.Muwekma Ohlone Tribe Sing at American Indian Heritage Celebration

Muwekma Ohlone revive their tribal songs, but still fight for recognition

This past Saturday, Sheila Guzman-Schmidt resurrected a tradition long entombed. 

A councilwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, Guzman-Schmidt, helped open the NUMU museum’s exhibition of photos by tribal photographer Kike Arnal, a series of portraits of Muwekma tribe members, with a traditional healing song that hasn’t been heard live in nearly 100 years. 

Before colonization, a song like this would have been sung by a Hiwey, a person who took on the role of healer. The song itself is medicine, the words themselves meant to banish illness and bad spirits and heal the sick. 

But under the Mission system, Muwekma cultural traditions were actively banned and buried, replaced with Catholicism and Spanish culture. Hiwey songs, among others, seemed lost. 

However, the tradition had merely moved underground, like a precious and patient seed, waiting until Guzman-Schmidt and the Muwekma Ohlone helped it germinate. 

The Muwekma Ohlone sing again this week at the American Indian Heritage Celebration at ConXion to Community. The first such event since the beginning of the pandemic, the three-day celebration’s features include native foods and art, Lakota spiritual healer Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Apsaalooke Nation musician and dancer Supaman and “big time” dancing from the Pomo nation. 

November is American Indian Heritage Month, however, for local tribes, the struggle for that heritage is ongoing.

FAMILY HISTORIES

At the opening of the NUMU museum’s exhibit, Reclamation: Resilience of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Sheila Guzman-Schmidt joined lead singer Gloria Arellano Gomez and Anthony Kesler in singing a Hiwey song. in. Being one of the few singers in a tribe where only so many can speak their native tongue is a place of high honor. 

The honor she feels now is compounded by some unexpected facts. For most of her life, Guzman-Schmidt had no idea she was Native. Not only that, her personal homecoming tied her to one of the most important figures in recent Muwekma history.

Frank Guzman, Sheila’s father, was a stoic man. Born in 1926, a decorated WWII veteran and survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, Guzman didn’t talk much about himself, his family or his service. 

“I mean, you would know that he loved you,” Guzman-Schmidt says, “but as far as sharing his thoughts and his emotions about things, he didn’t ever do that. I don’t know if I was too young or if it was too traumatic for him to bring it up.” 

After Guzman-Schmidt’s mother died of cancer at only 54 years old, Frank Guzman suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack, passing away in 1978 at the age of 56.

Guzman-Schmidt was only 17 at the time. She was sent to live with a childless aunt and uncle on her mother’s side of the family, left to wonder about the void on her paternal side, a question mark over half her lineage.

One day, while going through her father’s things, she discovered a word on his birth certificate that changed the trajectory of her life: “Red.” 

“It said that my grandfather was ‘Red’ and, in parentheses, it said ‘Indian.’”

She enlisted the help of a friend with expertise in searching for missing heirs and estates. Though she knew her mother’s family, and had been told by her father that his side of the family was Hispanic, she had never been told that his father and grandfather were connected to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. 

In the early days of the internet, she used those records from her father’s birth and military enlistment as well as those dug up by her friend, and emailed the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. She reached then-Chairwoman Rosemary Cambra, the firebrand of the Muwekma tribe. Cambra reached out to trusted anthropologist and ethnohistorian Alan Leventhal, who had been working with the tribe since 1980. 

Guzman-Schmidt gets tears in her eyes and her voice cracks when she talks about her first in-person meeting with Cambra and Leventhal. 

“The first thing that Rosemary said to me was ‘Welcome home.’” 

RECORDED MUSIC

Records and genealogy connected Sheila Guzman Schmidt to her great-grandfather, Jose Guzman, the last person who could speak their native Chochenyo fluently. 

As a younger man in the late 1800s, Guzman and his father, Habencio Guzman, traveled to other Bay Area missions and gathered 27 Native songs. Part of a larger revival of Native religious and cultural practices, the song-gathering was meant not only to secure disappearing traditions and languages for future generations, but to heal a people who had been pushed to the brink of extinction by genocide.

