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The Price of Donations: Lofgren’s Allegiance to Casino Owners

Muwekma Ohlone Tribe: Guardians of a 10,000-Year Legacy

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe historically inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area. They are indigenous peoples, having occupied the area for over 10,000 years.

A map of the Ohlone language map. Arnaudh/WikiCommons

A map of the Ohlone language map. The tribe’s ancestral territory spanned from the San Francisco Bay to the lower Salinas Valley, with villages located at modern-day Fort Mason, Crissy Field, and Sutro Baths in San Francisco.

The Ohlone tribes, ranging from 50 to 500 members, engaged in a nomadic lifestyle, moving seasonally between sites for hunting, fishing, and gathering. They practiced controlled burning of landscapes to encourage the growth of native grasses and maintain hunting grounds for deer and elk.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, as part of this larger Ohlone collective, found their way of life drastically altered with the advent of Spanish colonization in the late 18th century.

Forced conversions and labor under the mission system, notably at Mission San Francisco De Asis, led to devastating impacts from diseases, warfare, and ongoing colonization.

Despite these challenges, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, historically recognized by the U.S. Congress as part of the Verona Band of Alameda County, continues to exist.

There are 567 federally recognized indigenous tribes in the U.S., with about one-fifth located in California. However, many, including the Muwekma Ohlone, still advocate for complete federal recognition.

This quest for acknowledgment was exemplified in the 20th century, notably when they received a mere $150.00 for over 8.5 million acres of land in the 1950s. Limited federal recognition was granted only in 1996.

Today, the Muwekma Ohlone people continue their efforts to preserve their heritage in the Bay Area, focusing on educational initiatives, language revitalization, and cultural storytelling to keep their history alive.

At one time, the Mukwema Ohlone people thought they had a supporter in U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.

Seal of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe
Seal of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe

Congresswoman Lofgren’s Evolving Stance on Muwekma Ohlone Recognition

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren is familiar with the Ohlone Tribe from her days on Board of County Supervisors. She was there when anthropologists tried to dig up sacred burial grounds without the Tribe’s permission.

In 2002, Lofgren demanded justice for the Muwekma Ohlone people on the floor of the House of Representatives:

“I proudly support the long struggle of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe as they continue to seek justice and to finally, and without further delay, achieve their goal of their reaffirmation of their tribal status by the federal government.

This process has dragged on long enough. I hope that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior will do the right thing and act positively to grant the Muwekma Ohlone tribe their rights as a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe…

To do anything else is to deny this tribe justice. They have waited patiently and should not have to wait any longer.”

Zoe Lofgren is running for reelection in a newly reconfigured district.

But recently, Congresswoman Lofgren has not supported the Muwekma Ohlone’s claims with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), who excluded the tribe from the list of federally recognized tribes.

The Congresswoman once agreed that Congress and the federal government recognized the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, before 1978.

She knows the BIA recognizes tribal entities in the United States. These sovereignties are eligible for funding and services due to their status as Indian Tribes.

She is aware that the Muwekma Ohlone have a robust, established, documented history. Their qualifications and documentation exceed many of the current federally recognized tribes in California.

In 2002, Lofgren believed the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a mistake in 1978 when it excluded the Muwekma Ohlone from the list of federally recognized tribes – when she made her comments on the House floor.

Casino Controversy: The Complex Dynamics of Tribal Gaming

California Democratic House Representatives who attended the now-infamous Muwekma Ohlone meeting (clockwise from top left) Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Eric Swalwell, Jimmy Panetta, and Ro Khanna.
California Democratic House Representatives who attended the now-infamous Muwekma Ohlone meeting (clockwise from top left) Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Eric Swalwell, Jimmy Panetta, and Ro Khanna.

There are reports that Mukwema Ohlone Tribal Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh was the recipient of an attempted “strong-arm.”

The reports suggest that Tribal Recognition with the BIA would be “Pay to Play” and require concessions, including that the Tribe agree not to engage in the casino/gambling trade.

It is not as simple as some assume. Congresswoman Lofgren is insensitive to latent and systemic racism, colonialism, and the history of genocide faced by indigenous peoples.

Zoe Lofgren

Lofgren likely supports BIA recognition of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe as she did in the past, but the Democratic Party in California gets millions in contributions from tribal operators of casinos outside her district.

