Ohlone Native American tribe often goes overlooked on campus
April 26, 2018
Google “Santa Clara University” right now and the first image shown would be of the Mission Church. On any campus tour, the Mission Church—home of weddings, funerals and Catholic masses—is always the highlight.
However, for as many times as the Mission Church appears in photographs and Google searches, aspects of its history are often overlooked. Among these is the unnoticed history of the Muwekma Ohlone people who resided in this area before the university ever existed.
While the Mission Church is often a site of welcome and pride for residents of Santa Clara, it is a reminder of a painful past for many others. The eighth mission site in the chain of 21 Franciscan missions established by Padre Junípero Serra in the late 1700s, the land under the campus is an archaeological goldmine.
Whenever the university undertakes a construction project, cultural layers are unearthed—containing artifacts such as shell beads, pottery, stone tools and food remains that give clues to the history of the previous mission community. Not only is the university resting on top of these artifacts, but it also resides over thousands of native burials, most which are unmarked. Many of those buried are the ancestors of the present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe who still call the South Bay their home.
Ever since the Mission system disrupted their way of life, the Muwekma Ohlone have faced colonization, leading to systems of oppression. They have been denied land, federal recognition and access to the archaeological records of their ancestral heritage sites. Their voices are largely nonexistent on a campus that lacks Native American representation in both its faculty and student population.
As a Jesuit university, Santa Clara touts the idea of educating the whole person in order to create a more just, humane and sustainable world. However, one has to ask if ignoring this history of colonization really contributes to this vision.
When anthropologist Alan Leventhal first met Rosemary Cambra in 1980, he knew very little about California Native Americans, despite working as the director of the San Jose State University (SJSU) anthropology lab for two years. Cambra proudly declared her status as Ohlone Indian and wanted to learn more about her heritage. As any good academic in the 80s would do, Leventhal suggested they visit the library.
Appearing within the card indexes in the SJSU library, the word “Ohlone” suggested,in the SJSU library, the word “Ohlone” suggested, “See Costanoan.” Under “Costanoan—derived from Costeños, a name given to the tribe by the early Spanish colonists and by the Bureau of Indian Affairs meaning “coast people”—it read, “see Ohlone.”
At the time, the only really reputable book about Californian Native Americans was American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California. It was in that 1925 book that Kroeber declared that, “for all practical purposes,” the Ohlone were extinct. All of the scholars, historians, anthropologists, educators and politicians embraced this sentence of extinction.
But back in 1980, standing in the SJSU library with her hands on her hips, Cambra disagreed.
If Cambra were to visit Santa Clara’s campus today, less than five miles away from SJSU there too she would see little evidence of her people. According to the tribe’s website, the aboriginal homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe once extended as far south as Morgan Hill and as far north as the San Francisco Bay.
For thousands of years, the Ohlone, and over 150 other tribal settlements, occupied the Bay Area with a population totaling over 10,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But when Spanish colonists arrived in 1769 with the goal of baptizing the Native Americans into the Roman Catholic faith and establishing a colonized labor force, the Ohlone way of life was disrupted. Once hunter-gatherers and fishing people, many Ohlone had to suddenly adopt the agrarian society present in the mission community.
Previously bearing distinct tribal identities, the Ohlone communities now had a mixed “mission” identity. Thousands of Native Americans died from illness epidemics, such as cholera, smallpox and measles, carried over by the Europeans. By 1830, the Ohlone numbers totaled only 2,500.
Linda Hylkema spends a lot of time in the archaeology lab, located in the Ricard Observatory on campus. As the cultural resource management and campus archaeologist, Hylkema oversees all the campus excavations with the help of an Ohlone representative before any construction can begin. The school did not always invite Ohlone representatives to be a part of this process. Hylkema, when she arrived at the university 20 years ago, had to work to change the digging policies to ensure a more respectful and inclusive relationship with the Native Americans. Before any construction can begin, this strict and careful excavation process must be conducted.
Despite Ohlone inclusion in the dig process, the university still does not openly educate community members through ample signage, with Hylkema noting that the administration prefers a “clear, uncluttered look.” However, she is trying to make it well-known that “the Indians are still here.”
The Muwekma Ohlone are trying to stress this too, despite a history that denies their existence and their rights. Leventhal said that when he interviewed Cambra’s family members in the early 1980s, some of them showed him their Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) enrollment cards.
These registrations with the BIA, dating from 1928-32, 1948-57 and 1968-71 proved that the government once recognized the existence of their tribe, even after Alfred Kroeber, the American cultural anthropologist, declared them extinct in 1925 in his infamous handbook.
In 1989, the Tribal Council of the Muwekma Ohlone was forced to petition for federal acknowledgment. Years of lawsuits, several hundred pages of documentation and many frustrating deliberations ensued. Today, the U.S. government still has not reaffirmed their previous status as a federally recognized tribe and has determined that they have exhausted the regulatory process to become one once again.
When anthropology professor Dr. Lee Panich was first hired at Santa Clara, he helped in the excavation of the block of land near a different sort of historical university landmark: The Hut. This area of land was once a bustling site of the Ohlone mission community. Through his research, Panich hopes to uncover what archaeological evidence can tell us about these Native American communities.
