This place we call home

Generations ago, Native Americans in the Bay Area lost their land—and the land lost them.

There’s a question that many Native Americans in the Bay Area have grappled with for the past century: What happens if you want to go home, but home is no longer there?

Indian Canyon 2010: Ann-Marie Sayers at home.
Photo: Charles Barry

Through the California town of Hollister, and down 15 minutes of rolling back roads, plus another 10 minutes to the end of a dirt trail, lies Indian Canyon.

It’s there, on her great-grandfather’s home site, that Ann-Marie Sayers built the cabin where she lives today—after years of battling the federal government for the land, which she claimed through the Indian Allotment Act of 1887. On a bright afternoon in March, Sayers is giving a man who wants to experience the canyon’s sweat lodge a piece of her mind. She makes clear that it’s not open to the merely curious. Eventually, he leaves.

She tells me that she’s sorry if she seemed harsh, but she wants people to realize that the sweat lodge is a form of worship. During the next two hours, three visitors stop in on their way to the 4 p.m. sweat lodge ceremony, and Sayers answers the phone twice, talking to someone about a medicine man and an upcoming storytelling festival. She bends down to write the names Yellowbird and Red Thunder on her industrial-size calendar.

Sayers wears faded jeans, a matching denim jacket, and white sneakers, her silvery hair pulled back in a gleaming bun. On the staircase behind her hang animal skins, feathers, and abalone shells, while on the back wall is the sun-bleached skull of a buffalo strung with necklaces. She is constantly gesturing or playing with a purple cigarette lighter, with hands that always seem to itch for activity and a mind that is equally as restless.

Along with her brother and her daughter, Kanyon, Sayers is a member of a group known as the Costanoan Ohlone. And there’s a problem nagging at her.

“The majority of people,” Sayers says, eyebrows arched, “think all California Indians are dead.”

They’re not. But Sayers—and most Native Americans in the Bay Area who call this place home—share a predicament: As far as the federal government is concerned, they are not members of a recognized tribe.

Currently, federal recognition is accorded to 564 Indian tribes across the country. This gives the tribes a government-to-government relationship with the United States, at least in theory. The status entitles them to funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), with access to Indian health care, education grants, and land management. In the Bay Area, only the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in Sonoma and Marin counties, representing a confederation of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples, have regained their sovereign status. But a number of local American Indian groups are laboring to reclaim their sovereign status in the eyes of the U.S. government, including at least nine groups of Ohlone. For the past eight years, the 450-member Muwekma Ohlone tribe has been slogging through the courts; and with court rulings going in their favor, they’re close to achieving federal recognition.

Chuck Striplen is a member of the local Mutsun Ohlone. Words like entitle and recognition can make tribe members bristle, he says. If one is using language that addresses more honestly what’s at stake, then he speaks of restoring a trust relationship. It’s a term that carries a number of meanings in this context: integrity and commitment, but also custodianship of land. As for that relationship for the Ohlone, it’s been a long road back.

A brief history of tribal extinction

Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley, is a publisher who has long focused on the history and culture of California’s American Indians. More than a quarter century ago he wrote The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area. That book was lauded by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the top nonfiction books of the century. With a flowing white beard and twinkling eyes, Margolin strikes those schooled in California’s literary history as a latterday Joaquin Miller, the 19th-century “Poet of the Sierras.” (Not coincidentally, Heyday has reissued some of Miller’s works.) Heyday and Santa Clara University collaborate on the California Legacy Project, with SCU English Department Chair Terry Beers directing work at SCU. The effort has yielded more than 40 titles, ranging from new editions of California literary classics to landmark anthologies such as Califauna: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Beers and Emily Elrod ’05, and Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846, by historians and SCU faculty Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz.

Indian Canyon at the turn of the 20th century: Ann-Marie Sayers’ great grandmother is fourth from left.
Photo: Casse Crow/ Courtesy Ann-Marie Sayers

More than 20 years ago, Margolin also launched the quarterly journal News from Native California. When Margolin is asked why he thinks the Bay Area’s American Indian tribes do not have the federal recognition they so desperately desire, he offers a history lesson. “In the early part of the 20th century, tribes were being recognized and given rights,” he explains. “Anthropologists and scholars were called in to sort it out.”

At one time in California alone, more than 100 different languages were spoken by scores of individual tribes of native peoples. The anthropologists who found themselves in the Bay Area had a rude shock when they saw that the American Indians living here did not fit their scholarly definition of tribe or territory. It was then that the anthropologists set about deciding which of those tribes had living cultures and which did not.

“Indian-ness was judged on how closely tribes kept to old ways,” Margolin says. “For people in the Bay Area, land had been settled and missionized, and people had been acculturated, so the Indians here didn’t look Indian enough.” It wasn’t long before the visiting anthropologists declared the tribes of the Bay Area “extinct as far as all practical purposes are concerned,” as anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber described the Ohlone in his 1924 Handbook of Indians of California.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs played a pivotal role—in particular, an administrator by the name of Lafayette Dorrington. In 1927, he assessed that there were more than 100 tribes or “bands” of Indians who, while possessing no land, didn’t need it.

