Ohlone trail near campus (photo by Sam Girvin - The Stanford
It was spring of 1922. Just west of where Oak Creek is today, Stanford
student Bruce Seymour '24 uncovered a human skull. The human being
who had inhabited these bones was male, Native American and over 4,000
At least 5,000 years before Spanish soldiers first set foot
on California soil, the ancestors of the present-day Muwekma Ohlone
tribe lived, fished and buried their dead on the land that was to
become Stanford University. A semi-sedentary people with an affinity
for water, the Ohlone built many of their homes on the banks of
the San Francisquito creek that now bounds Oak Creek on the west.
The 1922 find was christened Stanford Man I, in honor of its
location and the archaeological dig that led to its discovery. The
Native American man proved to be the oldest human being known to
have lived in the San Francisco peninsula.
For the academic archaeological community, this was a significant
discovery. For the Muwekma Ohlone tribespeople, however, the bones
were all they had left of an ancestor.
Geraldine Green of the Seneca tribe articulated her people's
attitude towards the dead at the 1996 meeting of the Society for
"We leave them alone, they are through. They are given what
information they want. They have done their jobs; we need not bother
them anymore," Green said.
Green touched on a fundamental reverence for the dead that is
perhaps as much human as it is cultural. The Faculty Senate voted
unanimously in favor of a proposal to return all Native American
remains held in the Stanford museum in 1989. Then-graduate student
Laura Jones M.A. '84 Ph.D. '90 saw the nationally controversial
proposal as an "ethical decision about human rights."
"The human remains have human rights, and those rights were
represented by their descendants," Jones said.
Jones drove the truck bearing the Ohlone ancestral remains back
to the tribal council, who buried the bones in park land. With it,
she sowed the seeds of a decades-long partnership between Stanford
archaeology researchers and the Muwekma Ohlone tribe that, in her
view, vastly enriched the archaeological process. One year later,
the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
(NAGPRA) added legal force to the moral precedent, mandating the
return of Native American remains all over the country.
But the act of repatriation also created schisms in the academic
world. Archaeologists in the 1980s and 1990s argued: What about
a millennia-old ancestor, as ancient as the Harappans or the early
Egyptians? At what point does our beholdenness to memory and culture
The outdated academic debacle touches on a resounding theme:
the rightful relationship between the peoples, past and present,
who call this swath of the Bay Area home. These historical questions
challenge the University's conscience and compel its members to
act even today. The recent controversy over place names that honor
Junipero Serra, the father of the Spanish missions in California,
revisits the impact of Spanish colonialism on the Ohlone peoples.
Today, Stanford's values and identity are expressed and tested
by its treatment of the past.
THE HISTORY OF THE LAND
(photo by McKenzie Lynch - The Stanford Daily)
Ten thousand years before before the Spanish set their sights
on the lush bay of San Francisco, the first Native American peoples
were living off the marshland. For at least 5,000 years, they existed
in organized tribal societies, landscaping the wide brush with oaks,
setting traps for shellfish and burying their dead together with
the remains of mussel shells in towering pyramid-like mounds called
shellmounds. Each shellmound was a monument to their craft, their
food and the reverent burial of their dead that would grow throughout
"Ohlone" and "Costanoan" (Spanish for "coastal") are catch-all
terms for the various indigenous tribes that lived between San Francisco
and Monterey, while the Muwekma Ohlone is the self-coined tribal
name of those Native American descendants living in the San Francisco
While the remnants of the indigenous people's creations hint
at their vibrant cultures, they exist in the written record entirely
through the flat, assessing gaze of the other. The Spanish soldiers
who first encountered the tribe living in present-day Palo Alto
noted the "Indians" mainly for their foreign dress and the food
they offered in aid of the soldiers' first exploratory advance through
Ironically, the Portola mission that first brought the Spanish
into contact with the indigenous peoples eased the way for the Spanish
takeover of their prized bayshore homes. At the behest of Father
Junipero Serra, the Spanish clergy oversaw the consolidation of
villages and prime bayshore into missions. The land that became
Stanford University was part of Mission Santa Clara, while others
were co-opted into Mission San Jose, Mission Dolores and Mission
Santa Cruz, drawing the outlines of counties and cities that remain
Contact with the Spanish started the Ohlone people on a century-long
grind of trauma, dispersal and unstinting resilience. As Spanish,
Mexican and white European settlers laid claim to the land in waves,
the Ohlone people adapted and dispersed, but never disappeared.
Under the Spanish, many Ohlone people joined the missions as
laborers, while others lingered outside the missions in smaller
communities. Life in the missions entailed religious conversion
sometimes against the Ohlone people's will and assimilation
into radically different ways of life.
Worse violations lay in store. Rape, forced labor and foreign
diseases ravaged the indigenous peoples, so that only half of the
total population in 1769 remained by 1832.
After the Spanish came the Mexican "rancheros." Mexican independence
from Spain in 1821 saw wealthy Mexican landowners take over the
Bay in large parcels of ranch land grants. Again, the Ohlone bent
but did not break. Some Ohlone became rancheria laborers, while
others sought work in the cities. Some, like the Inigo family, even
came to own ranches instead of working on them.
Baptism and assimilation aided Lupe Inigo's ascent in mission
society, yet he marked the land with his Ohlone heritage much as
the early Spanish explorers had with a name. He gave his
ranch the name Posolmi, an Ohlone word in honor of a lost ancestral
During the rancheria era, Ohlone laborers also worked the land
that was to become Stanford University. Antonio Buelna, who later
sold the land to Leland Stanford Sr., was granted the land that
sweeps across the Oak Creek apartments and the rest of Stanford
West in 1839. Under Buelna, some Ohlone people continued to tend
the land they had once owned as ranch hands. They spoke their native
Ohlone language among themselves till the 1930s and kept beads of
a bright cerulean blue, an auspicious color. They got by.
