(March 22, 2023) — Senator Alex Padilla and Rep. Barbara Lee are being criticized by Bay Area civic leaders and supporters of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe for the cold shoulder that the elected officials gave to Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh last week.
“This process has taken decades and they can’t take 20 minutes to talk to us,” Nijmeh asks. “It’s a real shame.”
Despite repeated requests to meet with each elected official, both Rep. Lee and Sen. Padilla both declined to meet with Nijmeh. Lee even declined to allow staff to meet with the Chairwoman, despite encouraging Nijmeh at events to reach out to her office scheduler.
Nijmeh was leading a delegation of supporters from the Tribe’s Bay Area territory — including faith leaders, high school students, a best selling historian, and an expert anthropologist.
Padilla directed staff to listen to the delegation for 30 minutes, but the office limited the number of people that they allowed in the Senator’s conference room, despite plenty of seating. Bay Area high school students on a civics trip were forced to step outside. The office declined to make him available for a photo op with the students as well.
The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe has struggled for more than 40 years to correct a departmental error at the Bureau of Indian Affairs that wrongly excluded them from a list of recognized Tribes in 1978.
“Lee has built her career on stolen Muwekma Ohlone lands and represents portions of the aboriginal territory today,” Nijmeh explains. “Whose interests does she serve by refusing to speak to us about our struggle for federal recognition?”
When asked whether Padilla’s legislative aide, Sarah Swig, had read Dr. Christine Grabowski‘s anthropological report — which Nijmeh had personally delivered to Swig more than two years ago — Swig said that she declined to read it.
That revelation provoked concern among the members of the delegation. “What do we have to do to get you to read the report,” one Tribal advisor asked.
Tribal leaders explained to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that the issue of federal recognition is increasingly pressing for the Tribe. The Bay Area’s gentrification pressures are enormous, and housing prices threaten to push members of the Tribe out of their 10,000 year homeland.
Nijmeh’s top priority is to acquire land for a Native Village, in order to construct a mixed-use affordable housing community that allows the Tribe to continue to live together as a Tribe. In order to do so, she needs to move land into federal trust — which requires an affirmation of the Tribe’s federal status.
“This is an existential issue for us, and the powers that be think they can ignore us into oblivion. Diane Feinstein learned that we’re always going to be here, and we are going to outlast the politicians who oppose our sovereignty,” Nijmeh explains.
“Politicians are fleeting. Tribes are forever,” she adds.
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