“Dorrington’s approach was simply the application in the realm of public policy of Kroeber’s anthropology,” says historian Senkewicz. “If most Bay Area Indian tribes no longer existed in any practical sense, then there was no reason for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to concern itself about whether or not they had any land.”

The results of that assessment are still being acutely felt by the Bay Area Indian population today. Tribes that are not recognized by the federal government are denied access to billions of federal dollars and to special employment opportunities, such as within the BIA. It hampers economic development, since they are not allowed to participate in the state-tribal trust land program, which was established to compensate tribes for the land the federal government took from them between 1887 and 1934. That means not only no casinos, but in California, it also means the tribes do not benefit from the Indian Gaming Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, which was established to help support nongaming tribes.

Because excluded tribes are not seen as sovereign entities with the authority to make and enforce laws, U.S. federal agencies have no obligation to consult with such tribes when making decisions that could affect native land, communities, or historic and cultural preservation. For example, the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, houses a much disputed collection: a large number of American Indian remains, the majority of which are undoubtedly Costanoan Ohlone. Ann-Marie Sayers and other Ohlone leaders want to claim these remains and provide them with a long overdue burial ceremony; the Amah Mutsun are currently negotiating a so-called disposition agreement with the museum, which may lead to the return of some remains. “It just can’t be called ‘repatriation,’” Chuck Striplen says, “nor can the remains be officially ‘culturally affiliated.’”

In the 27 years that Sayers has been involved in the protection of native culture throughout the Bay Area, she has developed a fairly dour assessment of the systems and attitudes that frequently discount native rights.

“Bullshit,” she says firmly. And she claims that she is a woman who never swears. “I cannot think of anything more important than making sure a belief and a culture is honored,” she asserts.

An outsider’s ultimatum

What’s even more important, according to Dally Lotches, is remedying the deplorable state of California Indian traditions today. In San Jose’s Riverside Mobile Home Park, unit No. 65, Lotches is munching on a piece of homemade fry bread and holding a dark blue mug bearing the Klamath Indian Reservation insignia. He wears a light gray long-sleeved shirt and a pair of black gloves over hands that still suffer from the frostbite he got while fighting in the Korean War.

A member of the Modoc tribe, Lotches was born on a reservation in southern Oregon. He was raised with seemingly everything that Bay Area tribes like the Ohlone must do without: the medical and monetary services available to a federally recognized tribe, a reservation, and a rich pool of local wisdom and culture to draw from. At 81 years old, Lotches can ramble on for hours. His wife, Lorraine, will often interrupt him and try to redirect his thoughts. He’ll pause for a moment, then continue on with a story, perhaps about how he watched his grandmother make a canoe out of a log—burn, chip, burn, chip—and how she instructed him in how to smoke-tan deer hides, do beadwork, and make baskets, and how she taught him about geography and animals during long hikes in the Cascade Mountains.

More than 20,000 American Indians live in the Santa Clara Valley. But in present-day San Jose, Lotches does not see the resources that he grew up with and treasured: There’s no support in terms of programs and funding, and no hills for tribes to call their own. Instead, he sees the cultural decay of Indian traditions. It’s not enough for today’s young Indian people to be doing beadwork, he says; they have to be doing it right.

As he’s discoursing on this theme, Lotches raises his voice angrily, his eyes wide. It’s clear he’s speaking to an imaginary assembly of local Indians. “You talk about your spiritual this, spiritual that. What are you lying about? You just say it because it’s been handed down from your urban grandparents. And then you’re going to tell me you’re Indian? You ain’t going to make me believe it. Because you can’t even prove it.”

The importance of tribes and traditions cannot, in Lotches’ mind, be underestimated. “If your grandmother taught you here, it’s not right,” Lotches states firmly. Every Indian, he says, has a cultural obligation to go back to his or her original reservation and see how things are really done, instead of taking the word of urban relatives. In Lotches’ mind, when it comes to culture, it’s an all-or- nothing mentality: It’s better not to do anything at all than to go about it the wrong way.

Lay of the land

From the varied perspectives of American Indians, land is not just a set of geographical boundaries. “Traditional culture was land-based culture,” says Malcolm Margolin. “Religion was a land-based religion. The gods resided in particular rocks and mountains and creeks. The place of creation was a place within your own territory. The land had such an emotional hold on people. When you take that away, you rob the culture of a large part of its soul. Aside from practicalities, there’s a kind of spiritual and moral dimension to land ownership.”

Jarrid Whitney, a Santa Clara University admissions counselor, can testify to the importance of federal recognition and land ownership. A member of the Cayuga Nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, Whitney grew up in New York State and spent time on his tribe’s reservation in Canada. When we talk, he has recently returned from a trip home to his reservation, where he traveled to renew his tribal membership.

