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California's Miwok Indians fight to reclaim official tribal status

  INTERACTIVE GALLERY
miwok image

July 13, 2000
Web posted at: 1:49 a.m. EDT (0549 GMT)


In this story:

New name, new goals

Restoring lost culture

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



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.

Sarris
Sarris, far right, talks about the push for tribal status  

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.



RELATED STORIES:
Water rights create a torrent of legal disputes
June 26, 2000
Native Americans: Government breaking promises over land use trust fund
March 2, 2000
Energy secretary announces major land transfer to Utah tribe
January 14, 2000
Ground broken for American Indian museum
September 28, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Woodland Elementary School - A Short History of the Yosemite Miwok Indians
The Miwok Indians of Yosemite
Coast Miwok Indians
The Miwok Indians
California Indian Tribal Groups Map
THOMAS -- U.S. Congress on the Internet

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