Before Stanford: The Muwekma Ohlone people

Jan. 23, 2017, 10:44 p.m.

It was spring of 1922. Just west of where Oak Creek is today, Stanford student Bruce Seymour ’24 uncovered a human skull. The human being who had inhabited these bones was male, Native American and over 4,000 years old.

At least 5,000 years before Spanish soldiers first set foot on California soil, the ancestors of the present-day Muwekma Ohlone tribe lived, fished and buried their dead on the land that was to become Stanford University. A semi-sedentary people with an affinity for water, the Ohlone built many of their homes on the banks of the San Francisquito creek that now bounds Oak Creek on the west.

The 1922 find was christened Stanford Man I, in honor of its location and the archaeological dig that led to its discovery. The Native American man proved to be the oldest human being known to have lived in the San Francisco peninsula.

For the academic archaeological community, this was a significant discovery. For the Muwekma Ohlone tribespeople, however, the bones were all they had left of an ancestor.

Geraldine Green of the Seneca tribe articulated her people’s attitude towards the dead at the 1996 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

“We leave them alone, they are through. They are given what information they want. They have done their jobs; we need not bother them anymore,” Green said.

Green touched on a fundamental reverence for the dead that is perhaps as much human as it is cultural. The Faculty Senate voted unanimously in favor of a proposal to return all Native American remains held in the Stanford museum in 1989. Then-graduate student Laura Jones M.A. ’84 Ph.D. ’90 saw the nationally controversial proposal as an “ethical decision about human rights.”

“The human remains have human rights, and those rights were represented by their descendants,” Jones said.

Jones drove the truck bearing the Ohlone ancestral remains back to the tribal council, who buried the bones in park land. With it, she sowed the seeds of a decades-long partnership between Stanford archaeology researchers and the Muwekma Ohlone tribe that, in her view, vastly enriched the archaeological process. One year later, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) added legal force to the moral precedent, mandating the return of Native American remains all over the country.

But the act of repatriation also created schisms in the academic world. Archaeologists in the 1980s and 1990s argued: What about a millennia-old ancestor, as ancient as the Harappans or the early Egyptians? At what point does our beholdenness to memory and culture stop?

The outdated academic debacle touches on a resounding theme: the rightful relationship between the peoples, past and present, who call this swath of the Bay Area home. These historical questions challenge the University’s conscience and compel its members to act even today. The recent controversy over place names that honor Junipero Serra, the father of the Spanish missions in California, revisits the impact of Spanish colonialism on the Ohlone peoples.

Today, Stanford’s values and identity are expressed and tested by its treatment of the past.


Before Stanford: The Muwekma Ohlone people
(MCKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily)

Ten thousand years before before the Spanish set their sights on the lush bay of San Francisco, the first Native American peoples were living off the marshland. For at least 5,000 years, they existed in organized tribal societies, landscaping the wide brush with oaks, setting traps for shellfish and burying their dead together with the remains of mussel shells in towering pyramid-like mounds called shellmounds. Each shellmound was a monument to their craft, their food and the reverent burial of their dead that would grow throughout their lives.

“Ohlone” and “Costanoan” (Spanish for “coastal”) are catch-all terms for the various indigenous tribes that lived between San Francisco and Monterey, while the Muwekma Ohlone is the self-coined tribal name of those Native American descendants living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While the remnants of the indigenous people’s creations hint at their vibrant cultures, they exist in the written record entirely through the flat, assessing gaze of the other. The Spanish soldiers who first encountered the tribe living in present-day Palo Alto noted the “Indians” mainly for their foreign dress and the food they offered in aid of the soldiers’ first exploratory advance through the Bay.

Ironically, the Portola mission that first brought the Spanish into contact with the indigenous peoples eased the way for the Spanish takeover of their prized bayshore homes. At the behest of Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish clergy oversaw the consolidation of villages and prime bayshore into missions. The land that became Stanford University was part of Mission Santa Clara, while others were co-opted into Mission San Jose, Mission Dolores and Mission Santa Cruz, drawing the outlines of counties and cities that remain intact today.

Contact with the Spanish started the Ohlone people on a century-long grind of trauma, dispersal and unstinting resilience. As Spanish, Mexican and white European settlers laid claim to the land in waves, the Ohlone people adapted and dispersed, but never disappeared.

Under the Spanish, many Ohlone people joined the missions as laborers, while others lingered outside the missions in smaller communities. Life in the missions entailed religious conversion — sometimes against the Ohlone people’s will — and assimilation into radically different ways of life.

Worse violations lay in store. Rape, forced labor and foreign diseases ravaged the indigenous peoples, so that only half of the total population in 1769 remained by 1832.

After the Spanish came the Mexican “rancheros.” Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 saw wealthy Mexican landowners take over the Bay in large parcels of ranch land grants. Again, the Ohlone bent but did not break. Some Ohlone became rancheria laborers, while others sought work in the cities. Some, like the Inigo family, even came to own ranches instead of working on them.

Baptism and assimilation aided Lupe Inigo’s ascent in mission society, yet he marked the land with his Ohlone heritage much as the early Spanish explorers had — with a name. He gave his ranch the name Posolmi, an Ohlone word in honor of a lost ancestral village.   

During the rancheria era, Ohlone laborers also worked the land that was to become Stanford University. Antonio Buelna, who later sold the land to Leland Stanford Sr., was granted the land that sweeps across the Oak Creek apartments and the rest of Stanford West in 1839. Under Buelna, some Ohlone people continued to tend the land they had once owned as ranch hands. They spoke their native Ohlone language among themselves till the 1930s and kept beads of a bright cerulean blue, an auspicious color. They got by.

