Indigenous Populations in the Bay Area

It is critical to recognize the Bay Area’s Indigenous populations, past and present. Despite the atrocities of colonization and genocide, Native communities persist today and are active in efforts to preserve and revive the culture. According to the U.S. Census, the Indigenous population in the Bay Area is 18,500 strong and is projected to grow over the next few decades.

The Ohlone are the predominant Indigenous group of the Bay Area, including the Chochenyo and the Karkin in East Bay, the Ramaytush in San Francisco, the Yokuts in South Bay and Central Valley, and the Muwekma tribe throughout the region. Other Indigenous groups include the Graton Rancheria community (Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo), Kashaya, Patwin, and Mishewal Wappo in the North Bay, and the Bay Miwok in the East Bay. The arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the late 1700s was the first major threat to Ohlone existence and culture as a result of forced cultural and religious assimilation, exposure to European diseases, and harsh and unsanitary living conditions. When California became part of the Union in 1850, after the Mexican-American War, the state government sanctioned the mass genocide of Indigenous populations by local militia in the wake of the Gold Rush. By 1852, there were less than 1,000 Ohlone remaining, a 90 percent loss in their pre-colonial era population. By the 1880s, the Bay Area Ohlone population was dramatically reduced.

The latter half of the 20th century saw many different tribes from across the country coming to the Bay Area as one of the several relocation sites where the U.S. government promised, and failed to delivery on, training, housing, and jobs as part of the Indian Relocation Act. The Bay Area has since become one of the largest populations of Intertribal Indians in the country with people coming from communities in the Southwest, Great Plains, and Eastern Woodlands areas. Now, California is home to close to 200 tribes with only 109 of them recognized by the U.S. federal government. The displacement of Native Americans from their reservations into the region led to the creation of the oldest urban Indian community center, Intertribal Friendship House which provided a community for Indigenous people to seek each other out and access social services. Intertribal Friendship continues to exist today in Oakland.

Reclaiming Land, Reviving Culture

Today, Native American advocacy groups are advancing land preservation efforts and public education on Indigenous history and rectification. Key efforts include:

  • Emeryville Shellmound Prayer Gathering. On Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving every year hundreds of people gather to pray, remember, and educate the public about the destruction of the largest of all 425 Shellmounds that once ringed the Bay Area. Once a vital ceremonial and funerary site of the Ohlone people, the corner of Ohlone Way and Shellmound St in Emeryville is now the Bay Street Mall.
  • Federal Acknowledgment. Some Native American communities have petitioned for federal acknowledgment of their tribe, which would allow them access to health, housing, and education benefits, among others. While these services would be a great benefit to communities, the application process has been described as onerous and costly, and the vast majority of petitions are denied.
  • Indigenous Peoples Day and the Take-Over of Alcatraz Island. On November 20, 1969, a group of Native American activists (“Indians of All Tribes”) and their families occupied the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay in protest of the government’s historical treatment of Native people and to reclaim and reestablish their rights to land in the Bay Area. The occupation lasted for nineteen months until the Nixon administration cut all power to the island. To this day, Alcatraz serves as a place of activism for Native Americans. For example, each year on Alcatraz Island, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) organizes and sponsors an Indigenous Peoples' Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering, a celebration of Native American culture and activism. In Octorber, IITC also organizes a gathering for Indigenous Peoples Day to commemorate Indigenous resistance and for collective healing.
  • Shellmound Preservation. Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) is a Bay Area organization working toward social and environmental justice. IPOC advocates for the preservation of Shellmounds, Indigenous villages and burial sites, many of which have been leveled, destroyed and paved over to allow for new development.

Please see below for additional resources: