The Fresno Bee: Decades after destruction, Yosemite welcomes home Native Americans

A 'sham': Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation being denied federal recognition

The National Park Service Has Recognized the Southern Sierra Miwuk for More Than 100 Years. The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Says They Don’t Exist. How Is That Possible?

In June 2018, the National Park Service, which is part of the Interior Department, signed a historic 30-year agreement with the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation to build a traditional Miwok village and roundhouse at Yosemite National Park for the tribe to use for cultural and religious purposes.

The agreement helps to right a serious historical wrong by reestablishing the tribe’s connection to its homeland. That connection was severed in 1969 when the Park Service razed the Indian village at Yosemite built for the Southern Sierra Miwok and other Indian employees, who had lived and worked at the park since its founding in 1890.

But only five months after the historic June 2018 decision, the tribe received another, more disheartening decision. The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who is also part of the Interior Department, decided not to recognize the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation as an Indian tribe.

Posted by AICMC a.k.a Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation on Sunday, March 10, 2019

How, you may ask, is that possible? How can one branch of the Interior Department have a more than 100-year relationship and sign a 30-year agreement with an Indian tribe, while another denies its very existence?

I have asked myself that question often over the last year. I am hoping others will begin to ask it too.

From 2001 to 2017, I worked as a historian for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA), which researches petitions from Indian groups seeking Federal recognition as an Indian tribe and makes recommendations on them to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

During my 16 years at OFA, I worked on many findings, positive and negative. I was also part of Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn’s working group in 2014-2015 to revise the 1994 recognition regulations that led to the publication of the current 2015 rules. I also peer reviewed the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation finding and assisted the team historian in his work.

Before I left OFA in October 2017, the office, after eight years of evaluation, had drafted and submitted for Solicitor review, a 200-page proposed finding on the Southern Sierra Miwuk in which the staff had reached majority, affirmative conclusions on all seven of the mandatory criteria for Federal recognition. In that draft, OFA concluded that the tribe had demonstrated external identifications as an Indian tribe, community, politics, descent from the historical Indian tribe, and even previous Federal recognition as an Indian tribe. The draft also included an extended discussion of the tribe’s more than 100-year relationship with the National Park Service, a relationship that included providing housing and employment for tribal members at Yosemite well into the 1960s, and using their history in Yosemite Valley as a cultural resource to educate visitors to this day.

So, imagine my surprise when the Assistant Secretary in November 2018 issued a 25-page proposed negative finding on the tribe, which evaluated only the single criterion for “community” and only for 29 years (1982-2011) of the tribe’s long history.

When I read the finding, I was stunned both by the radical reversal and by the meager argument to support it. Soon after, I sent comments to the Assistant Secretary contesting the finding’s conclusion.

My comments described serious flaws in the finding. First, the Assistant Secretary had issued an unauthorized finding, because the regulations do not allow for a finding on only one small time-period of a single criterion, especially after a group has undergone evaluation for eight years. Second, the Solicitor’s office may have wielded improper influence over the tribe’s finding.

Third, the Assistant Secretary had failed to discuss any of the information OFA had found on critical issues like the tribe’s history before 1982, the identity of the historical Indian tribe, and previous Federal recognition as an Indian tribe. Finally, the Assistant Secretary had failed to discuss the tribe’s longstanding relationship with the Park Service at Yosemite National Park.

These are serious criticisms that call into question the validity of the Assistant Secretary’s finding. The Park Service, local California communities, other Indian tribes, and scholars have long recognized the existence of the Southern Sierra Miwuk as an Indian tribe in the Yosemite Valley.

Yet despite this fact, the Assistant Secretary denied the tribe’s existence based on a truncated evaluation that came only one year after OFA had made a positive, comprehensive recommendation for Federal recognition.

Aldo E. Salerno. Courtesy photo

The Southern Sierra Miwuk, who first petitioned for Federal recognition in 1982, have waited 37 years, endured eight years of active evaluation, supplied thousands of pages of evidence, and all they got for this ordeal was a paltry 25 pages from Indian Affairs and OFA to justify the denial of their existence as an Indian tribe. Simply put, the negative proposed finding is an indefensible sham.

The Southern Sierra Miwuk are and always have been an Indian tribe. The evidence I examined for the original positive recommendation clearly showed they were. I believed they deserved Federal recognition then, as did most of my OFA colleagues, and I believe that now.

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. The Southern Sierra Miwuk deserve more than a symbolic village from the Federal government, important as that village may be for their community and culture. They deserve the right to self-determination, self-governance, and Federal recognition as an Indian tribe.


Aldo E. Salerno, Ph.D, was an historian with the Office of Federal Acknowledgment at the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2001 to 2017. Following his departure, he provided the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation with some technical advice about the tribe's petition for federal recognition. The tribe's legal solicited his input. He was not compensated for his assistance.

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