant, decimating the population.

It was during such an epidemic that Cerda recounts one of his ancestors leaving for Monterey. It was the start of a pattern of migration that would lead members of Cerda’s family from Carmel to Pasadena, searching for work and for a place to live where, as Cerda delicately puts it, the political climate would be better.

Though identification with native heritage is now more often than not a point of pride, it was, in the not too distant past, often ill-advised, even dangerous to claim Ohlone lineage. From the time of the missions through the Gold Rush, Ohlone were targets for violence and retribution.

Fighting for recognition
Neil MacLean, the administrator of the Ohlone Profiles website, notes that the obstacles to achieving federal recognition are so vast that few tribes can mount a petition successfully.

“It takes an enormous amount of money to gather the documentation that’s required,” he explains, “and there are just no resources for that. So do you pay to mount a legal assault, or do you try to focus on preserving your culture?” Cerda is also philosophical about the idea of gaining tribal recognition.

“Not having federal recognition doesn’t mean they don’t know we’re here,” he says. “It’s an agreement made between one government and another.”

He cites Rosemary Cambra’s struggle for recognition as a kind of cautionary tale for tribes attempting to file a petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Cambra led a decades long effort to gain recognition for the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in San Jose, the tribe which was acknowledged by the U.S. until 1927. Stripped of their status by a bureaucratic loophole that declared the tribe “landless” and therefore ineligible for recognition with the BIA the Muwekma tribe has spent years attempting to get reaffirmation of their recognition. After filing petitions to be reinstated that were delayed throughout the 1990s, the tribe brought a lawsuit against the BIA, requiring a decision about their status. In 2002, the decision was finally returned, and although it was agreed that they had proven that members were descended from a historically recognized tribe and that the previous tribal recognition was not terminated legally, their status as federally acknowledged would not be confirmed. “Ask her how much she’s spent,” says Cerda, “Millions? Only to be turned down! It takes a lot of money, and people who would help us with that money would only be interested if we were building casinos. But we’re not interested in casinos, we’re only interested in the health and education of our members.”

Even without formal recognition of the tribe, Cerda notes that over 500 members of the Costanoan Rumsen are certified individually as Indians and that ironically, they have a tribal operations number with the BIA.

“Doesn’t that tell you that we’re recognized in a form?” he says. “But our right of indigenous occupancy was never honored. And they still dishonor it.”

But for now he concentrates on preserving the culture and educating the public about their history. Cerda explains that his tribe continues many of the Ohlone traditions, ceremonies, sweat lodges, even language.

“Language is what the Spaniards first took away from us,” he says a little defiantly, “Slowly we’re bringing it back.”

Healing at the Big Time
In a celebratory, yet also poignant moment of this year’s San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, on Saturday June 18, Cerda’s Costanoan Rumsen tribe will host a California Big Time Indian Gathering in the Yerba Buena Gardens. Tribes from all over the state will meet for a day honoring the Ohlone that will include healing ceremonies as well as performances from the Elem Indian Colony Tribe, the Pit River Maidu Tribe, the Winnemum Wintu Tribe, the Shingle Springs Miwok Tribe, the Stewarts Point Kashaya Band of Pomo, and the Manchester Pomo Tribe–all open to the public for free. In addition, a Native Contemporary Arts Festival will feature arts and crafts.

“It helps us to let people know that we’re still here,” Cerda says of the festival.

Right now it’s about having a cultural survival strategy,” says MacLean, “We are looking for an ongoing cultural presence in San Francisco.”

What shape that might take is debatable. Cerda and the Costanoan Rumsen have made a concerted effort to keep the tribe in the public eye and they feel that a strong presence in San Francisco is important for historical reasons, but also for spiritual connection that they have to the land. In the past ten years, Cerda has made the journey from Southern California with members of the tribe to conduct healing ceremonies on Crissy Field–where ancient shell mounds mark the sites where the Ohlone buried their dead–and at Mission Dolores. “There’s over 6,000 of our people buried there under the blacktop of the parking lot of Mission Dolores,” says Cerda matter-of-factly, “So that’s why we did our ceremony there.”

An Ongoing Ohlone Presence
Although the Ohlone have conducted events in the Bay Area frequently, MacLean suggests that establishing something that’s a more solid brick-and-mortar would be the next step.

“One need of the community is a genealogical research library,” he observes, noting that it was a great opportunity for Cerda when Mission Dolores granted him access to their archives and he discovered the record of the baptism of one of his ancestors. “It would help members clarify so many things.”

A museum or cultural center, he says, where records and artifacts could be gathered and which could house a performing space would be an enormous boon to the Ohlone.

“If we think about a cultural revival and recovery,” MacLean goes on, “dance and music forms are one of the primary modalities as a way of preserving culture.”

During the Ethnic Dance Festival’s last weekend the Costanoan Rumsen group will also perform onstage at the Novellus Theater in Yerba Buena. Bringing the tribal members back to San Francisco, says Cerda, is expensive, but “as long as we can afford to come, we’re going to come, because that’s what it takes,” he says. “We’re bear people, bear medicine people, and it’s important to us to do these ceremonies to heal the land and heal the spirits of the land. That’s our culture and heritage and our religion.”

In fact, in the Yerba Buena Gardens Big Time, in addition to sweat lodges and talking circle ceremonies, the tribe will be performing healing ceremonies, which he says are very much open to the public to see and take part in.

“It’s important that we do these things, ” Cerda declares. “People in the city need healing too, not just people in the woods and in the mountains.”

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of In Dance.

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.