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The Ohlone

First inhabitants: the Ohlone of the Peninsula

Stanford University’s campus is located within the traditional territory of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe includes members who trace their ancestry through records kept by three Spanish missions established in the San Francisco Bay Area (Mission Dolores, Mission Santa Clara, and Mission San Jose). Over thousands of years, Ohlone people left tangible signs across their homelands through artifacts, buried features, and changes to the land itself. Stanford cares for many such sites and, with the tribe’s help, is seeking to grow in understanding this history.

The Spanish government oversaw the establishment of a network of missions in California beginning in 1769, inaugurating an era of compulsory labor, disease and dislocation, and the introduction of Christianity. The Ohlone people maintained a forceful resistance against this occupation for decades. Their situation did not improve under Mexican and U.S. rule in the nineteenth century, but they survived, returning to ancestral lands and forming new communities. A large settlement of displaced families from across the Bay Area was established in the East Bay at Pleasanton. The tribal government that was established at Pleasanton continues in the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Leland Stanford bought land from European and American farmers who had purchased the land from heirs of Mexican land grantees. The Mexican system of land title, reaffirmed in American courts, disregarded most Native American land claims. There were no known settlements of Ohlone people on this land at the time of Stanford’s purchases, although further research may reveal evidence of Native Americans living in the more remote areas of the foothills. Stanford’s “Palo Alto Stock Farm” became the site of Stanford University. 

“Our people, the Muwekmas, the East Bay families, have never left their lands…They have always been here for generation after generation”

— Former Muwekma tribal chairwoman Rosemary Cambra

Generation after generation

Stanford has been engaged with Ohlone sites and communities since its founding in the 1890s. Professor Mary Sheldon Barnes led archaeological excavations and interviewed Ohlone elders in the 1890s. Archaeological research continued in the 20th century but without the important component of Ohlone stakeholder collaboration until the 1980s, when Stanford and the Ohlone community revived their relationship. The university responded respectfully to Ohlone community requests to repatriate human remains and funerary objects to the Ohlone in 1988 for reburial, prior to passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. Today, the university and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe are strong partners in community-led archaeology, historic interpretation, and a native plant garden. A dedicated residential space for indigenous students at the university is known as “Muwekma-Tah-Ruk ~ The House of the People.”

A young Muwekma Ohlone tribal member fans sage smoke with a turkey feather to bless the place of the 2018 Stanford University Powwow. Photograph by and courtesy Monica V. Arellano, Vice Chairwoman, Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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