Capitol Alert

What is a ‘California Indian tribe’? How a proposed law unearthed a decades-old wound

When ancestral remains found during building projects or held by government agencies are returned to a Redding-area tribe in a process called repatriation, members hold a formal ceremony to rebury the findings.

The 126 members of the Winnemem Wintu then ask forgiveness from the ancestors, said Chief Caleen Sisk, for something so taboo as disturbing them in their graves.

“It is a hardship on us, to rebury them, to put them back,” Sisk said. “You don’t mess around in graveyards. You don’t dig them up, you don’t move them, you don’t touch them. We ask for forgiveness that we have to do this.”

Current custom allows California tribes some authority in handling their ancestors’ remains. A bipartisan-backed bill being considered in the state Legislature was introduced to strengthen that jurisdiction by handing them more power during repatriation discussions with state agencies.

But because California has more than one legal definition for “tribe,” the original language of Assembly Bill 275 excluded native peoples like the Winnemem Wintu.

I introduced the bill because of the disrespect for tribal elders during the repatriation process that has taken place in the state of California,” said Assemblyman James Ramos, a Highland Democrat and the first California Indian to be elected to the state Assembly. “For all the Indian people in the state, we’re taught that (when) those bones are exposed, you do a proper reburial.”

But it does bring forward an issue that needs to be addressed,” he continued.

Ramos used a legal definition for “tribe” outlined in the 2001 California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which states a “California Indian Tribe” must be federally recognized. If it’s not, the tribe must be in the petitioning process for recognition or be eligible to apply for the status.

That definition contradicts laws from 2004 and 2014 that define a California tribe as federally or non-federally recognized, as long as it’s on the contact list maintained by the Native American Heritage Commission.

There are only 109 federally recognized tribes in California, with another 55 without the status, according to a 2016 commission report. Many of the unrecognized tribes either had their status terminated beginning in the 1950s under a handful of congressional acts, or were never federally recognized.

To be recognized, a tribe must meet seven criteria to demonstrate “continuous social and political tribal existence from historical times to the present and descent from a historical Indian tribe,”said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

But, “If Congress terminated the federal relationship through termination legislation, then only Congress can ‘restore’ the relationship through ‘restoration’ legislation,” Darling said.

A state can extend protections to tribes without federal status, as California has done. But formal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs affords tribes additional rights over their land, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The bureau also offers federal funding and services to these tribes.

The Winnemem Wintu had recognition until 1985, when the federal government terminated its status. The tribe’s members rely on a 2008 Assembly resolution to reaffirm their rights as indigenous peoples.

Sisk said she would have no interest in reapplying for federal recognition, and a 2015 rule from the bureau determined that “allowing re-petitioning is not appropriate.”

“There’s no benefit to that, besides sending a lot of money and gathering a lot of documents,” Sisk said. “It’s a broken, black-hole process. It’s not like filling out an application for a loan for a car and then you don’t get it. You’re sending in an application to people to apply to be who you say you are. What if they say you’re not those people? Then who are you?”

“Somewhere along the line,” she continued, “They have to look at unrecognized status as a genocidal attempt on our culture. As long as we are on unrecognized status, we keep losing rights to everything. Rights to our tradition, rights to our language, rights to our repatriation process.”

According to documents on the bureau’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement site, a California tribe that petitioned in 1983 was denied recognition in 2014. Others have petitions dating back to 1982 or 1990.

Angela Mooney D’Arcy’s Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation also petitioned in 1982. They were denied nearly 30 years later.

“It always benefits the settler and colonizer to engage in acts of erasure,” said D’Arcy, who is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. “If the original people are erased from law and the discourse and public memory, that’s less accountability for the settler colonizer that’s doing the erasure.”

She said Ramos’ bill resurfaces frustrations felt by non-federally recognized tribes who she said don’t always have a seat at the table.

“This problem isn’t something that was generated by him or his office or this bill,” she said. “It was a preexisting problem that was highlighted by the bill that he introduced.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a formal apology for the state’s “dark history” to California’s indigenous peoples.

“It’s called a genocide,” Newsom said during a ceremony announcing the executive order of apology. “No other way to describe it... I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California.”

But D’Arcy said non-federally recognized tribes were not invited to the formal apology ceremony.

“Newsom suggested the formation of a commission or committee to grapple with the history of genocide,” she said. “If the governor intends to exclude non-federally recognized tribes in that conversation, he’s in fact perpetuating the genocidal call of the first governor, not erasing it.”

Newsom’s office provided “a multitude of avenues for remote participation,” spokesperson Brian Ferguson wrote in an email.

As is required in the executive order creating the Truth and Healing Council, our office is working closely with Native American groups from across the state to determine the composition of this group,” the email read.

D’Arcy said the bruises felt by tribes without federal status likely inspired the opposition to Ramos’ legislation, which prompted a change of heart in his office.

Ahead of the Legislature’s reconvening on Aug. 12 to finalize bills, Ramos said the upset pushed him to reconsider the wording of the bill.

Coming away from a very productive meeting with the opposition, I will be removing a section of the bill which contains the tribal definition,” Ramos wrote to The Bee. “With any bill, it’s like pealing back an onion – when working to fix a problem issues come up inadvertently. I look forward to working together as we move forward to address issues facing California Indians.”

D’Arcy said Sacred Places still remains in opposition, unless all language referencing the 2001 definition is struck from the proposal.

“They’ve moved the definition at some point in the bill,” D’Arcy said. “But (it) still has the potential to very negatively impact the vast majority of non-federally recognized tribes in California.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.