After 37 Years, One Yosemite Native American Tribe Is Still Fighting for Government Recognition

Miwok woman holding sifting basket, California, circa 1924. Buyenlarge

After a nearly four-decade struggle for recognition from the United States government, the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation were informed by the federal Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) in 2018 that they did not qualify as a nation. The OFA denial was the latest in a long line of disappointments, beginning with the tribe's first formal application for acknowledgement in 1982. The Miwuk renewed their application last month, hoping to gain influential outside backing during the period for public comment, scheduled to close on Monday.

The OFA's 2018 denial stated that the Southern Sierra Miwuk did not meet the criterion that "a predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present." The OFA ruling went on to state that the Southern Sierra Miwuk were instead composed of small groups of other Native American tribes.

"The petitioner's 1984 narrative claims that the petitioner evolved as a 'Southern Sierra Miwuk' Indian Tribe that existed in 'Yosemite National Park and its environs' at the time of first sustained contact. In contrast, the Department found evidence of numerous political entities organized as sovereign interdependent bands in 1851," the OFA's report stated.

By declining to acknowledge the Miwuk as a tribe, the OFA has refused the group the right to develop housing in their designated homeland as well as federal funding for education, medical care, and other services afforded by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act. These programs provide funding and services that federally recognized tribes may distribute as they see fit.

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation is recognized by Yosemite National Park as one of seven tribes whose traditions oblige the use of its lands. In June 2018, the Miwuk came to an agreement with Yosemite that allowed them to build a traditional village in the park for cultural and religious purposes.

The Miwuk have acknowledged that Yosemite's recognition is basically moot without the federal acknowledgement. "Although our relationship with the Park Service has been central to our relationship with the Yosemite National Park and the federal government during the twentieth century, we realize that the mutual cooperation and benefits of our current relationship with the Park administration will remain restricted and uncertain until we attain federal recognition and can work together on a consistent, formal government-to-government basis," the tribe stated in their 2018 case for recognition. While their relationship with the park has allowed the tribe to practice some traditions, the lack of federal standing has also placed limits on which traditions the group can legally carryout in Yosemite.

In a column for, Dr. Aldo Salerno, a former historian for the OFA, denounced the office's decision in light of the tribe's recognition by the park. Salerno noted that he had found the tribe to match all the necessary criteria in October 2017, prior to leaving his post with the OFA. "The negative proposed finding is an indefensible sham," he wrote. "Everyone who cares about fair treatment for Indian tribes needs to speak out on behalf of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation and send comments demanding the Assistant Secretary overturn the negative proposed finding and recognize the tribe."

southern sierra miwuck
Despite a lack of federal recognition, the Southern Sierra Miwuk are one of seven tribes acknowledged by Yosemite National Park. George Rose/Getty

In a document called "A Compelling Case for Federal Recognition," the Southern Sierra Miwuk shared their own account of their history with the OFA. The document described the murders and expulsion from their land that the tribe faced following the 1849 Gold Rush. According to the tribe, their ancestors signed treaties with the United States government in 1851 and 1852, in which land was promised to the tribe, but was never given. Instead, according to the Miwuk's case, temporary reservations and farms were set up. "These temporary 'refuges,' however, were poorly managed, the Indians exploited for their labor, and the lack of provisions led to widespread malnutrition, starvation and death," the document claims.

"The way in which the Proposed Finding was issued—rejecting our petition on the basis of a single element of one of the seven mandatory criteria for federal acknowledgment without addressing the historical context of our connection to our historical tribe—is inconsistent with applicable federal regulations and precedent, and possibly inconsistent with OFA's own professional and peer review standards," the tribe argued.

When the period for public comment ends, the decision by the OFA may be reassessed. The tribe has requested a 180-day extension to continue to provide materials to support their case. Their request for extension has received support from five members of Congress.

Bill Leonard, the tribe's chairman, told The Fresno Bee that he's seeking recognition as "justice for my ancestors," while also looking to the future. He emphasized that losing the recognition bid is still hurtful for the tribe: "They're still killing us. In that way, the genocide has not stopped. ... The genocide isn't over as long as they're denying tribes their rights."

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation and the Office of Federal Acknowledgement did not respond to requests for comment.