The same revival had earlier brought about the Ghost Dances originated by the Paiute people of the Great Basin region which spread all the way to the tribes of the Pacific. The Ghost Dances were meant to honor and call upon the ancestors in the spirit world, to heal their trauma and loss in the afterlife, and to heal the fractured families and tribes of the physical world still suffering due to westward expansion and the Gold Rush. 

Guzman and his father committed the songs to memory. Habencio died, and Guzman and his wife at the time, Maria de los Angeles Colos, became the last living speakers of Chochenyo. 

In 1925, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber of UC Berkeley declared that the Coastanoan Indians—the group known today as the Muwekma Ohlone, whose ancestors were held at missions San Jose, Santa Clara and Mission Dolores—were extinct. Though Kroeber himself would later take back this statement, the damage was done. 

The tribe had once been federally recognized, in 1906, as the Verona Band of Alameda County. In 1927, their federal recognition status was placed in an on-going limbo by Sacramento Federal Indian Agency Superintendent Lafayette Dorrington in a letter to the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dorrington stripped some 135 federally recognized California Native tribes of their recognition and therefore of resources and access to their unceded territory.

As a weathered old man nearing the end of his life, Jose Guzman still kept the 27 songs that came from all the surrounding lineages and tribes that today comprise the Muwekma, “the people,” of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the late 1920s, Smithsonian linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington arrived in the Bay Area to record rapidly vanishing languages on his strange and cumbersome wax-cylinder recording machine. In 1930, Jose Guzman sang into Harrington’s machine, recording his songs as Harrington took notes. Guzman was 80 years old. Four years later, when Jose Guzman died, many thought Chochenyo and the songs of the Hiwey had as well.

Harrington’s notes and recordings of Indigenous-American languages were found, disorganized and incomplete, and organized into educational materials by Smithsonian researcher Catherine Callaghan. The wax cylinder recordings of Jose Guzman’s songs were transferred to cassette tapes, and made available to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. 

But Sheila Guzman-Schmidt, unmoored by the loss of her parents, had still not found her way home.

TAPESTRY WEAVING

Alan Leventhal is an anthropologist and ethnohistorian who has worked with the Muwekma Ohlone for over 40 years. 

His beard is white and he smiles as he talks, the kind of knowing, mischievous smile that crinkles his eyes and makes his words sound crisp and light with sincerity and humor.

Leventhal, the foremost expert on the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in a scientific sense, is infinitely humble, and says the tribe gave him his real education. 

“The only thing I had was the tools as a trained anthropologist,” he says. 

As the tribe’s trusted ethnohistorian, Leventhal can remember many of their existing lineages and rattle off entire lines from several family trees without looking at any notes. He’s memorized names, dates and legal statutes pertaining to the tribe going back to first contact with Spanish missionaries. 

He calls Lafayette Dorrington “a drunk” who was investigated numerous times for dereliction of duty. 

“He was truly a criminal,” Leventhal says. “In 1929 he would write ‘it is my personal opinion and belief that we should not be buying land for California Indians, take the appropriations and send them somewhere else.’” 

He speaks fondly of Rosemary Cambra, painting a picture of a small woman with a larger-than-life passion for protecting her tribe’s living and its dead. When he told her that Alfred Kroeber had declared the tribe extinct, he says, “Rosemary put her hands on her hips and said, ‘well, I disagree with you and with Mr. Kroeber.’” 

Rosemary’s mother was born on the Sunol Rancheria and baptized at Mission San Jose. Rosemary herself once hit an archaeologist with a shovel as he unearthed Muwekma Ohlone ancestral remains at the site of a Holiday Inn in San Jose. The archaeologist had told Rosemary the Indians were all dead. Her daughter, Charlene Nijmeh, is the current Muwekma Ohlone tribal Chairwoman.

Under Rosemary’s instruction and with the tribe’s consent, Leventhal helped catalog and repatriate burials, conduct DNA studies and prove the tribe’s cohesion and continued existence from before first contact to present day. 

Leventhal says that he considers himself a weaver, someone with the right tools to assist the tribe in “weaving their tapestry” of the many threads that complete the tribe’s ethnohistory. 