Congresswoman Lofgren’s Dilemma: Balancing Donors and Constituents

The casino owners, such as Cache Creek in Brooks, CA, and the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, CA, are willing to pay Lofgren to block federal recognition of the Mukwema Ohlone.

However, as a gesture of indigenous concession, tribal gaming owners gave Lofgren permission to approve federal recognition of Mukwema Ohlone, provided they surrendered their rights to operate gaming.

The challenge the gaming tribes face is that there are only so many willing to gamble, since most of them lose.

The Graton Resort & Casino, owned and operated by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, has 3,000 slot machines, 144 table games, and a poker room. There are many days when not all of these slot machines or table games are occupied by gamblers losing money.

If Lofgren paved the way for the Ohlone to have a casino, it would cut into their business, leaving more slots open.

The same is true of Cache Creek Casino. It’s owned and operated by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation – and the last thing the Nation wants is competition. With 94,505 square feet of gaming space that can always accommodate more gamers, ready to separate their money from their persons the Mukwema Ohlone represents the threat of an enemy. Their claims for federal recognition are far less important than the theft of their gambling patrons.

Cache Creek has plenty of empty slot machines at any given time. If Zoe Lofgren does not protect their turf, they will have a lot more empty slots.

It is not easy to be a Congresswoman who must take orders from casino owners, especially when it means not doing the right thing or abandoning old friends.

But the constant need to raise money to get reelected, which Lofgren successfully accomplished 15 times and is trying for a 16th, means you protect your donors and their turf. Lofgren has come to recognize that it is part of her job.

She works hand in glove with Nancy Pelosi, satisfying donors.

California Democratic Party Congressional Representatives Nancy Pelosi [l] and Zoe Lofgren [r].
California Democratic Party Congressional Representatives Nancy Pelosi [l] and Zoe Lofgren [r].

Congresswoman Lofgren is also grateful (and is quick to show it) to her donors in Big Tech.

Her tribal gaming operators and Big Tech fund a large portion of the Democrats’ campaigns in California, and all they ask in return is that the Congresswomen do what is best for them.

It is a small thing, no doubt, to prevent a tribe from being recognized unless they give up the rights to gaming, and is the least she can do for what is literally tens of millions in donations.

It runs close to Lofgren’s heart too. She doesn’t like gaming, though she enjoys gaming donations. And it is understandable that Lofgren is perplexed and doesn’t understand why Mukema Chairwoman Nijmeh is making such a fuss by demanding what all 101 federally recognized tribes in California have the right to do: operate casinos.

Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh outside Rep. Eric Swalwell's Congressional Office.
Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh

Chairwoman Nijmeh is doing more than making a fuss. She is making a stand. She is running against Lofgren in the recently redistricted 18th district for Congress.

If she wins in an upset, which is possible in the 18th, where many voters do not know Zoe Lofgren and are curiously uninterested in supporting Big Tech or casinos outside the district, it could be a disaster for Big Tech and casinos outside the 18th district.

While Big Tech demands many things of Lofgren, whose daughter works for Google, the tribal casino donors ask only one thing from her: to ensure they have no competition.

She has done that for them by denying the Mukwema Ohlone tribe help with federal recognition.

It is a hallmark of Lofgren, as it is for Pelosi, that she supports those who support her. Her votes on the floor, the bills she passes or seeks to kill, are always influenced by her loyalty to big donors.

She needs your help. The tribal casino owners cannot vote for her, since they are outside her district.  Most Big Tech executives cannot vote for her because the redistricting of the 18th district moved them into other districts.

Lofgren needs your vote more than ever, or she might just lose to Nijmeh, who has no big donors to guide her.

This is a chance for the average voter in the district to support Big Tech expansion, which will help Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook) and Microsoft, continue to control e-commerce, hardware and software development, social media, cloud computing, content control, digital advertising, and artificial intelligence.

With AI becoming the most important Big Tech issue, Lofgren is committed to helping donors who help her. Through important legislation, Lofgren can be an effective voice for these companies, ensuring their competitors do not get a foothold as AI becomes more prevalent in our lives.

The primary is on March 5.


About the author

Frank Parlato

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