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The Little Tribe That Could 

As descendants of San Francisco’s aboriginal people, the Muwekma Ohlone Indian tribe seldom gets much respect. But that could be about to change.

Wednesday, Mar 28 2007
In the arcane and often contradictory world known as Indian Country, the Muwekma Ohlone have long been a special case. Claiming San Francisco and much of the Bay Area as their ancestral homeland, the Muwekma, about 450 strong, are the Rodney Dangerfield of California Indian tribes.

Seldom have they gotten much respect.

The little-known tribe was summarily ignored in the late 1980s when it laid claim first to the Presidio, and then to the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, after the government announced the closure of military installations at those locations.

More recently, it suffered the indignity of having other tribes backed by powerful casino interests (but with dubious ancestral connections to the Bay Area) seek to establish lucrative gaming empires at San Francisco's doorstep, on its claimed ancestral turf. Those tribes — including the Koi Nation and several other upstate Pomo groups, each with designs on opening gaming meccas along the East Bay shoreline — possess something that has long eluded the Muwekma: all-important federal recognition.

Just how the Muwekma, whose descendants were federally recognized until 1927, became outcasts in the eyes of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has jurisdiction in such matters, is a tale unto itself. It involves a long-ago tragic misjudgment by a famous UC Berkeley anthropologist and the apparent incompetence of one or more government agents. The tribe's predicament is all the more peculiar considering that similar Native American groups with an arguably weaker case for federal recognition have — with help from friends in high places — managed to obtain it.

But the Muwekma have taken an unusual approach to seeking sovereign nationhood. For the past eight years, they've duked it out with the federal government in court. Leading the fight is scrappy Muwekma tribal chair Rosemary Cambra, who lives in a Milpitas mobile home park and once served time in jail for belting an archaeologist with a shovel.

Financed by their own casino sugar daddy, Florida real estate tycoon Alan Ginsburg and his associates, as well as with proceeds from the tribe's own archaeological consulting firm, the otherwise humble Muwekma have spent millions of dollars on the effort. Much of that money has gone toward procuring the aid of a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm.

Now their struggle may be about to pay off.

A federal judge, who last September was openly skeptical of the government's rationale for withholding recognition from the tribe, is expected to rule perhaps as early as June on whether to grant Muwekma the acknowledgement it seeks. The decision by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton of the District of Columbia, who presided over the recent obstruction-of-justice trial of former vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, promises to have far-reaching repercussions.

"The implications are broad and for the tribe the stakes are high," says Carole Goldberg, who teaches Indian law at UCLA and who has monitored the tribe's legal struggle.

Owing to an obscure federal law passed in 1990 giving recognized tribes new rights with regard to Indian artifacts and skeletal remains, a victory could mean that the Muwekma will be able to demand the repatriation of thousands of Ohlone skeletal remains at UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum — the largest repository of Indian bones outside the Smithsonian.

But more significantly, recognition would open the door for the tribe, with the U.S. Department of the Interior's approval, to place land in federal trust as a "reservation" on which it could open a casino. Indeed, should they attain recognition, the Muwekma almost assuredly will become the envy of non-gaming tribes from outlying regions of the state who've tried and thus far not succeeded at "reservation shopping" — that is, attempting to set up casino operations in urban areas far from their aboriginal homeland. The Muwekma, as it turns out, have an ace in the hole giving them an advantage over their would-be casino competitors.

"Recognition will change the natural order of things in a number of ways," says Colin Cloud Hampson, one of the tribe's lawyers. "In a political sense it is clear that the Muwekma will be in a much stronger position than perhaps many people ever imagined."

At first blush, Rosemary Cambra, 59, a one-time nurse who lives modestly with her Portuguese-American husband of 38 years, doesn't fit the stereotype of someone who could soon become the leader of a sovereign nation.

Mild-mannered and with a shock of snow-white hair that appears brilliant enough to glow in the dark, she speaks softly and measures her words carefully when it comes to tribal matters, as if the weight of a people rests on her shoulders.

The daughter of farm workers whose older sister once marched with Cesar Chavez, Cambra says her coming of age as an activist came in 1969 when she was a young woman. That year, she and some friends with access to a fishing boat set sail for Alcatraz and briefly joined the landmark Native American protest occupation of the island.

About a decade later, she became the Muwekma's leader by default, she says, after many of the tribe's younger males, newly returned from the Vietnam War, were either too busy starting families or too disillusioned to take up the recognition struggle.

Besides locking horns with the federal government, she's also had to contend with internecine rivals, including a group of Ohlone who, despite sharing similar ancestries, have never enrolled in — and have occasionally belittled — the tribe.

The group centers around Philip Galvin, a Fremont handyman in his 80s whose patriarchal status has earned him the nickname "Chief Philip" among some Muwekma. Records on file with the Secretary of State's office show Galvin as the principal agent for Ohlone Indian Tribe Inc., a nonprofit entity that controls a historic Ohlone cemetery in Fremont. Despite the name, the entity doesn't pretend to be a tribe and has never applied for tribal status with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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