“That’s why I’m called an ‘ethnohistorian,’ because historians would always write through the lens of the dominant society,” Leventhal says. Kroeber and his mentor Franz Boaz, the father of American anthropology, looked at Indigenous Americans as relics of the past, even while studying tribes with living members and thriving cultures. They embodied the maxim that history is written by the conqueror, and were not interested in evolving and adapting Native peoples, but in Native Americans as story, almost as myth. 

“Anthropology comes from a colonial system,” Leventhal says. 

Generally calm and pleasant with a light crackly voice, Leventhal’s speech becomes terse and bitter when he talks about the rending of the original tapestry of the Muwekma, the genocide of their people.   

“They went from around 20-30,000 people at the time of Spanish contact, to only 62 Muwekma that we could identify in the 1920s,” Leventhal says. “And no one talks about genocide relative to the California tribes.” 

RAISING THE FLAG

On Sunday, the Muwekma Ohlone held a flag raising ceremony at Milpitas City Hall. 

Though Indigenous history and issues are becoming more common topics in anthropology and in news and media, the specter of colonization lingers. Milpitas City Hall sits on Calaveras Boulevard, one of many streets named for the skeletal remains (calaveras) found by Spanish missionaries as they built on the area. Just blocks away, a shopping complex is named for Junipero Serra, architect of the mission system and of the genocide of California Natives. 

Tribal member, consultant and former tribal councilwoman Gloria Arellano Gomez sang the Muwekma Ohlone welcoming song, a song written by the Muwekma Language Committe and inspired by the recordings of Jose Guzman. Sung in laymen’s Chochenyo rather than the elevated and untranslatable Hiwey dialect, the song welcomes strangers and friends to the Muwekma’s “Holše Warep,” their beautiful land. 

Chochenyo is a language of soft shushing sounds, like the movement of Gloria’s headdress beads brushing against one another. It is also a language of sharp voiceless velar plosives, “ck” sounds, like when Charlene Nijmeh speaks and her headdress beads connect with the metal of the microphone.

With the help of Toni Espinoza and Anthony Kesler, both of the Mountain/Valley Mi-wuk tribe, the Muwekma Ohlone continue to resurrect their dances and songs. 

California is bear country. Both Espinoza and Kesler’s tattoos and demeanors illustrate their people’s connection to the proud animals. Justifiably wary of intruders and those who would disrespect their culture and religion, they are warm and familial with fellow Natives at the flag raising ceremony, but guarded and intense around journalists. Protective, both of the tribes and of one another, they consider their words carefully before answering questions, and speak with authority and passion.

Both Espinoza and Kesler, who have been dating nearly two years, grew up engaged in their cultural traditions. Espinoza has been dancing since she was a child, and Kesler has been singing traditional Mi-wuk songs for over 20 years. 

When called upon by the Muwekma Ohlone to revive their songs and their dances, Espinoza and Kesler were happy to assist. 

They say moments like these, in which their songs and dances were performed again, were prayed for by their ancestors. 

“A long time ago, they knew bad things were going to happen, but we were going to pull through in the end,” Kesler says. 

Kesler doesn’t speak Chochenyo, but the cultures of Mi-wuk and Muwekma tribes are similar enough that Kesler assists the singers in practicing the rhythm and cadence of their songs. He uses an elderberry branch, dried and split down the middle, as an instrument. Referred to in Mi-wuk as a “tekuteh” (an onomatopoeia for the sound it makes) and in English as an elderberry clapper sitck, it creates the percussive beat the singers chant to and the dancers stamp their feet to as they perform a “shake-head” dance, dressed in regalia made with wild turkey feathers, reeds, and pelt skirts. 

Kesler says songs, while sacred, could also be traded like currency; each song was valuable medicine that was a key part of inter-tribal relations and commerce. 

“Pretty much we’re all brother and sister tribes,” Kesler says. “We would trade songs for fish or for beads, or abalone shell.”

He says the more coastal Ohlone would have traded sea goods for things the Mi-wuk would have sourced from the forest, like venison. Songs would also have been bartered and exchanged. 

Kesler and Espinoza agree: Jose Guzman knew this day was coming. He assured it by making his recordings. 

Espinoza says that as a spiritual people, they believe all people are gifted by the creator with something that informs their purpose. For Kesler, it’s song. For Espinoza, dance. 

