The Muwekma Ohlone


When I was searching the Internet for images to use for my visual analysis, I chose this image of people in traditional Native American garb parading. It was taken by a unknown photographer in 2010 when the Muwekma Ohlone tribe joined the Veteran non-profit group called Veterans for peace during the San Francisco Memorial Day Parade. The image visualizes the people that I have read about in Renya K. Ramirez’s Native American studies/Anthropology/American studies book Native Hubs.

Muwekma means the people in the Tamien and Chocenyo languages (Ramirez 2007). Ohlone It is the term used for indigenous people in the greater San Francisco Area. They have identified themselves as such since 1916. It wasn’t until 1927 that the superintendent decided to drop the federal status Ohlone people known as the Verona Band that their status as a federally recognized tribe was taken away. To add fire to the flame the Ohlone were declared extinct by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1925.

Kroeber is a student of Franz Boas who declared it was important for cultures to live in a consolidated area to be a culture. Kroeber’s legacy of confusion begins with how he defines Californian native societies as composed of “tribelets” (Kroeber 1955). He required that a tribe must exist in a political and geographical unit, which is comprised of n number of villages. This definition marginalized scattered native groups due to the mission system in San Jose.

During this time the Muwekma even had the support of other anthropologists John P Harrington and C. Hart Merriam who both provided ample documentation to the tribes legitimacy. This measure of authenticity has haunted the Muwekma for decades.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s when the descendants of the Chochenyo Ohlone speakers of the southern and eastern San Francisco Bay Area regrouped and constituted themselves as the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, in a contemporary revitalization. This revitalization lead to the founding of hubs in the Bay area, thia process has been a slow one.

A tribe in name but not on legality, the Muwekma lobby and demonstrate for support so their tribe can be recognized in the federal governments eyes. The documents they have needed to produce have greatly slowed their progress towards sovereignty, so they have tried to show their progress towards solidarity through public displays. These displays commonly mimic other tribe’s cultural heritage displays.

The image depicts a few native Northern Californian Tribes People of the Muwekma Ohlone who organize with the San Francisco hub. In the image they are mimicking a popular Native American performance. The performance was organized through a San Francisco Muwekma Ohlone hub to spread awareness of the tribe legitimacy.

The Muwekma Tribe’s hubs “central features are claims to rootedness and aboriginality, and to storytelling, as well as performative use of mimicry” (Ramirez 2007). This hub making has been intertwined with the struggle for full access to the resources, particularly health care services, provided to federally recognized Native Americans. This struggle for access has challenged the Muwekma with federally acknowledged and unacknowledged qualifications of authenticity.

The struggles with authenticity are driving forces behind many mimetic demonstrations the Muwekma participate in. The Muwekma were not the originators of the gourd dance, which was performed as part of the day’s festivities, but perform it for what is called strategic essentialism. The Kiowa are the credited originators of the gourd dance. The Muwekma use the familiarity of the ritual to essentialize themselves as Native Americans. This strategic essentialism builds solidarity and helps with public outreach for their cause.

Giving the audience a view of tradition and showing solidarity the Muwekma can be publicly perceived as authentic. I believe that by having their picture taken during parade in full “tribal” gear, the audience perceives them as being an authentic tribe. This picture would benefit the tribe by spread of public awareness of their authenticity and existence. Their authenticity and existence are shown but what else is seen.

The image places the very colorful and visible male members in the forefront with the woman coming up from behind. This makes the males the most noticeable in the group which, marginalizing the female members. Despite this the current leader of the Muwekma is a woman named Rosemary Cambra.  Cambra has “reimagined the relationship between gender and citizenship, challenging the dominant societies attempt to minimize her power as an indian woman and as a tribal leader.(Ramirez 2007)” Rosemary has organized tribal efforts since the 1980’s, she began by demonstrating publicly how Indian women’s leadership is not recognized publicly and not supported politically and revealed how it is “oppressed.” She believes that she is apart of a legacy of old women who since her great aunt have led her people.

This image carries with it the weight and the struggle of a people who throughout history have been marginalized and oppressed. The image also depicts the beauty of struggle for justice that the Muwekma believe their cause carries. The echoes through history up to the present illustrate a desire for culture, community and belonging.

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