The American annexation of California brought a new flavor of
conquest. Ownership was staked by ink-and-paper deeds, and the settlers
who came with the Gold Rush were often eager to clear the land of
squatters, including the native peoples who had lived on the land
before the invention of the written word. When Leland Stanford Sr.
followed gold fever west and cobbled his stock farm out of nearly
a dozen separate land purchases, he did the same.
"[Stanford] wanted to make sure that he was very clear about
the land title. He would pay off people who squatted to make sure
they had no claim and leave," Jones said.
It is uncertain if any Ohlone people remained on the Stanford
farm as workers. Many Ohlone peoples regrouped on other rancherias.
The present-day Muwekma Ohlone tribe itself evolved from a group
of families living on the same rancheria in Sunol, who kept in touch
over the years and later formed the nucleus of their present-day
Rosemary Cambra, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone, found cohesion
in the choices that individual families made even as they scattered.
"They have made it a way of life to migrate within aboriginal
lands," Cambra said.
THE PAST AS PRESENT
But what Cambra calls a thriving "way of life" has been negated
by many officials and scholars. Just three years after the discovery
of Stanford Man I in burial repose, pioneering anthropologist Alfred
Kroeber deemed the Ohlone people "extinct for all practical purposes."
The Ohlone tribal council has spent millions of dollars on genealogists
and archaeologists in hopes of securing federal tribal status, which
would offer, among other rights, land grants and protection for
Ohlone graves. However, in 2011, after a 20-year battle for federal
recognition, a U.S. District Court decision formally denied the
Muwekma Ohlone tribal status.
One key problem is that the Muwekma Ohlone people and the courts
conceive of a tribe in fundamentally different ways. Various Bay
Area Ohlone leaders, such as the Muwekma Ohlone council and Mission
Dolores museum director Andrew Galvan, promote the active practice
of tribal culture through language revitalization, education and
grave repatriation efforts.
Yet the 2011 ruling stated that the Muwekma Ohlone council failed
to show that it "has maintained 'political influence or authority'
over its members since 1927," rendering void the federal recognition
granted the Verona Band of Indians, of which the Muwekma Ohlone
had been a part. Dissent within the Ohlone community has also been
cited as reasons to doubt the Muwekma Ohlone's authority and, by
extension, their legal claim.
To archaeologists, however, the fluid, complex groupings of
modern-day tribes are true to their ancestors' mobile and intimately
"Californian tribes were extremely gregarious," Jones said.
"You have lots of trading and intermarriage. There would be people
in every village speaking [two or three] languages. Their communities
are multicultural they were more than 200 years ago, and
they are today."
The archaeological record makes it clear that tribes were as
organic and adaptable as the human beings who comprised them. To
Jones, the cultural, social and genealogical inheritance is clear
the specific change in political units and territories with
time "doesn't cause [her] very much stress."
Despite the Muwekma Ohlone's political disappointments, the
Bay Area Ohlone tribes have achieved much in the last decades. Today,
there are several dozen speakers of their native Chochenyo language,
where there were almost none after the 1930s. It is now common,
though not compulsory, practice to consult the Ohlone people when
their ancestral graves are uncovered by construction workers or
Karen Biestman, who directs Stanford's Native American Cultural
Center, sees the Ohlone people's story as one of survival rather
"The fact that they survived and rebuilt, reclaimed governance
and perpetuated their language and culture, is really an incredible
success story," said Biestman.
IN WHOSE NAME
Each year, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe blesses the ground of the
Stanford Powwow. The gesture has become a tradition in its own right,
a recognition that the story of the Ohlone and the story of Stanford
are rooted in the same land.
Biestman said, "One thing [that every student should know] is
that we are all guests on ancestral, aboriginal Ohlone land."
Far from extinct, Native American culture has been vitally present
at Stanford since its early years. The Muwekma-Tah-Ruk house was
named and dedicated for Native American-themed residential life
in 1990, and the annual Powwow is warmly attended by some 35,000
people, from regional Native American community members to non-tribespeople.
Even before the founding of Stanford, Leland Stanford Jr. collected
the remnants of native arrowheads on the Stanford farm, and the
University has hired a campus archaeologist since the 1890s to engage
with the peoples who lived and worked on the rich land.
The land where Stanford now stands has always been contested.
The diverse colonial and immigrant presence has always been a source
of competing claims. In recent years, Father Junipero Serra's name
has become an emblem of California's troubled relationship with
colonization, religion and its indigenous peoples.
As the Spanish priest who proposed and oversaw the mission system
that undeniably had an adverse effect on the Ohlone people, the
landmarks that honor Serra's name throughout Stanford and the rest
of California raise old questions: Of all the peoples who have inhabited
the land, who has the right to the land? Whose voice should be honored?
In his resolution in the undergraduate Senate, then-senator
Leo Bird '17 pinpointed Leland Stanford's place as an occupier of
the land, who, like Serra, is inevitably beholden to past occupants.
If nothing else, the story of Stanford so far shows that names
and narratives are anything but trivial when it comes to the question
of rights. As the Spanish soldiers traversed the bayshore, they
had a compulsion to name. Whimsical travelers' coinages such as
"La Isla de los Alcatraces" ("island of the pelicans," now Alcatraz),
"Punta de los Lobos Marinos" ("point of the sea wolves," now Point
Lobos) correspond remarkably well to place names today, an indelible
sign of their presence and power.
On their part, the Muwekma Ohlone recognize that their hope
for political recognition today depends on their ability to trace,
prove and stake a claim to their past. They do so through research,
branding and, ultimately, narrative. And as Stanford grapples with
the legacy of the place it inhabits, the history of the land is
being written and revised to this day.