flickr/Judith W. Sandoval/Veterans for Peace
The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe joined Veterans For Peace members in the Memorial Day Parade in November 2010. The Ohlone continue to fight for federal recognition.

California Students Research Federal Recognition and Water Rights


As part of a Nature and World Cultures class, co-sponsored by the Humanities and Environmental Studies departments at San Jose State University, groups are required to turn in a research project in which they choose a topic relating to a how a tribe has changed their relationship with specific aspects of nature.

One group chose to tackle federal recognition and water rights. This project has been very minimally edited by ICTMN. It is presented here as the students handed it in.

Federal Recognition and Water Rights: Two Problems Native American Tribes Still Face

Danielle Lara

Stephanie Brinker

Kim Polinksy

Many members of society think that Native Americans no longer face adversity, and that their hardships are in the past. However, there are numerous challenges tribes still have to overcome, including securing water rights. Although water rights is an important issue, the biggest hurtle many Native American tribes still face is becoming federally recognized.

In result of an extremely tumultuous past with the California government and European settlers, many tribes throughout the country are required to be federally recognized by the U.S. government to have access and rights to many of their traditional and sacred lands, however not every tribe in California or the U.S. for that matter are federally recognized. It’s important to shed light on the differences between federally recognized and unrecognized tribes.

Access to clean water is often considered a basic human right, a federally unrecognized tribe could face extreme difficulty attempting to gain water rights and traditional lands. The Tule River Tribe, which is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and are federally recognized, and the Muwekma Ohlone whom currently hold no land rights to their once traditional lands near the Carmel area and are not federally recognized. Due to their varying political positions, both tribes experience from the drought may vary from one another greatly. It is imperative to be aware of access to traditional lands amongst Native communities, due to the strong relationship they have historically with some California landscapes much of their culture and identity are engrained into these environments.

Without access to traditional lands, many native communities are finding it harder to claim land rights as well as protect culturally significant plant and animal species that are intimately linked to their traditional and spiritual life ways. The removal of natives from their traditional lands has not only resulted in a conflict for many native communities but the environment as well. In areas where native communities once thrived, land was properly maintained and cared for using traditional methods. However with the removal of many natives from their historic lands many of these once fertile lands are becoming dry barren desert lands. In order to understand how both the Ohlone and Tule River Tribe are affected by the drought in terms of federal recognition and access to lands one must understand the history leading up to the current position of many tribes and how this history has played a very large role in constructing the criterion the U.S. uses to attribute federal recognition.

California History and Federal Recognition

In the United States in order to be officially recognized by the government many Native American tribes need to apply for federal recognition. In this process it is up to the tribes to gather enough evidence to prove they are still here and have been here throughout history. Applying and receiving recognition from the U.S. government is much harder than said and requires a lot of work from both any cultural liaison on the project and the tribe that is applying. Receiving recognition from the government is not impossible but for some tribes it can be close to impossible. In the past anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber were interested in studying an uncontaminated Indian culture, which was not the case for many of the tribes who had been exposed to European contact and thrown in the Spanish missions. Although many natives during the mission were able to maintain their culture in secret.

Both the Tule River Tribe and the Ohlone have had to and are currently dealing with the process of becoming federally recognized. As of today the Muwekma Ohlone are a federally unrecognized tribe who are currently working towards recognition. In order to be approved by the BIA, they must meet many of the standards according to the tribelet model. This has been a very difficult process for the Ohlone, for the burden of proving themselves requires evidence that many communities lack due to displacement and the onset of genocide and ethnocide that took place in early America.

The Muwekma Ohlone

As of today, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe is currently considered landless Indians. Over the past 107 years the tribe has been struggling to receive recognition from the U.S. government. The Ohlone have suffered major oppression throughout history, starting as early as the arrival of the Spanish in 1770. During the mission period many natives were subjected to displacement, assimilation, and menial labor. The major missions established near traditional Ohlone territory were the Santa Clara, San Jose, San Carlos, and mission Dolores. Spanish colonization allowed for the removal of native peoples from ancestral landscapes as well as aimed to erase Indian place names and cultural traditions from the native population. Many natives including the Ohlone were interned to mission quarters where they suffered in unsanitary and culturally restrictive households. Every aspect of their daily lives was controlled by the mission padres and Spanish officials.

Mission Santa Clara, founded 1777, was one of the Spanish missions established near traditional Ohlone territory. (from painting by Andrew Hill)

Although the Ohlone were subjected to the horrible conditions in the missions, they continued to preserve their native identity by intermarrying with one another. This allowed them to have some semblance of a native identity, which they would soon revitalize during the Mexican Californian era from 1821-1848. The dismissal of the Spanish by the Mexican Republic would soon emancipate California Indians from their prison like mission quarters. Proceeding the internment of the Ohlone, an agreement between native communities and the Spanish officials was drawn up. This agreement stated that native land would be held in reserve by the Spanish until native individuals could reach the form of a proper European citizen. Although after the release of native peoples from the missions, only 4 grants were allotted to neophyte individuals. In the midst of the secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Republic, the Ohlone were a displaced tribe whom sought refuge in certain Rancherias where they could work as vaqueros and restore their culture. One of these Rancherias was a place of refuge for the Verona band of Indians, which the Ohlone are direct relatives and descendants. This place was known as Bernal Ranch, but was also referred to the Ohlone as Alisal. During the Ohlone occupation at Alisal they were able to freely practice their traditional ceremonies and life ways. This led to the revitalization of the culture and the re-emergence of traditional rites such as the KuKsu ceremony. This movement was known as ghost dance. Throughout all their oppression from the Spanish and European settlers, the Ohlone were able to survive, but at the expense of becoming dislocated from their traditional homelands. This is central to the view of many anthropologists during the onset of California’s statehood.

