SAN FRANCISCO - When is a tribe not a tribe? This is the question that the BIA is being asked almost constantly lately to try and straighten out nearly four centuries of tribal elimination. Most of these cases involve tribes that were, at some point, terminated by the federal government.
However, the Ohlone/Costanoan Muwekma tribe is claiming that they were never terminated and is objecting to a final determination issued on Sept. 9 by the BIA that declined to acknowledge the tribe.
"This is a miscarriage of justice, and real political, bureaucratic and legal negligence on the part of the government," says Rosemary Cambra, chairwoman of the 400-member Muwekma tribe.
As previously reported in Indian Country Today, the Muwekma tribe failed to meet three of seven guidelines that a tribe must establish for federal recognition. For example, the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) is claiming that there was no public record of the tribe from 1927 through 1985, the year the present version of the tribe formed.
BAR is also claiming that a second criteria was not met that states the tribe must have proof of a continuous social community and that the tribal members are far flung and failed to meet the standards of a continuous community.
In the BAR final determination this criteria was also used to establish that Muwekma had failed to produce evidence of political leaders from 1927 to 1985 and that there was no record by outside observers during this time.
This criteria relates to the third failed criteria for the tribe, that it had failed to show leaders who had exerted political influence over the tribe, and that the tribe had specifically failed to list any political or social leaders between 1927 and 1985.
The tribe did meet four other guidelines for federal recognition in that they submitted a governing document, have no citizens who are members of other federally recognized tribes and have never been terminated by congressional act.
It is the last of these criteria that bothers tribal ethno-historian and San Jose State University faculty member Alan Leventhal, who says that since the tribe never lost its recognition by the government, it seems unreasonable that they would have to seek a recognition that they never lost.
In their final determination, BAR acknowledges that 99 percent of the tribe is descended from the Verona Band of Alameda County, the previous name of the Muwekmas, who were recognized in 1906. Leventhal claims that the actual figure is 100 percent but there was a clerical error in the paper work for four tribal members that he says has subsequently been rectified.
Leventhal reports that the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington D.C. beginning in 1998 to speed up the recognition process, which the tribe claims would have taken 24 years under the BAR timetable. Under the terms of the suit, the tribe had to produce sufficient merit for speeding up the process.
Leventhal says since BAR, whose bosses in the Interior department called the suit "baseless," had no legal standing as to the fact that the tribe had never been terminated, they made one up by claiming that the Verona/ Muwekma tribe's relationship with the federal government "withered away" over the years.
Apparently D.C. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina agreed, and admonished the BAR representatives in court for being "disingenuous," and ordered the Muwekma's case to be fast tracked. Judge Urbina also told BAR that even two years was too long to wait because the tribe had never lost its recognition.
Thus the reason for the relatively quick final determination by BAR.
Regarding the final determination, Leventhal claims that BAR purposely left out some key facts. During the years 1927 until 1972, years that BAR claims the tribe did not exist, Leventhal claims that the BIA did census counts on Muwekma tribal members in 1928, and consecutive counts in the years 1948 through 1955 and 1965 through 1972.
These counts, claims Leventhal, were not allowed to be submitted as evidence by BAR, though they were done by its parent agency, the BIA.
Furthermore, Leventhal also points to a report compiled by the famed University of California, Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, written in1955 and published in 1970, which lists Muwekma tribal members and their genealogy.
"You have to remember that these were landless Indians, who did not have a specific base," says Leventhal.
Though the tribe is having trouble at the federal level, California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente has written a letter in on their behalf.
"After compiling data and completing extensive research, the Muwekmas have presented a compelling case for the tribe's Federal Acknowledgment. I respectfully urge you and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carefully review their petition," wrote Bustamante in his letter of support obtained by Indian Country Today.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said that BAR usually does not expand on its decisions in the press and would stand by the points made in the final determination.
Muwekma chairwoman Cambra says that the tribe will fight on and is only now assessing what can be done, though she says that a lawsuit will most likely be filed.