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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

Page 2 of 5

Galvin declined to discuss Cambra or the Muwekma for this article, referring questions to his son, Andrew, a former seminarian and the curator at Mission Dolores. "Let's just say we're more interested in academic and religious issues, and Cousin Rosie is more interested in politics," Andrew Galvin declares.

Others, meanwhile, view Cambra as something of a visionary.

"There's no question in my mind that the tribe wouldn't have gotten to where it is today except for Rosemary's leadership," says Dena Magdaleno, a leader among the Tsungwe tribe in Northern California. She has worked alongside Cambra agitating for Native American rights, including pressing the flesh in the corridors of power in the nation's capital.

At a 1995 White House reception at which President Clinton was present, Cambra handed a BIA undersecretary a copy of the Muwekma genealogy and quietly exhorted her "not to make this our death certificate," Magdaleno recalls.

In 1989, when the Army announced plans to transfer the Presidio to the Department of the Interior for inclusion in the national park system, Cambra showed similar forcefulness. She fired off a letter to the Secretary of the Army, claiming "right of first refusal" to ownership of the Presidio on the tribe's behalf. She entered similar claims — each of them ignored — for Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and the former Alameda Naval Air Station.

"You're not going to tell Rosemary something's impossible if she thinks it's in the [Muwekma's] best interest," says community activist Espanola Jackson. She credits Cambra with helping torpedo an unpopular Bayview development proposal in the 1980s after drawing attention to Indian burials there. A volunteer liaison for the tribe in San Francisco, Jackson says of Cambra: "She's a mild-mannered, sweet woman who seldom gets upset. I have to kick her to make her mad."

But it wasn't always that way.

In the summer of 1985, angered at perceived insensitivity toward Indian remains unearthed at a construction site in downtown San Jose, Cambra — with a camera crew from a local TV station looking on — attacked field archaeologist William Roop with a shovel, opening a 2-inch cut on his right arm before onlookers restrained her.

"The woman tried to kill me. You have to understand I don't assign much credibility to what she has to say," says Roop, who heads an archaeological consulting firm in Petaluma.

The incident cost Cambra dearly. Originally charged with assault with intent to kill, she later pleaded guilty to simple assault and was sentenced to weekends in jail for a year (an accommodation by the judge, considering that she had three small children at home), plus three years probation. As a convicted felon, Cambra lost her nursing license and she and her husband filed for bankruptcy.

For a time, the incident made her an Indian Country celebrity. It's a role she never relished, although she admits to keeping the shovel. "I've used it as a teaching tool for my children and grandchildren — about what not to do."

Among the vast collections at UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are some 269,000 Native American ethnographic and archaeological artifacts from California alone — by far the largest collection of its kind.

Of the relative handful of them on display in the museum's exhibition hall — including items related to the famous Ishi, the reputed "last Stone Age Indian" who stumbled down out of the Sierras in 1911 and into the hearts and minds of subsequent generations of schoolchildren — not a single artifact pertains to the Muwekma.

But the basement is a different story.

There, off-limits to all except scholars, are some 10,000 skeletal remains, part of an archaeological legacy that dates back more than a century to the legendary Alfred L. Kroeber, the museum's first curator. It's the largest assemblage of Native American bones outside the Smithsonian. Many — if not most — of them came from the Bay Area's shellmounds and other burial grounds dug up over the decades to make room for freeways, shopping centers, and subdivisions.

Cambra considers many of the remains to be those of her tribal ancestors. Since many of the remains are uncontestedly Ohlone, and since, if the Muwekma succeed, they will become the only Ohlone group with federal recognition, it's a contention that could carry a great deal of weight. Three other Ohlone tribes, also unrecognized, claim ancestral territory farther south, on the Monterey Peninsula and in the Salinas Valley.

Years ago, Cambra agitated for the university to surrender its Ohlone bones for proper burial, to no avail. But if the judge rules in the tribe's favor, that could change, with potentially dramatic consequences for the Hearst Museum, which, among other things, prides itself as among the nation's leading centers for anthropological research.

Amid heightened sensitivity on such matters, Congress in 1990 passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, often referred to by its acronym, NAGPRA. The law changed the rules for how museums and other institutions treat Indian remains and funerary objects in their possession. It requires the institutions to consult with recognized tribes, and, under certain circumstances, provides them the right to visit the collections and claim the remains of their ancestors.

Kent Lightfoot, an anthropologist and the Hearst's interim director, says the museum complies "with the letter of the law" and has repatriated an undisclosed number of skeletal remains after consulting with numerous tribes across the country. Tim White, the museum's curator of biological anthropology, defends its custodianship of the bones, saying, "They're kept under very appropriate protocols and conditions. You won't find any [bones] on display, as other institutions have done."

However, when it comes to the Muwekma — by far the largest would-be claimant of the Hearst's Indian remains — the museum is under no obligation because the tribe is not federally recognized. "If and when recognition occurs, that would change the equation," Lightfoot acknowledges. "If that were to happen and the tribe comes to us with a request, we will certainly work with them to the best of our ability."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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