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California's Miwok Indians fight to reclaim official tribal status
FORESTVILLE, California (CNN) -- The Miwok Indians of coastal Northern California are fighting for official tribal recognition to regain federal benefits and to help restore cultural traditions.
For hundreds of years, the Miwoks lived in houses made of redwood bark and hunted and fished the coastal areas of the state until Spanish explorers arrived and settlers eventually claimed the land.
Most of the Miwok culture was wiped out, along with those of other California Indians.
In 1958, Congress told the Miwoks and 37 other California tribes they weren't tribes anymore, a move that denied those Indians all the federal benefits given to other Native Americans.
"Because we were terminated, we weren't eligible for any of those things, so if my children wanted to go to college and apply for a Bureau of Indian Affairs scholarship -- we're not Indian," said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris.
New name, new goals
Descendants of the Miwoks now call themselves "The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria." There are 360 members.
While the group is seeking federal recognition, unlike many other tribes, they have promised no casinos and no gambling.
"I think the anti-gaming clause shows, 'Hey, these Indians aren't doing this for the money,'" said Sarris.
The clause did get the attention of Congress, and the House approved restoration of the Miwok's tribal status.
"First of all, we righted a many-years wrong that should have never happened in the first place," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-California, who sponsored the bill.
If the bill becomes law, the tribe will get health, education and economic benefits and will begin to reestablish their culture.
Restoring lost culture
One of the first steps will be lessons in the Miwok language, which has all but disappeared. There also are hopes for a small tract of land, a reservation.
"One of our most important needs is a cultural center because so many of our things have been lost in the past, in the museums, and have been stolen," said Gene Buvelot, the vice tribal chairman.
For Brianne Ross, the pursuit of tribal recognition means her daughter will have a sense of identity that Ross never had.
"I definitely want her to know she's Indian," said Ross.
The pending legislation would also open the door for the tribe to recover land in California's Marin or Sonoma counties, "if there are no adverse legal claims to such property," the bill says.
Water rights create a torrent of legal disputes
Woodland Elementary School - A Short History of the Yosemite Miwok Indians
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