Skip to main content

Coast Miwoks fight for recognition

  • Author:
  • Updated:

PETALUMA, Calif. - In 1579 English pirate and adventurer Sir Francis Drake made landfall in a bay that bears his name in Marin County about 30 miles north of present-day San Francisco.

It was the first time the Coastal Miwok Tribe made contact with Europeans. Now, more than 400 years later, the descendants of those who greeted Drake struggle to gain federal recognition.

The greatest obstacle the tribe faces is an ironic one. They have included language in their charter that prohibits the tribe from gaming. Tribal sources say this clause raised the ire of both the BIA and the gaming lobby, who worry that the non-gaming clause might set a precedent and undermine gaming as a whole.

The Coast Miwok were dissolved as a tribe by Congress in the Termination Act of the 1950s.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., pushed a bill through the House that is now in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

"I did this because people in my district wanted me to," says Congresswoman Woolsey. "This tribe had lost their rights and it's time to restore them."

Woolsey says it is now up to the Senate leadership and the tribe should know for sure by the beginning of September.

The tribe has said that gaming was not really an option from the start since their land base is only one acre. They feel they have other economic developments that can prove just as lucrative. Tribal sources say there are plans for an environmentally friendly cheese factory among other economic goals.

Tribal members insist they are not anti-gaming and say they strongly support it for other tribes, but they feel in their case it is just not realistic.

Woolsey confirms there has been concern by the BIA and others about the non-gaming clause.

Calls to the BIA and the Senate regarding the matter were not returned.

The tribe has a famous native son who is helping it through the recognition process. Greg Sarris, an author, filmmaker and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is serving his fifth term as tribal chairman.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Sarris is well versed on tribal history and recognition politics. He says the process toward re-recognition began when the leader of a band of the neighboring Pomo tried to put a casino in what was historically Miwok territory. The Miwoks realized they could not do anything about it since they lacked federal recognition.

"I had just finished my post-doc and moved to LA when I heard about this casino. I called some of the elders and asked what could be done," Sarris says.

What they did was have a meeting with Jeff Wilson, the leader of the Cloverdale Pomo band that wanted to build the casino. Wilson offered the Miwoks a seat on the board, a move immediately declined by the Miwoks.

That was when a single acre of land became their savior. In 1997 the tribe found out it originally had 15.4 acres near Graton in Sonoma County that was set aside for them in the 1950s. Over the years, through unscrupulous efforts by government officials, the land dwindled to a single acre where Miwok Gloria Armstrong lived. The Miwoks approached Armstrong about using her land to restore the Graton Rancheria. After being assured she would not lose her home, she agreed.

This is when the tribe became the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. Miwok tribal member Gene Buvelot has been involved in the recognition process from the beginning. He says this name is important because, unlike many other California tribes which still associate with historical bands, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria encompasses all the bands from the Miwok Tribe.

Sarris and Buvelot say the tribe hired a professional genealogist to research all claims to tribal membership, to make sure everything is legitimate and in order. They have discovered that all 380 tribal members are the descendants of just 13 Miwok survivors from Spanish and American encroachment. A Web site at the University of California, Berkeley says there were originally 3,000 to 5,000 Coast Miwoks.

Sarris points out that his great-grandfather was the prime informant for University of California doctoral candidate Isabel Kelley who wrote a dissertation on the Coast Miwok in 1933.

"The federal government is asking me to prove that I'm Indian, well I have the proof," says Sarris.

Another issue is that many of the Coast Miwoks have intermixed with the neighboring Pomo peoples and will have to decide which tribe they would like to belong to if federal recognition for the Miwoks is realized.

Buvelot mentions another concern is to reacquire tribal artifacts taken over the years. He says that he would like to be able to have the clout of federal recognition to do that.

The Miwoks say many individual smaller items, such as a clam shell necklace made by Buvelot's grandfather, have been taken from museums and the tribe would feel better if they could recover what is still out there. Buvelot said one of the largest collections of Miwok artifacts is in St. Petersburg, Russia. Early 19th century Russian traders collected them.

"There is such a rich heritage here," Buvelot says. "Federal recognition is not just important for things like federal services. It is also important so we can guarantee that our children know this heritage."