The Last Native American Village in California

Photo credit: Derek Nelson

With a mild spring breeze providing a welcome tailwind, the typical cacophony of pedaling ceases, leaving a sense of stillness with only the hum of bicycle tires on pavement. My serenity evaporates with the steely glare of a coyote about 100 yards above me in the grass. No scrawny malnourished pup, he’s clearly strong and intense yet signaling no intentions. He lets me pass and soon my focus returns to the history of the Verona Station.

Nearly erased from the collective awareness of my sprawling suburb, this Italian name appears as a placeless GPS dot, as a condemned road, and as a 19th-century railroad sign indicating an abandoned station. Its Italian heritage among so many Spanish placenames traces back to William Randolph Hearst, who sourced a marble wellhead from Verona, Italy for his nearby hunting lodge; a lodge he was building with his exorbitant allowance against his mother’s wishes since he wasn’t yet gainfully employed. His mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, put a stop to it, redirecting the project as La Hacienda Del Pozo De Verona — now Castlewood Country Club. The S&P Railroad built a station catering to her wealthy visitors and named it Verona. That would be the story if not for the Native American Ohlone tribe that the U.S. Government labeled the Verona Band of Alameda County.

This story pivots sharply to one of genocide in the name of God, gold, and government cronyism. Tribes suffered devastation and atrocities first at the hands of the Spaniards, then brutality beyond comprehension at the hands of prospectors and pioneers from the eastern United States. What was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico prior to the Gold Rush was reduced to a few hundred people. Treaties were made then ignored, but somehow the people (Muwekma in the Chochenyo language) refused to be erased. One place where they gathered, before the railroad called it Verona Station, before the pioneers called it Pleasanton, was Alisal Rancheria on Rancho Valle de San Jose.

From Alan Leventhal, Muwekma ethnohistorian:

The Alisal Rancheria was unquestionably one of the most prominent and important communities of Ohlone Indians from the 1860s onward into the early twentieth century and constituted the first known post-American conquest Indian revitalization center within the Bay Area. The people of Alisal and surrounding rancherias revived many dance ceremonies during the early 1870s, which strongly implies that other traditional arts and kinds of cultural knowledge, about ceremonial regalia, songs, sacred language, and crafts also experienced a resurgence. But more than revival took place at Alisal and the other rancherias.

The available evidence depicts a constant ebb and flow of people, of surviving Indians from all over the Bay Area (including Clareño Ohlones from the Mission Santa Clara area) and central California moving into and out of Alisal, Niles, San Lorenzo, and Livermore rancherias. Thus, many surviving fragments of knowledge and ritual were brought together in this one place, from the many Ohlone peoples, each with their own varying customs and ways of thinking, as well as from the intermarried and neighboring Miwoks, Yokuts, and other more distant tribal peoples brought under the sphere of influence of the missions. Inevitably, a blending of older forms took place, a fusion of traditions and religious beliefs that together generated a new cultural vitality.

The oral tradition of storytelling encompasses all aspects of society; not just religion but science, culture, history, and living in balance with nature. In many Native American cultures, the coyote is a significant character in stories of the creation of man. In Chochenyo, Coyote creates man following a great flood where only the peak of Tuyshtak (“the dawn of time” which we know as Mount Diablo) is above the water — tying Chochenyo to this place. In other stories, Coyote teaches man important lessons of resilience and survival. In other stories, Coyote exhibits the fallibility of man or plays the role of a trickster. If an image of Wyle E. Coyote springs to mind or that of a scrappy scavenger to be kept away from livestock, then western culture has failed you. Or perhaps western culture has succeeded in minimizing the value in the stories, the nuance, and depth in the characters. We take things literally, making it easy to dismiss the notion of an actual coyote being an ancestor of man. We have only one word for coyote whereas the Chochenyo have many for different contexts — even as a god (wetes). We take the stories as uncivilized and thereby dehumanize the whole culture.

In ‘Coyote is Not a Metaphor’, Cutcha Risling Baldy explains:

When Indigenous people were forced to accept the renaming of their lands and, in many instances, forced to accept new names for their own peoples and themselves, this was a systematic attempt to destroy these peoples. Naming became a weapon of destruction in the hands of colonizers and is a tool of strength, power, and rebuilding in the hands of Indigenous peoples.

Coyote First Person is a decolonizing figure. He asserts Indigenous claims to land, he unsettles western theories and he builds a methodology for survivance and reclamation of Indigenous ways of life.

Thus labeling the Muwekma as the Verona Band of Alameda County perpetuated colonization and introduced the politics of erasure. An accidental fire destroyed the dwellings and sweat lodge in 1916 due to work on the Western Pacific railroad, forcing the remaining Muwekma off their land. Having already decimated the population and stripped them of their traditional way of life, they then became a landless but Federally Recognized tribe in the eyes of the U.S. Government. Until 1927, that is, when the Indian Service Bureau illegally, unilaterally, and administratively “terminated” the existence of the Verona Band and approximately 135 other tribes throughout northern California. To the colonizers, they no longer existed — yet they still do.

The fight to right the wrongs continues and much has been accomplished in the two decades I’ve lived on their land in Pleasanton. Their burial grounds near Mission San Jose are now protected. They’ve organized a tribal government. Their fight for recognition was denied in 2011 but will be appealed. Recordings of the last fluent Ohlone speakers in the 1920s sparked a resurgence in learning the language. Surviving stories reveal fragments of the culture. Do I believe the coyote that watched me on my bike had something to teach me? I didn’t at the time. I’m not open enough in my spirituality to accept that. But have I learned a great deal in the past weeks? Certainly.

Now that we know how special Pleasanton is to the Muwekma, what can we do?

  • Be respectful when modern construction projects disturb ancient burial sites.

Further Reading

1. www.muwekma.org

2. www.museumonmain.org (collaboration on the history of Pleasanton)

3. www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/articles-posts/4775-writing-the-wwi-story-of-california-s-muwekma-ohlone-indian-servicemen.html
(The history of the Muwekma men who served during WWI )

4. www.militarymuseum.org/Muwekma.html
(The history of the Muwekma men who served during WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and are still serving today)

5. www.academia.edu/36446841/Final_Report_on_Ayttakiš_Éete_Hiramwiš_Trépam-tak_Place_of_Woman_Sleeping_Under_the_Pipe_Site_CA_ALA_677
(details of the Pleasanton/Sunol region and ethnohistory of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe).

Engineer, sustainability, indigenous history, analog electronics history and anything that supports my belief that bikes can save the world.

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