Many anthropologists during the late 1800s and early 1900s were only concerned with studying an uncontaminated culture. To anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber, the Ohlone contained no Indian identity. He and other scholars were uninterested and simply negligent to post missionized Indians such as the Ohlone. Kroeber’s work on pre-contact natives and tribelet theory would soon prove to be a pivotal bump in the road for the Ohlone.

Inside the church at Mission Santa Clara, where Indians were often used as slave labor and forced to worship.

The Verona band was acknowledged as a tribe as early as 1906 (Muwekma Ohlone Tribe). This recognition was then revoked in 1927; this was due to the claim made by Alfred Kroeber concerning the Verona band extinct, therefore no longer making the government responsible for acquiring land for the tribe. Kroeber’s death sentence to the Costanoan’s has left a daunting task for many Ohlone individuals. If the BIA continues to use Kroeber’s seven parameters of the tribelet theory to recognize native communities, many communities will fail to become recognized due to Kroeber’s insufficiency to recognize post missionized Indians as contained an Indian identity and complete misunderstanding of pre-contact Ohlone ways of life.

Due to the displacement starting from the mission era and the erasure of the Ohlone place names and history, providing certain evidence to the BIA can prove close to impossible. Despite this, the Ohlone continue to fight for their rights and recognition. They continue to collect evidence and testimonies to prove their relationship to the Verona band. Insanely enough, in 1954, Alfred Kroeber retracted his statement concerning the Ohlone being extinct, in which he re-phrased himself saying that they were not extinct. Although he retracted his claim about the Ohlone peoples, the Ohlone continue to live as refugees near their traditional homelands. Receiving federal recognition would grant the Ohlone land rights and services to enable cultural and environmental conservation.

Tule River Tribe

Much like the Muwekma Ohlone the Tule River Tribe has experienced a large amount of structured oppression as well. Similar to the Ohlone the Tule River Tribe was included into the 18 treaties being negotiated between different tribes and the U.S. government. However as stated earlier these treaties were never ratified. The individuals from the Tule River Tribe were displaced and allotted land for their first reservation in the year 1856. This reservation was known as the Tejon Reservation where individuals residing from Koyeti, Yaudanchi, Chunuts, Yokodo, Kaweah, Wukchumne, Punkalachi, Kumachisi, Yowlumne tribes were removed to. The Tejon reservation lasted eight years until the reservation was terminated and the tribes were removed to a place called Tule River farms. In 1864 congress established the Four Reservations Act in which the Tule River, Hoopa, Round Valley and Mission reservations were established. Unfortunately, in 1868 a measles epidemic spread across the Tule River reservation and much of the population decreases. Many native individuals fled for safety and in hope of a better life, leaving a majority of southern valley and foothill Yokuts on the reserved land. As of 1873 the reservation is moved to a new and remote location; however, much of the land is unusable and soon after a number of acres are added to help sustain the tribe. Although land was added to help the tribe just a few years later the land was retracted and the reservation is now back to its original boundaries. This is currently the location of the Tule River Tribe today.

The Tule River Tribe is federally recognized. (

Unlike the Muwekma Ohlone, the Tule River Tribe is a federally recognized tribe. Many of the Foothill Yokuts and Southern Valley tribes were able to resist missionization slightly more than the tribes closer to the south, such as the Muwekma. This led the U.S. to recognize the foothill Yokuts as containing Indian identity and a necessity for land. In 1935, the Tule River Tribe officially became recognized by the United States by reorganizing themselves as a part of the Indian Reorganization Act.

Although the Tule River Tribe is federally recognized, they do not currently have water rights. The tribe has been trying to reach an agreement with the federal government about water rights since 1971. According to the Winters doctrine, a tribe has a right to a water supply that will allow them to maintain their land. After interviewing Brian Rueger, who is a forest manager with the Tule River Tribe, it is apparent that the tribe does not have sufficient water to maintain the land. Currently, their water sources are a few wells and snow melt and the tribe is rationing water in order to try and preserve the limited water that is available; however, Rueger points out that “there is not enough water, which allows the insects to easily come in and kill the trees”. As a tribe, there is a responsibility to the land, to help to preserve and maintain it, but with limited water rights during a drought, this can prove to be difficult. Of course, the Tule River Tribe works with the EPA and there are individuals, like Rueger, who work to preserve their natural resources. At the same time, if there is not a good winter, the snow melt may not be able to provide enough water and more trees may die, which is out of the control of the tribe regardless of the work done to preserve and maintain the land.

Furthermore, the drought and lack of water rights is also affecting different cultural traditions. Many different traditions involve the use of fire; for example, dancing, storytelling, and ceremonies. Currently, there is a high fire hazard due to the drought and fire cannot be used as freely as it was in the past in order to avoid having a fire get out of control. Also, many tribal members have mentioned to Rueger that they notice many plants that are important for medicinal purposes and have cultural significance are not as available as they have been in the past. An example of this is the decreased amount of oak trees and therefore acorns. Although it is not proven that the drought is responsible for this lack of availability, it is logical that it is most likely a factor.

The drought does affect cultural traditions, but most importantly, it affects the land and the concern of the continued loss of trees increases. Without federal water rights, the tribe already has insufficient water sources to maintain the land and the drought only adds to the struggle. At the same time, it does give a sense of urgency when it comes to the negotiations that the tribe has been having over the water rights for the past fifteen years. Maybe it will help others to see the importance of federally recognized tribes having water rights in order to preserve the land that they had to work to get from the federal government in the first place.

Although the struggles of Native Americans are thought to be long over, there are still countless problems many tribes face. The Muwekma Ohlone and the Tule River Tribe have different histories, but share similar hardships. Becoming federally recognized and maintaining water rights are two of the biggest hurtles that many still tirelessly work for.

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