San Francisco Tour Tales

The Rancheria Act of 1958

by Jack Leibman

The Mission neighborhood is renowned for its many colorful, intense murals. One could easily overlook four relatively modest panels displayed on the walls of the auto service garage on 16th Street on the corner of Albion. The subject of these works is the Rancheria Act, passed by Congress in 1958. The remarkable consequences of the Act seem especially relevant to devotees of California history, of which tribal history is a critical component. Perhaps it is not coincidental that these murals are so close to the landmark plaque on Albion celebrating the establishment of the first Mission Dolores.

The presence of the Miwoks in northern California was documented in 1579 by a priest accompanying Sir Francis Drake, and by subsequent explorers in 1595, 1775, 1793, and 1808. During the Mission Period (1769-1834), the coast Miwoks and southern Pomos were used as labor sources. Afterwards, the local Indians continued to serve Mexican land grant owners throughout the confiscated tribal lands. Later records document Miwok land grants at Olampoli (now a state park near Novato in Marin County) and at Nicasio (in West Marin).

In 1835, with secularization, the Catholic Church granted the San Rafael Christian Indians 80,000 acres at Nicasio, where 500 Indians relocated. By 1850, only 4,000 acres remained because of illegal seizure of land by non-Indians. In 1870, the last Indian leader bought the small surrounding parcel and willed it to his children in 1876. In 1880, the remaining 36 Indians were induced to leave when Marin County cut off all funding except for financial support for indigent Indians residing at the Poor Farm.

After California statehood (1850) the remaining tribal groups managed to survive by fishing or itinerant farm labor. In 1920, the US government purchased 15.45 acres near Graton, a town near Sebastopol, to serve as a “village home” for the local Indians. The groups were consolidated into one entity, Graton Rancheria, with a population of 75. Today, the membership of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is about 1,000, but as of 2004, no land was owned.

In 1958, the US Congress passed the California Rancheria Act, which terminated Federal supervision and Indian status for 41 rancherias. The goal of the act was to eliminate the many small reservation units and to promote assimilation. This was enforced in 1966, and the Coast Miwok were declared extinct. The residents were no longer recognized as tribes. The trust status of rancheria lands was ended, and the lands were distributed to the adult residents.

In 1979, the rancherias formed 17 groups and started a class action suit to restore their reservation status, asserting that the Trust relationship had been illegally terminated. The plaintiffs asked the Secretary of the Interior to “un- terminate” the status of each rancheria. In 1983, the plaintiffs prevailed. Their “status as Indians should be restored and confirmed and they are entitled to all the benefits and services by the US government for Indians. All their lands shall be designated as ‘Indian Country.’” The 17 victorious rancherias include various Miwoks and related entities such as Pomos, Maidus, Picayunes, and others denoted by location, such as Redding, Greenville, and Feather Falls.

After further litigation and legislative action in 2000, California now has 107 federally recognized tribes, some with only one to three adult members. At least six of these tribes are landless. At least 12 tribes are seeking more desirable property, and 64 more tribes are pursuing Federal recognition.

So, does history repeat itself? In retrospect, the history of the Rancheria Act of 1958 seems like a reenactment of the original establishment of Mission Dolores in 1776, which resulted in the displacement, subjugation, and near-extinction of San Francisco’s native inhabitants. Nullification of the Act in 1983 has had positive impacts in restoring tribal status, thus presumptively helping to maintain ethnic identity and traditions.

But there are some unintended consequences. The restoration of tribal autonomy and “Indian Country” has generated an interplay of powerful economic interests. Many of the newly autonomous tribal units have rushed to establish lucrative gambling casinos, and California will soon overtake Nevada in gambling revenues. Many regard this as a mixed blessing, especially as some tribes assert their right to buy land, invoke Trust status, and establish casinos within or near city limits.

Some very direct ramifications are reflected in the current controversies about lobbying corruption. The Indian community is itself divided; many feel that this is a subversion of an original goal of reestablishing Indian cultural entities in more appropriate rural settings.



Library of Congress, Committee Reports 79-006, June 19, 2000

SF Chronicle, 10/24/04: “Indian Gaming”

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the August, 2006 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.