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Bay Area Indians’ Questionable Claims

New DNA evidence concerning the origins of San Francisco's Muwekma Ohlone tribe has been largely misrepresented by the press.
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The Muwekma Ohlone tribe has been making headlines. USA Today declares “The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was declared ‘extinct’ in the 1920s. New DNA research says otherwise”, while the New York Times writes, “New DNA Analysis Supports an Unrecognized Tribe’s Ancient Roots in California,” and Smithsonian Magazine reports “This Native American Tribe Wants Federal Recognition. A New DNA Analysis Could Bolster Its Case: The new findings could help Muwekma Ohlone prove they never went ‘extinct’.”

These articles, and many others in local newspapers, fundamentally misunderstand the ethnographic work of Alfred L. Kroeber, U.C. Berkeley’s first professor of anthropology. Worse still, they misunderstand, or perhaps misrepresent, the new DNA evidence, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), regarding the Muwekma Ohlone, who are seeking federal recognition. That recognition could result in a huge payout in terms of valuable Bay Area land.

In the USA Today article, journalist Celina Tebor writes that A.L. Kroeber, in his monumental 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California, was mistaken to conclude that the Muwekma Ohlone were extinct. DNA evidence published in PNAS, Tebor writes, shows links between nearly 2,000 year-old remains found in the San Francisco Bay Area and the modern Muwekma Ohlone tribe, which is then used to conclude that the Muwekma Ohlone are not extinct.

Kroeber, the highly influential first professor of anthropology at Berkeley, wrote that the Costanoans (the name used for the Indians of the San Francisco Bay Area) were “extinct so far as all practical purposes are concerned.” Kroeber drew this conclusion based on extensive mixed tribal ancestry that resulted from missionaries bringing in other tribes, such as the Miwok and Yokut tribes, coupled with interbreeding with Mexicans. Furthermore, Kroeber found that old Costanoan customs, such as female facial tattoos, had long been abandoned. Even Costanoan basketry showed European influences, while older baskets seemed to reflect the work of Miwok and Yokut tribes.

Sabrina Imbler, writing for the New York Times, notes that Kroeber (who died in 1960) “would not recant his declaration of extinction until the 1950s.” But Kroeber did not recant his declaration; Alfred L. Kroeber and Robert F. Heizer, both testifying for the plaintiffs, wrote in their 1955 statement for The Indians of California vs. United States, under the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1942, that Native American culture had “essentially died” and the Native Americans were maintaining themselves through genetic admixture. In the 1955 genealogical records used as evidence, out of 77 Costanoans, perhaps only six were full-blooded Costanoans; all others were of mixed tribes.

Moreover, whether the Costanoans ever constituted a tribe has also been questioned. For instance, in his 1975 Notion of Tribe, Morton H. Fried, whose work on the origins of organized states played a key role in shaping cross-cultural studies, wrote of “secondary tribalism,” which is a concept that theorizes the tribes were historically created after contact with Europeans. Regarding California Native Americans, such as the Costanoans, there is much doubt that tribal ownership of land to the exclusion of others ever existed. Kroeber used the word “tribelet” to discuss Costanoans, due to their lack of isolation, political structure, and land ownership.

The Costanoans united as the Ohlone Indian tribe in 1971. The Muwekma Ohlone is an even more modern construct. Indeed, relatives of former Muwekma Ohlone tribal chairwoman, Rosemary Cambra, suspect she “made the name ‘Muwekma’ up herself.”

Notwithstanding the issue of whether the Costanoans (and then the Muwekma Ohlone) should be considered a tribe in the first place, the DNA evidence published in the PNAS article so widely discussed actually supports A.L. Kroeber’s conclusions regarding genetic admixture and, thus, the cultural extinction of the Costanoans. Multiple times throughout the PNAS article the authors acknowledge the admixture of European and Mexican DNA in the Muwekma Ohlone. The data clearly illustrate, as seen in the article’s multiple figures, that the Muwekma Ohlone genetically line up with Los Angeles Mexicans, a point ignored by all the above-mentioned media coverage.

Ancient remains from the San Francisco Bay Area Costanoan sites and the modern Muwekma Ohlone do share some DNA. These ancient individuals, however, contain DNA that is more closely affiliated to ancient Southern Californians, such as those from the Channel Islands. This link to the Channel Islands has also been omitted by media coverage.

Out of the 223 modern DNA samples tested for the PNAS paper, none came from non-Muwekma Ohlone Native Californians. Thus we cannot assess whether other modern Native Californians are more closely related to these ancient Bay Area remains than the Muwekma Ohlone, or whether the Muwekma Ohlone are closely related to other living tribes that were brought into the missions to live among the Bay Area Indians. In fact, only a few Native American modern populations were included at all; there is some DNA from Sonoran Desert Indians, from Canadian First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, from far north tribes such as the Aleut, and from South and Central American Indians.

None of the media articles mentions the issue of this lack of data from other Native American groups. Instead, focusing on irrelevant aspects, journalists such as the Smithsonian Magazine’s Jane Recker wrote that “before European contact, at least 300,000 Native people who spoke 135 distinct dialects lived in what is now California, per the Library of Congress. By 1848, that number had been halved. Just 25 years later, in 1873, only 30,000 remained. Now, USA Today reports, there are just 500 members of the Muwekma Ohlone.” Ironically, a more relevant estimate of Costanoan population size was published by the Smithsonian in their groundbreaking series Handbook of North American Indians, which found there were only about 2,000 Costanoans in 1832.

Science is built on retesting existing data and adding data to previously examined questions. If we want to understand the early people of the Bay Area through genetics, then more modern Native American DNA samples must be added.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur. The Muwekma Ohlone got the results they wanted. And, unlike the DNA from the other ancestral remains and modern peoples, which are publicly available at no cost and with no strings attached, the Muwekma Ohlone have decided that they “will review requests for genomic data on tribal members and associated archaeological sites before access can be granted,” so that the tribe retains “power over how the data is used” to minimize harms. What “harms” do the Muwekma Ohlone think will arise? Are they worried that new data will result in the weakening or complete overturning of these conclusions?

If the data are challenged, then the Muwekma Ohlone’s case for federal recognition—with any payout that might entail—is undermined. Both the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine write that the Ohlone lived on 4.3 million acres of Bay Area land. In actuality, California Native Americans only heavily used a small portion of the land they lived in, and protected only a sliver of this area from “trespassers.” But even if federal recognition provided the Muwekma Ohlone with just 10 percent of the 4.3 million acres of land, it would still amount to nearly half a million acres of prime real estate.

Regardless of the financial and political ramifications, I challenge the Muwekma Ohlone to make their DNA and the ancestral DNA from the San Francisco Bay sites publicly available for additional exploration, which will help in understanding Silicon Valley’s earliest inhabitants, regardless of what conclusions await.

Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University and the co-author (with James W. Springer) of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).