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[whitespace] Tribal Maker

Local ethnohistorian traces Muwekma roots to Sunol, Pleasanton and San Jose

By Traci Hukill

ALAN LEVENTHAL is the Muwekma's secret weapon. An archaeologist at San Jose State University, he has devoted considerable time and effort to researching the Muwekma's history. Besides being the tribe's ethnohistorian, he's a passionate advocate of Indian rights and a critic of anthropologists who have come before him.

"I've been a participant in giving a voice to a tribe that has been stuffed by mythology," he says. "We found out nobody was really dealing with the families themselves. Most of the archeological stuff that's been written has been bunk."

The story starts back in 1851 with 18 treaties the U.S. Government made with California tribes. If Indians agreed to forever quit claim to the rest of gold-rich California, then they would get 18 parcels of land totalling 8.5 million acres as reservations.

But the treaties were never ratified in Congress, and were in fact suppressed--locked in a vault, not to be discovered for another 54 years. The Indians, who were supposed to get some land to divide among themselves, got nothing at all. In fact, what ensued was a continuation of the genocide that had already drastically reduced their numbers. In 1769, says Leventhal, the Indian population in California was estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. In 1900 it had dwindled to 20,000.

Near the turn of the century, philanthropic groups of Anglos began forming around concern for Indian welfare. In 1905, San Jose attorney C.E. Kelsey, secretary of one such group, became a Special Indian Agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and went to Washington, D.C., with a clerk. The clerk found the 1851 treaties hidden among old documents, and Kelsey came forward with them. It brought the California Indian question into focus, and Kelsey spent 1905 and 1906 conducting a Special Indian census meant to determine which tribes needed land.

Kelsey documented, among other bands and tribes, a group called the Verona Band, named for a train station just south of Pleasanton. Its 48 members inhabited the Alisal Rancheria. Since no one asked the people what they called themselves--their name was "Muwekma," which means "the people" in their language--they got the name "Verona Band."

In 1927, however, the Verona Band was mysteriously dropped from the recognized status Indian rolls. L.A. Dorrington, who had been charged to list by county all the tribes and bands who still had not received land, illegally terminated the status of 135 groups, including the Verona Band. Since only Congress can legally terminate a tribe's status, says Leventhal, that constitutes an unlawful termination.

"The issue isn't casinos," he says. "It's that this is the first time they have the right to do economic development on their lands that will actually make some money."

Leventhal, who has worked with the tribe since 1980, has worked on reconstructing the Muwekma's language. He makes it very clear that the Muwekma, along with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of San Juan Bautista and the Ohlone-Costanoan/Esselen Nation from Monterey Bay, were once recognized as a federally acknowledged tribe, then conveniently and unlawfully dropped from the federal rolls by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, even though federal recognition was supposed to be for perpetuity.

Because the members of their tribe intermarried with other groups in the area and can document this, Leventhal calls the Muwekma "the only legal, historical, aboriginal tribal group ... who inhabited the greater San Francisco Bay other than the Coast Miwok of Marin and Sonoma Counties." The Ohlone once roamed over land now known as the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Alameda and Contra Costa. That the Muwekma should claim that the Presidio is their ancestral homeland, as they have, or that the 40 acres along the Guadalupe River in Santa Clara known as the Ulistac Natural Area is also their homeland, or that the Niles/Pleasanton/Sunol area is too, should not be surprising. Thousands of burial sites have been found throughout the Bay Area, says Leventhal. And the Muwekma have a right to get some of that land back and to make a living from it.

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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