“I did not grow up on my reservation, but my mom made sure I went back a lot for different customs and celebrations and traditions growing up,” Whitney says. “I would probably have lost a lot more of my cultural affiliation if I didn’t have that land base or at least a specific place where my people are from.”

Inside Varsi Hall: SCU admissions counselor Jarrid Whitney, a member of the Cayuga Nation
Photo: Charles Barry

Over the years, Whitney has worked at institutions including Dartmouth and Stanford, where one of his main roles was the recruitment of American Indian undergraduates. Coming from a native background, he understood acutely how underrepresented American Indians are in higher education. Along with his work at Santa Clara, Whitney is a board member of College Horizons, a summer program focused on preparing high school Native American students for college.

When he moved to California in 1998, Whitney couldn’t help but notice the struggles of local native groups—and what he calls the heroic efforts of native leadership to rectify the situation of land ownership and tribal recognition. “It’s certainly very disturbing,” he admits. “It’s got to be frustrating for those people who have worked hard to keep together as a community, yet don’t have the respect from the federal or state governments of their natural rights to their land base.”

Whitney’s own tribe, while originally from New York, has been dispersed into Canada and throughout the United States, and the tribe no longer has ownership of any New York state land. “As you lose your original and historical land base, you lose a piece of your culture,” Whitney says. “So much of our dance and our customs and our traditions are attached to where we’re from. It’s hard to participate in those functions and programs if you don’t have legal rights to your own traditional lands. As a native person, you always want to go home, but when that home is no longer there, you lose a piece of yourself.”

When asked what it means for Bay Area Indians who want to return to reservations and learn about their culture from the source, Malcolm Margolin is succinct: “They’re screwed.” However, he says, culture can certainly be kept alive in other ways.

“Land is important, and land is essential to Indian thinking, but they belong to a very ingenious culture. As crippling as the loss of land may be, they have found ways around it,” Margolin says. “You have a lot of the Ohlone people relearning languages and relearning some of the skills—the basket weaving and boat building are important for carrying forward beliefs—and learning some of the lore. Keeping culture alive is not just an Indian problem—it’s a problem of every ethnic group. What Indians have been robbed of is place, and it’s ironic that they’re living in the place where they are no longer recognized. But culture is kept alive in peculiar ways. I think that there’s been a spectacular cultural revival in the Bay Area.”

Chuck Striplen concurs with Margolin on the revival. But, he says, “Our culture will always be alive, as long as we are and claim it.” And it’s up to the disparate, living members of the tribe to define it.

Strength in numbers
Weaving past and present: Ann-Marie Sayers’ home in Indian Canyon
Photo: Charles Barry

For Ann-Marie Sayers, the situation appears challenging but not dire. “There are a number of Native Americans who get caught up in the linear thinking of our society and the struggle to survive, and [with the fact] that it’s difficult to connect with their culture on a ceremonial basis,” she says. But she also sees those struggles yield results. Sayers has opened the land of Indian Canyon as a Living Indian Heritage Area, making it available to all indigenous people in need of land for ceremony.

Indian Canyon receives upward of 6,000 visitors a year from around the world, including Aborigines from Australia, Maori from New Zealand, and indigenous peoples from South America and Alaska. Another couple thousand annual visitors are students of Indian history from local colleges and universities. And each year Indian Canyon holds major ceremonial events for local Native Americans, including the California Indian Bear Dance and a storytelling gathering. In terms of Costanoan Ohlone, Sayers estimates that about 200 from the Bay Area come to Indian Canyon on a regular basis.

From the peaceful, leafy canyon in which her cabin sits, Sayers looks out on the wider world and sees a revitalization taking place: organizations and tribes engaged in preserving and bringing to life their languages, stories, songs, and ancestral lands. Indigenous ceremonies are being revived. Tribes continue to push to regain a trust relationship with the government—with the near-success of the Muwekma Ohlone offering encouragement.

The Indians in California are alive and well, their practices intact, Sayers says. “Their spirit is waking up.”

Jeannine Gendar contributed to this report.

Building Boats
A California Indian
welcoming committee:
From front, Rico Miranda (Rumsien Ohlone), Frankie Running Fox Gonzales (Pomo), and Chuck Striplen (Mutsun Ohlone)

Photo: David Perry & Associates, Inc.

Chuck Striplen is at home on the water. On staff for the San Francisco Estuary Institute, he studies and helps preserve the ecology of area watersheds. As a member of the local Amah Mutsun tribe—one of the groups that make up the Ohlone peoples in the Bay Area—he also builds: boats woven from tule rushes, just as generations of Ohlone did before.

But to learn how to make the boats, Striplen and other Ohlone had to recover the knowledge by looking at specimens in museums. Along with being dispossessed of the land—what Striplen calls “the first social justice issue, if not the most visible”—other threads of identity were taken, too. But not lost completely.

“True, we no longer have title to any of our territory—but it’s still there. We’re still here,” Striplen says. “Our culture will always be alive, as long as we are.”

Learn more about Indian Canyon here.

Learn about the Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe here.

Find out more about the upcoming Native American exhibit at the de Saisset Museum.

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