Her grandmother, Patricia Williams, who raised her, was sent to a boarding school as a child. As segregation applied to Native Americans and all non-whites, Native children were denied public school education. The boarding school system was designed not as an equitable alternative to public school, but as an instrument of forced assimilation and cultural suppression. 

Kesler and Espinoza say their ancestors who were missionized and sent to boarding schools, who were denied their culture and their literal families, prayed and labored for moments like these.

“I’m her prayer,” Espinoza says of her grandmother. “We are our ancestors’ prayers.” 

Her grandmother raised her speaking Mi-wuk and participating in dances. Robbed of her customs, she made sure Espinoza would not be similarly deprived. 

She says her grandmother was a quiet woman, and didn’t talk much about her experience at the boarding school. 

Charlene Nijmeh says her mother and grandmother were similarly quiet and stoic, like Frank Guzman. 

A generation silenced by trauma, the deceased, Espinoza says, are believed to be able to recognize tattoos, the regalia made with pine nuts, shells and beads, and the songs of their people, joining their descendants in ceremony.

The healing of the Hiwey song extends to all Muwekma, Mi-wuk, and other related California Indians present, and the dilemmas of future generations begin to look different from those of generations past. 

NEXT GENERATION 

Rachel Schmidt, Sheila Guzman-Schmidt’s daughter, is 27, but could pass as 14 if she wanted. She has a round face and the same short, downturned nose as her mother, as her grandfather Frank. Her dark hair is dyed blonde. Normally a thicket of tight curls, like her mother’s, it’s straightened and parted down the middle, with long bangs that frame her face. 

Her father is of European descent. Her eyes are dark blue-gray. She grew up eating fry-bread at powwows with the other Muwekma kids of her generation and learning Chochenyo by singing a translation of the theme song to the ’90s children’s show Barney & Friends

Though she worries she might not appear Native enough, she was bullied at school by non-Natives and told her claim to Muwekma heritage was “bullshit.” She has passion not just for her own culture but for the future of the tribe. 

When asked what her great-great-grandfather Jose Guzman might think of the state of the tribe, she says plainly, “He’d be pissed.” 

Guzman, she speculates, would have been furious that the tribe had its federal recognition placed in doubt. That recognition by a colonizing government that sealed 18 unratified treaties with California Indians in an effort to take their unceded land is needed in the first place. 

Though she resents the need for recognition, she sees what recognition could do for the tribe. They could have land for a traditional roundhouse, a place for a language school, a garden for sacred herbs like white sage. 

Charlene Nijmeh points to her sons, playing behind her after having changed out of their regalia at the flag raising ceremony. 

“Our kids might not be able to stay here in the future because of the high cost of living,” she says. 

Though their push to become a federally recognized tribe might not guarantee enough land to house the entire tribe of nearly 600 members, it could give them enough funding to allow them to stay in the Bay, on their ancestral homelands, buying a small parcel of land for community tribal use.

“We would probably have to buy our own land back at fair market value,” Nijmeh says. 

The tribe’s fight for sovereignty is far from over, but the healing effect of the Hiwey song can already be felt by its members. 

Jessica Veikune, one of Schmidt’s peers, says, “It’s healing for the soul.”

She and Rachel learned Chochenyo together. Now, Veikune’s four-year-old son attends dance practice with her. She says seeing tradition pass once again from one generation to the next heals. 

“Legitimately, it made my soul smile. And that’s healing for the body. When you’re happy and when you’re at peace…especially with family,” Veikune says. 

Fellow dancer Johnny Muwekma says dancing beneath the redwoods in Milpitas to the heartbeat-like rhythm of the Hiwey song was powerful and effective medicine. 

“That was a very beautiful experience,” he says. “This is the type of healing outside of traditional modern medicine, Western medicine, because this is all energy. This is all healing that’s manifesting from spirit.”

American Indian Heritage Celebration

Fri-Sun, Various Times, Free

ConXion To Community, San Jose

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Muwekma Ohlone were missionized at San Jose, San Juan Bautista, and San Carlos missions, and that their federal recognition had been revoked, rather than placed in an administrative limbo.

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