The American annexation of California brought a new flavor of conquest. Ownership was staked by ink-and-paper deeds, and the settlers who came with the Gold Rush were often eager to clear the land of squatters, including the native peoples who had lived on the land before the invention of the written word. When Leland Stanford Sr. followed gold fever west and cobbled his stock farm out of nearly a dozen separate land purchases, he did the same.

“[Stanford] wanted to make sure that he was very clear about the land title. He would pay off people who squatted to make sure they had no claim and leave,” Jones said.

It is uncertain if any Ohlone people remained on the Stanford farm as workers. Many Ohlone peoples regrouped on other rancherias. The present-day Muwekma Ohlone tribe itself evolved from a group of families living on the same rancheria in Sunol, who kept in touch over the years and later formed the nucleus of their present-day tribal organization.

Rosemary Cambra, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone, found cohesion in the choices that individual families made even as they scattered.

“They have made it a way of life to migrate within aboriginal lands,” Cambra said.


But what Cambra calls a thriving “way of life” has been negated by many officials and scholars. Just three years after the discovery of Stanford Man I in burial repose, pioneering anthropologist Alfred Kroeber deemed the Ohlone people “extinct for all practical purposes.” The Ohlone tribal council has spent millions of dollars on genealogists and archaeologists in hopes of securing federal tribal status, which would offer, among other rights, land grants and protection for Ohlone graves. However, in 2011, after a 20-year battle for federal recognition, a U.S. District Court decision formally denied the Muwekma Ohlone tribal status.

One key problem is that the Muwekma Ohlone people and the courts conceive of a tribe in fundamentally different ways. Various Bay Area Ohlone leaders, such as the Muwekma Ohlone council and Mission Dolores museum director Andrew Galvan, promote the active practice of tribal culture through language revitalization, education and grave repatriation efforts.

Yet the 2011 ruling stated that the Muwekma Ohlone council failed to show that it “has maintained ‘political influence or authority’ over its members since 1927,” rendering void the federal recognition granted the Verona Band of Indians, of which the Muwekma Ohlone had been a part. Dissent within the Ohlone community has also been cited as reasons to doubt the Muwekma Ohlone’s authority and, by extension, their legal claim.

To archaeologists, however, the fluid, complex groupings of modern-day tribes are true to their ancestors’ mobile and intimately interconnected communities.

“Californian tribes were extremely gregarious,” Jones said. “You have lots of trading and intermarriage. There would be people in every village speaking [two or three] languages. Their communities are multicultural — they were more than 200 years ago, and they are today.”

The archaeological record makes it clear that tribes were as organic and adaptable as the human beings who comprised them. To Jones, the cultural, social and genealogical inheritance is clear — the specific change in political units and territories with time “doesn’t cause [her] very much stress.”

Despite the Muwekma Ohlone’s political disappointments, the Bay Area Ohlone tribes have achieved much in the last decades. Today, there are several dozen speakers of their native Chochenyo language, where there were almost none after the 1930s. It is now common, though not compulsory, practice to consult the Ohlone people when their ancestral graves are uncovered by construction workers or researchers.

Karen Biestman, who directs Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center, sees the Ohlone people’s story as one of survival rather than victimhood.

“The fact that they survived and rebuilt, reclaimed governance and perpetuated their language and culture, is really an incredible success story,” said Biestman.


Each year, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe blesses the ground of the Stanford Powwow. The gesture has become a tradition in its own right, a recognition that the story of the Ohlone and the story of Stanford are rooted in the same land.

Biestman said, “One thing [that every student should know] is that we are all guests on ancestral, aboriginal Ohlone land.”

Far from extinct, Native American culture has been vitally present at Stanford since its early years. The Muwekma-Tah-Ruk house was named and dedicated for Native American-themed residential life in 1990, and the annual Powwow is warmly attended by some 35,000 people, from regional Native American community members to non-tribespeople. Even before the founding of Stanford, Leland Stanford Jr. collected the remnants of native arrowheads on the Stanford farm, and the University has hired a campus archaeologist since the 1890s to engage with the peoples who lived and worked on the rich land.

The land where Stanford now stands has always been contested. The diverse colonial and immigrant presence has always been a source of competing claims. In recent years, Father Junipero Serra’s name has become an emblem of California’s troubled relationship with colonization, religion and its indigenous peoples.

As the Spanish priest who proposed and oversaw the mission system that undeniably had an adverse effect on the Ohlone people, the landmarks that honor Serra’s name throughout Stanford and the rest of California raise old questions: Of all the peoples who have inhabited the land, who has the right to the land? Whose voice should be honored?

In his resolution in the undergraduate Senate, then-senator Leo Bird ’17 pinpointed Leland Stanford’s place as an occupier of the land, who, like Serra, is inevitably beholden to past occupants.

If nothing else, the story of Stanford so far shows that names and narratives are anything but trivial when it comes to the question of rights. As the Spanish soldiers traversed the bayshore, they had a compulsion to name. Whimsical travelers’ coinages such as “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (“island of the pelicans,” now Alcatraz), “Punta de los Lobos Marinos” (“point of the sea wolves,” now Point Lobos) correspond remarkably well to place names today, an indelible sign of their presence and power.

On their part, the Muwekma Ohlone recognize that their hope for political recognition today depends on their ability to trace, prove and stake a claim to their past. They do so through research, branding and, ultimately, narrative. And as Stanford grapples with the legacy of the place it inhabits, the history of the land is being written and revised to this day.

Fangzhou Liu ’19 was Vol. 253 Executive Editor; before that, she co-led the news section. She grew up in Singapore and studies computer science and linguistics.

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