Zoe Lofgren’s stunning reversal on Muwekma sovereignty raises questions about her motives

(DECEMBER 14TH, 2022) — In a stunning reversal that is sending shockwaves across the Bay Area’s political community, Rep. Zoe Lofgren is publicly refusing to support the federal recognition of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe — despite overwhelming DNA, anthropological and genealogical evidence, federal court findings, and historical documentation proving beyond any doubt that the Tribe is precisely who they say they are: the indigenous people of the Bay Area.

Last Thursday, Lofgren’s office told the Tribe flatly: “We won’t support any federal recognition legislation unless it explicitly prevents casino gaming.”

But such a request to restrict the ability of the Tribe to engage in economic development — or to otherwise curtail its sovereignty — is deeply offensive to indigenous leaders broadly, especially at a time when indigenous communities are demanding the repeal of colonial legal frameworks that marginalize their communities, subjugate their economies, and inhibit their nation-building.

The Congresswoman’s stance also flies in the face of public opinion.

California voters have decided twice — by wide margins that they are supportive of Indian gaming.  Statewide referendums were held in 1998 and 2000 — trumping any polling or survey figures that Lofgren might allege.

In 1998, Measure 5 was approved by a vote of 62.38% to 37.62%, greatly expanding Tribal-State Gaming Compacts inside California.  Santa Clara County — the base of Lofgren’s district — voted to approve the measure 56.70% to 43.30%.  Then in 2000, Measure 1A was approved by a vote of 64.50% to 35.50%, which authorized an amendment to the State constitution that clarified Tribe’s right to conduct gaming on Tribal lands.  In Lofgren’s Santa Clara County, voters approved the measure 59.80% to 40.20%.

As gaming continues to expand into new states and verticals, Americans broadly continue to appreciate the benefits and excitement of legal, regulated gaming.  Gaming industry research conducted by the American Gaming Association, shows that 42% of American adults participated in some form of gambling in the past year, while casino visitation rebounded to 34% of Americans, up from 28% in 2021.

The AGA’s annual survey of Americans’ attitudes towards gaming shows that two-thirds of Americans recognize gaming’s economic impact: 64% say that gaming has a positive impact on the U.S. economy and 66% say that the gaming industry is a source of high-quality jobs.

“Every time the Tribe engages with Rep. Lofgren, the congresswoman turns a conversation about the Muwekma’s people’s existence and survival — which should be celebrated — into a two-bit troupe about Indian casinos,” John Thompson, a spokesperson for the Tribe’s campaign for federal recognition, explains.  “This discussion is about a lot of things – housing, survival, educating the public – but it’s not a discussion about gaming.  I’m aghast at her Office’s continued treatment of tribal leaders, and I’m offended for them.”

Staffers with Rep. Anna Eshoo‘s office repeatedly communicated to Muwekma Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh that Lofgren’s support would be necessary to get the legislation filed and introduced in committee, despite her previous commitments to carry the Muwekma legislation.

Progressive activists have been calling on Rep. Zoe Lofgren to retire to make room for the next generation of Bay Area political leaders. Her failure to deliver on progressive priorities and mistreatment of marginalized communities has caused activists to lose patience with the congresswoman.

Previously known — and unambiguously federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the Verona Band of Indians — the Tribe was illegally removed from a key list in a dastardly bureaucratic maneuver that effectively defrauded it of its federal recognition, something that is shockingly unlawful in the context of federal Indian law.  As a constitutional law matter, a Tribe can only be Terminated by an Act of Congress.

For the last forty years, the Tribe — which has never been lawfully Terminated — has been struggling to get back that federal status ever since.  That status would restore the Tribe’s ability to access federal housing programs that it desperately needs in the face of a relentless gentrification of its Bay Area homeland, which threatens to displace them from their homelands.

The status would also let the Tribe govern its own commercial activities and pursue nation-building projects by recognizing the Tribe’s inherent civil regulatory jurisdiction as a self-governing community.

“At this inflection point in the arc of our history, I have a solemn obligation to future generations of Muwekma children to assert a forward posture when it comes to the exercise of our rights to self-determination and the protection of our sovereignty,” Chairwoman Nijmeh explains. “How could I, in good conscious, sign away the rights of self-government and self-determination for future generations of Muwekma people? We want to nation-build, not to sign away our rights.”

“It would be an unconscionable betrayal of the oath I took to lead this Tribe to – in any way – yield or cede our sovereignty,” Nijmeh adds.  “This is about our right to govern ourself, and to protect ourselves against a relentless gentrification of our Bay Area homeland. which threatens our very existence and our ability to continue to live as a Tribe.”

Tribal leaders can’t understand what is motivating Lofgren’s sudden opposition to restoring the Tribe’s sovereignty — after decades of support, even demanding on the floor of the House that the Congress act:

“I proudly support the long struggle of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe as they continue to seek justice and to finally, and without further delay, achieve their goal of their reaffirmation of their tribal status by the federal government. This process has dragged on long enough. I hope that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior will do the right thing and act positively to grant the Muwekma Ohlone tribe their rights as a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe… To do anything else is to deny this tribe justice. They have waited patiently and should not have to wait any longer.”

“It is not uncommon for politicians to ‘evolve’ or ‘change position’ on an issue or policy over time, but Rep. Lofgren is moving in reverse. We know the answer why her support has chilled, as does she. Savvy politicians do their best to avoid ‘eating their words,’ particularly two-decade old on-the-record comments,” Thompson postulates.  “She has wrongly assumed Muwekma will cave, and with the heat turning up, considerably, she will undoubtedly scramble to cover herself behind colleagues, or by any necessary means.”

Last week, when Nijmeh accepted an award from Assemblyman Ash Kalra, she delivered prepared remarks calling on the Congress to act — and declaring that the “time is now” for a federal recognition bill:

“For the Muwekma Ohlone people, the next step towards that better future is federal recognition…  I am optimistic that we are on the brink of a turning point in the history of our people – a turning point that will bend toward the justice that has been too long delayed,” Nijmeh said after receiving the award. “But we need Congress to Act. We need our local congressmen and women to stand up and demand this justice with us. We need our friends and neighbors to demand that justice of them.”


According to the California Gambling Control Commission, as of January 2021, the state of California has ratified tribal-state gaming compacts with 75 California tribes and put into effect Secretarial Procedures with three additional tribes. Of the 75 compacted tribes, 63 operate 66 casinos throughout the state.

Under the 1999 compacts, tribes were limited to around 2,000 Class III gaming machines. The 2004 Compacts allowed tribes to operate an unlimited number of Class III gaming machines. The 2012 Compacts vary in the amount of Class III gaming machines allowed, with some tribes being allowed to operate over 2,000 machines.

“Why is casino number 67 too much for Lofgren?  Why didn’t she say anything about casino number 47 or 57?” Thompson asks, rhetorically.  “Why would she ask this one Tribe to be the only Tribe in California not to have the right to conduct gaming?  It’s discriminatory.”



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