This Native American Tribe Wants Federal Recognition. A New DNA Analysis Could Bolster Its Case

The new findings could help Mukwema Ohlone prove they never went “extinct”

Archaeologists at Muwekma Ohlone site
Archaeologists and members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe worked together on the project, which revealed the longstanding genetic roots of the region's Native peoples.  Courtesy of Far Western Anthropological Research Group

For decades, a misperception that the San Francisco Bay Area’s Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was “extinct” barred its living members from receiving federal recognition.

Soon, however, that might change. As Celina Tebor reports for USA Today, a new DNA analysis shows a genetic through line between 2,000-year-old skeletons found in California and modern-day Muwekma Ohlone people.

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, flies in the face of more than a century of misconceptions about the tribe and its people’s long history.

“The study reaffirms the Muwekma Ohlone’s deep-time ties to the area, providing evidence that disagrees with linguistic and archaeological reconstructions positing that the Ohlone are late migrants to the region,” write the authors in the paper.

Members of the tribe, scholars and the public are hailing the work as a chance to correct the record—and perhaps open up opportunities for the tribe to regain federal recognition, which allows tribes to qualify for federal funds and grants and be acknowledged as independent and sovereign. In the early 20th century, the tribe was on a federal list of recognized tribes, but was removed in 1927.

The tribe’s history mirrors that of other Native Californians. After more than 10,000 years in the area, Native people were forced to submit to colonization and Christian indoctrination—first by the Spaniards, who arrived in 1776, and then, beginning in the 19th century, by settlers from the growing United States.

As a result, the Ohlone and other Native groups lost significant numbers to disease and forced labor. Before European contact, at least 300,000 Native people who spoke 135 distinct dialects lived in what is now California, per the Library of Congress. By 1848, that number had been halved. Just 25 years later, in 1873, only 30,000 remained. Now, USA Today reports, there are just 500 members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

The Ohlone people once lived on about 4.3 million acres in the Bay Area. But federal negligence and anthropologist A.L. Kroeber’s 1925 assessment that Native Californians were “extinct for all practical purposes” caused the federal government to first strip the Muwekma Ohlone of their land, then deny them federal recognition, writes Les W. Field, a cultural anthropologist who collaborates with the Muwekma Ohlone, in the Wicazo Sa Review.

Even though Kroeber recanted his erroneous statement in the 1950s, the lasting damage from his diagnosis meant the very much not-extinct members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe never regained federal recognition, according to the New York Times’ Sabrina Imbler.

The new research could change that. It arose after the 2014 selection of a site for a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission educational facility. The area likely contained human remains, triggering a California policy that requires developers to contact the most likely descendants of people buried in Native American sites before digging or building. When officials contacted the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, its members requested a study of two settlement areas—Síi Túupentak (Place of the Water Round House Site) and Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (Place of the Stream of the Lagoon Site).

Experts from Stanford University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, cultural resources consulting firm Far Western Anthropological Research Group and other institutions led the research.

But members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe were involved in every aspect of the study, from the “initiative to pursue the project” to “the selection of research questions, in archaeological excavation and ancient genomics involving sites in their historical lands, and in present-day genomic analysis with current tribal members,” according to the study. Tribal members even helped exhume the bodies.

Researchers and tribe members alike commented on the unique nature of the collaboration.

“When you’re a student doing the work, it’s not common to have this kind of direct connection to the people who are ‘the data’ that you’re working with,” says lead author Alissa Severson, a doctoral student at Stanford University at the time of the research, in a statement. “We got to have that dialogue, where we could discuss what we’re doing and what we found, and how that makes sense with their history. I felt very lucky to be working on this project. It felt like what we should be doing.”

Jennifer A. Raff, a paleogeneticist at the University of Kansas who was not involved in the study, describes the work as “fascinating.”

“If other tribes are interested in using genetics to investigate histories, they may be encouraged by the fact that some researchers are doing this work in a careful way,” Raff tells Science magazine’s Andrew Curry.

The team analyzed the DNA of 12 individuals buried between 300 and 1,900 years ago, then compared the genomes to those of a variety of Indigenous Americans. They found “genetic continuity” between all 12 individuals studied and eight modern-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe members.

“It was surprising to find this level of continuity given the many disruptions the Ohlone people experienced during Spanish occupation, such as forced relocations and admixture with other tribes forcibly displaced by the Spanish,” co-author Noah Rosenberg, a population geneticist at Stanford, tells the New York Times.

Tribe members hope the new evidence of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s longstanding connection to the land—and their ancestors—will spur politicians to finally recognize the tribe. According to an official tribal website, Muwekma Ohlone families started the reapplication process in the early 1980s and officially petitioned the U.S. government for recognition in 1995. Despite filing a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe is still not recognized by the U.S. government.

Co-author Alan Leventhal, a tribal ethnohistorian and archaeologist who works with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, tells USA Today he’s hopeful this new research will help cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape that’s been delaying the tribe’s petition.

“Privately, this further validates the tribe,” he says. “Now, as politicians are reading, they're noticing. And now we'll be lending support for the tribe's reaffirmation.”

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