Fighting for Ohlone Sovereignty and Land Preservation

Fighting for Ohlone sovereignty and land preservation
Site of the Ohlone people's Shellmound and Village Site, also proposed for housing development. Berkeley, California. Environmental Justice Atlas.
Client:   GreenInfo Network Internship Program

GreenInfo Network interns Aziza Mirsaidova and Justin A. Muñoz researched and mapped the history of the Ohlone Peoples to highlight the issues that the Ohlone face today. Read the below for an excerpt of their research, or read their full report.

There were once about 58 Ohlone (pronounced Oh-low-nee) tribes; some tribes were so intermarried among speakers of two different primary languages that they cannot be placed within a single primary language group. Today, the Ohlone people are a collective of eight different bands that reside in Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties. 

The people of the Ohlone territory historically spoke many similar languages before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, these languages were: San Francisco Bay Costanoan Awaswas, Karkin, Mutsun, Rumsen, and Chalon. In addition, San Francisco Bay Costanoan had three dialects: Ramaytush, Chochenyo, and Tamyen. 

Alongside ongoing genocide in the 1800s, white settlers and the state and federal legislatures forced many indigenous peoples onto reservations. Indigenous children were forced to attend “Indian assimilation schools” in order to deprive them of their cultural wellness and attempt to replace their social norms with white Christian customs and norms, including language use. 

It took a century to establish a federal policy that allowed the use of Native American languages as the medium of instruction in schools, via the 1990 Native Americans Languages Act. The act protects the rights of indigenous children to learn their own history, be educated, and be assessed in their own language. It took decades more for California to officially apologize, in 2019, for the genocide it carried out against indigenous peoples.

Today, Ohlone tribe members have been speaking three of their languages: Chochenyo, Mutsun, and Rumsen. The Native Ohlone speaking these languages live in the East Bay, San Juan Bautista, Giroy, Watsonville, and Monterey. Chochenyo, one of the indigenous languages of the East Bay, continues to be spoken by Muwekma people. The majority of those speakers are elders, aka "knowledge keepers" in their 70s, seeking ways to preserve their cultural language to pass their knowledge to the next generation of speakers. There is an active Chochenyo language learning group for the Muwekma tribe that works with University California Berkeley linguists to ensure that it continues to thrive for future generations.

While the Ohlone people continue to live in the western USA and continue to preserve their culture, the Ohlone are "unrecognized" by the U.S. federal government, and therefore have no reservation; no protected land base. Tribes recognized by the U.S. government have more than three centuries of federal law that provide some legal support, but non-federally recognized tribes lack the legal authority when a local ecological or cultural area is threatened by development or resource exploitation.

Preserving burial sites, protecting traditional gathering areas from development, and preventing villages from being bulldozed has been virtually impossible since the Ohlone lacks federal recognition. Today, the Ohlone people continue fighting for the protection of their sacred land, and they should have their land recognized, in order to protect the Ohlone people's modern-day territory, and continue to protect sacred lands, language, cultural and spiritual practices.

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