Muwekma Tribal Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh discusses her vision for a ‘Trail of Truth’
Charlene Nijmeh has served as Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe for the last five years, reinvigorating the Tribe’s 40-plus year struggle to affirm its federal status. The Tribe was previously federally recognized and was never terminated by an Act of Congress. One hundred percent of its members descend from that previously recognized Tribe.
A seven-year Stanford University genomic study has conclusively linked the Tribe’s ten core lineages to a 2,000-year-old burial ground on their homelands. And just last year, a federal District Court judge in the Northern District of California found that the Tribe retains its sovereign immunity despite not being on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ official list of recognized Tribes.
The Bay Area community has been supportive. Five Bay Area county Democratic Party Committees have passed resolutions endorsing the Tribe’s efforts. The region’s largest universities, environmental groups, and minority political blocs have endorsed the Tribe’s recognition as well.
Card rooms operating in the Bay Area and Tribal gaming entities in Northern California have been bankrolling lobbyists to undermine Muwekma, as they’ve been doing for decades – which has created a big political roadblock that is slowly being disassembled.
To over come the politics of division and greed that has divided Indian Country, Chairwoman Nijmeh is embarking on a cross-country journey. Next May she is planning on traveling from San Francisco to Washington, DC to demand justice from the federal government. She hopes that the journey will help spark a new American Indian Movement for the current generation of indigenous leaders across North America. Some even predict that it could be the beginning of a “New Standing Rock” on the South Lawn of the United States Capitol, where Nijmeh plans to setup camp when she arrives in Washington.
Chairwoman Nijmeh was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Muwekma Times.
Where did you get the vision for the Trail of Truth and what is inspiring you to make it happen? There is an enormous amount of activist energy across Indian Country. People are demanding justice and they say that the time is now. Reflect on the timing of your journey and what you want to accomplish with it?
At the age of eight years old, I saw my mom hit an archeologist with a shovel as he was digging up a sacred burial site of our ancestors. It was an important moment of resistance for our Tribe. It was a breaking point. So much had been taken from us, our community had enough. We stood up and said, “not one more inch”. But my mom went to jail, went bankrupt, and lost her house because of it.
I learned that the winner of the war writes the history books – and the history that’s been taught in schools has not been truthful. As indigenous people, we need to teach our own history – not allow colonial institutions to propagate false narratives about us, like the racist trope that we were savage barbarians. For too many decades, the American government has tried in vain to justify or reason away the genocide that they waged against us – but there is no justification for what the federal government and the State of California have done to us.
People don’t understand, because they haven’t been told the truth.
Over the last five years that I’ve been serving as Chairwoman, I’ve learned how legacy media companies ignore indigenous people and the challenges that we face. The San Francisco Chronicle refuses to tell our story, and sometimes even actively undermines our justice campaign.
That’s why I see the need for this Trail of Truth, to journey across the United States to raise awareness and to educate the public about the ongoing contemporary colonial realities that continue to victimize my people, and victimize indigenous people across North America.
My goal is nothing short of our political liberation – not just for my Ohlone people, but political liberation for indigenous people across Turtle Island. We are so much stronger when we organize and mobilize together. For too long, we’ve allowed the federal government’s divide and conquer tactics in our community to undermine our collective political power – which is enormous.
When you became Chairwoman five years ago, what did you predict would be the most difficult challenge in the role? Were your predictions correct?
I’ve always known that federal recognition would be our biggest challenge. I saw my mom serve as Chairwoman for 40 years trying to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs to correct its mistake – it’s egregious negligence – in not including our Tribe on the list of federally recognized Tribes that it first created in 1978. We’ve been in that struggle ever since.
When I was asked by my mother to take over the role, it wasn’t something I was looking forward to because I saw the obstacles that she faced. It was daunting. I’ve seen how the special interests use money to influence politics and mobilize lobbyists against us. I’ve seen what the card rooms did to try to stop us at every turn.
However, the challenge that is becoming more and more pressing for our Tribe is the existential threat posed by gentrification. The enormous affordability crisis in the Bay Area is pushing our young people from our 10,000-year-old homeland. That’s why – in addition to our reinvigorated campaign for federal recognition – my administration is making it a priority to acquire land and to build housing for our people. We aren’t going to let the issue of federal recognition slow down our efforts to rebuild our village.
Recently, a few major developments have happened in the Tribe’s favor. Stanford University’s genomic study was published, conclusively linking the Tribe’s core lineages to an ancient burial site in Sunol, CA. Separately, a federal judge in the Northern District of California affirmed that the Tribe retains sovereign immunity, despite not being on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ official list. What does it feel like for all of this evidence mounting and the entire community now accepting that you are precisely the people that you’ve always said you are?
My people have always known who we are – each generation instilled in us our obligations to our land, to our ancestors, to our children, and to each other. It feels good that the broader Bay Area community is finally recognizing the enormous body of evidence that proves that we are precisely the people who we’ve always said we are. It’s unfortunate that our leaders in Congress are moving slowly on this, but having the community’s support is really beautiful and inspiring.
The Judge’s decision in the Weiss case wasn’t a surprised to us. Our sovereignty is inherent. It doesn’t come from the federal government. I’m glad that the judge affirmed our sovereign immunity. It puts us in a very unique situation among Tribes in the United States.
Indians – particularly California Indians – struggle with a lot of issues around landlessness, homelessness, and economic struggles, in addition to the very pressing challenge of cultural survival. When your Tribe ultimately does get your federal status clarified, what will the Tribe do next? There are so many other challenges, where do you start?
Housing is the most pressing. We’re going to rebuild our village and rekindle our fire. That’s going to protect our young people from gentrification pressures. We need to acquire land for that, because California was stolen from us.
We want to revive our Chochenyo language, to reinvigorate our ceremonies and dances, and to support our artists so that we can usher in a new golden age of cultural revival for our people. We’re considering strategies to open a charter school.
Our people have endured an enormous amount of trauma, and there is a lot of intergenerational healing that we need to work on internally as a community. There are drug treatment needs, and our faith keepers want to be involved in that healing work. There are job training needs. There’s a need for economic opportunities for those who are trained.