While many people think that the mission system was ultimately positive for the native populations, Panich believes that we have an obligation to reevaluate this conclusion using archaeological evidence.
Panich also wants the students and faculty of Santa Clara to be able to access the archaeological material found in excavations. In the early 1970s and 80s, professors and students were the ones who did the archaeological work. However, because of various pressures placed on the university due to California laws such as the 2014 Native American Historic Resource Protection Act, administrators decided to move the archeological work out of academia and into operations.
“For various reasons, it is pretty difficult to actually do work on campus,” Panich said. “There is a ton of archaeology that happens on campus with all the construction, but they contract that out to other people. Which is pretty frustrating in many ways. The people they hire do a good job, but that means all that stuff essentially goes into a black hole.”
Panich believes that it is important for students and faculty to be more involved in campus archaeology in order to be a direct witness to the historical memory of the land. The archeology is tangible evidence of the indigenous history of Santa Clara. By keeping this evidence hidden, the university—perhaps unwittingly—perpetuates the historical erasure of the Ohlone and the other native people who lived at Mission Santa Clara.
Leventhal said that when he was helping Rosemary Cambra trace her family lineage back to their aboriginal villages in 1980, archeologists saw no reason to recognize or embrace the existence of the Muwekma Ohlone. Most archaeological firms have not given the tribe access to their information excavated from their ancestral heritage sites. Leventhal identifies this as a continuation of a colonial system established hundreds of years before.
“Colonial systems either have a premeditated agenda to disenfranchise and delegitimize indigenous people or they stem from a society that is normative, one with no malicious intent but one with no knowledge about the existence of these surviving tribes,” said Leventhal. Both systems are detrimental and destructive in many ways.
With her blonde curls, pale skin and light blue eyes, junior Ella Fogel does not appear to be a quarter Native American. However, despite her complexion, her mother’s family is part of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, where she has relatives today. When the Multicultural Center and the Office for Multicultural Learning reached out to her and the few other students with Native ties on campus her freshman year, they co-founded the Santa Clara University Native American Coalition for Change (SCUNACC).
Fogel and the SCUNACC hold educational events, which have included clay pot making, a discussion of matriarchal practices in Native groups and a documentary screening of “More than a Word,” discussing offensive school mascots.
“Our goal is education about Native issues, and definitely the Ohlone people and the Native history with Santa Clara,” Fogel said. “But also to just bring a Native group on campus. It’s a really underrepresented population.”
Although SCUNACC holds weekly meetings, they usually only consist of Fogel and the two other original co-founders, as the fourth has since graduated. One of the largest issues Fogel and her fellow club members are concerned with is Native representation on campus. In demographics listed on Sant Clara’s admission website about the current first-year class, less than one percent of students claim American Indian or Alaska Native heritage.
Not only is Santa Clara’s campus grappling with a history of Native suppression, but the school also seems to be missing a key element in celebrating Native American heritage: representation in its faculty and staff.
Memorializing selective aspects of the Native American history is something the de Saisset Museum on campus has struggled with in the past. Director of the de Saisset Museum, Rebecca Schapp, discusses a time when Rosemary Cambra came into the museum to see the California History exhibit years ago. Upon viewing the exhibit, located in the lower level of the museum, she was justifiably upset because the exhibit made it seem as if her people were simply a thing of the past.
The exhibit failed to recognize contemporary voices and modern day members of the tribe who are working on reviving their culture and traditions in their native home of the South Bay.
“The Mission system transformed and changed the way of life of the Muwekma Ohlone people in a significant way,” Schapp said. “The California Indian population declined in large numbers, there was violence, indigenous resistance and killings. Some people refer to this period as an American genocide—even today, some people can’t acknowledge what happened to the Ohlone people.”
To the right of the entrance of the Mission Church, banners commemorate pieces of the church’s history. On one titled “The Ohlone,” it reads, “Upon establishing Mission Santa Clara, Fray Tomás de la Peña and Fray José Murguía met with a large native population, numbering more than 10,000. Today we know them as the Ohlone. Over time, the Ohlone population dwindled. Today, numerous families have reclaimed their Ohlone heritage and still reside in the Bay Area.”
Although this banner acknowledges the Ohlone presence in the past as well as today, it does little to explain why or how their numbers decreased so greatly during this time period. This “whitewashing” of history is something that Schapp and others in the de Saisset Museum are trying to end. Schapp is currently working with representatives from the Muwekma Ohlone group to make changes to the California History exhibit.
Their team hopes to include more contemporary Native American voices and artwork to share the rich and vibrant Ohlone still thriving today. The museum staff also put together an iBooks textbook free for anyone to download on their iPads or tablets called “Moving Forward: Santa Clara’s Story of Transformation,” which traces the history of the Mission Santa Clara de Asís.
The introduction of this iBooks textbook reads, “Much change was brought to the Ohlone with the arrival of the Spanish, but their culture endures. Their history is our history, an integral part of the story of the Bay Area.”
An original version of this story was created for a magazine journalism class. Contact Julia Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.