Although we have become numb to the inhumane treatment suffered over generations at the hands of colonizers, the recent Twitter post by San Jose State University anthropology Professor Elizabeth Weiss (pictured smiling while holding the skull of one of our ancestors in her hands) dredges up the worst memories of our painful history — a time when we were labeled soulless savages with no right to the land we inhabited, children we bore or freedoms inherent to all people.
Weiss makes clear not much has changed in her regard towards our humanity. The picture rubs salt in the wounds of Indigenous communities struggling to protect their ancestral human remains and sacred sites.
My comments aren’t meant to disparage all anthropologists. We count many as friends who work closely with us to respectfully handle our relatives. We believe there is a place for scientific analysis but only if done in a respectful manner and under the guidance, oversight and approval of the descendants.
Each tribe must decide based on their beliefs, not the beliefs of Weiss, who states “I have absolutely no beliefs in the supernatural,” attempting to deflect from the real issue. The issue is not “religion vs science” as she claims but rather “respect vs disrespect” and “decency vs indecency.” The disregard for the rights and beliefs of others is how people justify genocide and slavery.
In a recent news article addressing the controversy, Weiss defends her post by claiming that the skull of a Native American is no different than that of Egyptian mummies. That statement reinforces the false narrative that Muwekma Ohlone people are extinct, that we no longer exist and have no connection to our land or ancestors.
Weiss’s reasoning is a symptom of a disease that has plagued our people for a century. It’s called “political erasure,” and it has been used by many over the past decades in their attempts to exterminate our community and our identity. All because our ancestors long ago settled lands that would become some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
They would never allow such valuable real estate to be returned to our people, so in 1927 they removed us from a congressionally mandated list of tribes to receive land — after which they claimed we “withered away” and became extinct because it’s easier to say we don’t exist than having to buy us land or ask our permission to desecrate our sacred sites and cemeteries. They couldn’t allow a few Indians to stop progress.
It’s no coincidence that the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was once a federally recognized tribe, although our status was never terminated by Congress. We were conveniently left off the official list of recognized tribes in 1978. So simple to erase a people’s identity and take away their inherent constitutionally protected sovereignty.
Although many in our communities do support us, for those who have stayed silent in the face of our injustice, I say shame on you. The Apples, Googles and Facebooks who build enormous wealth on stolen Muwekma land, without a care for the displacement of the first inhabitants of these lands, I say shame on you. The politicians who ignored our calls to champion our cause because it was easier to stay silent, I say shame on you.
If you stay silent in the face of injustice, you are complicit. It’s not enough to apologize. Injustice demands justice. Wrongs must be righted. I often wonder in this era of social justice, will Muwekma finally see justice, or will the Elizabeth Weiss’s of the world continue to politically erase us by ignoring, dehumanizing and marginalizing our people?
Charlene Nijmeh is chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area region.