On the morning of Friday, August 4th, 2023, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Centro Aztlan Chicomoztoc, their supporters, members of the press, and San Jose government officials (and their designees.) Gathered at the site where a statue of Captain Thomas Fallon was “immortalized” in bronze to commemorate the moment when Fallon rose American Flag for the first time, in San Jose, 1846; and which symbolized the second time this land was stolen.
However, the statue was no longer there, at the intersection of Julian and St. James, in what’s no known as San Jose, California. The statue was removed on April 25, 2023.
This meeting was to cleanse the land beneath the concrete and roadways of this area. (The place where the Guadalupe River flowed. Where the Muwekma Ohlone ancestors lived for thousands of years.)
Charlene Nijmeh, Muwekma Chairwoman said we gathered at the former site of a symbol of oppression and genocide, “To give prayers to our ancestors; and also to give them hope.”
And, to show that Ohlone people are still here, and that their voices will not be silenced.
The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is trying to break the silence on their fight for Federal Recognition, Sovereign Rights, and Land Grants that the tribe rightfully deserves. Things which are granted to Federally Recognized Tribes as a matter of law.
They want all of these things without the concessions Bay Area Congressional Representative want them to make. Concessions like money for education, and limits on rights affecting the tribe’s long term development and survival.
San Jose City Council voted unanimously to remove the Fallon Statue on November 9, 2021.
San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz–who led the movement to remove the Christopher Colombus statue from San Jose’s City Hall– recognized the Fallon statue as another reference to the culture of colonialism. He said it sends the wrong message; that we need healing from the violence of the past.
“The monument symbolized, unfortunately, oppression, it symbolized injustice,” San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres said, “I’m just glad that it’s gone.”
Peter Ortiz’, and Omar Torres’ pledge to co-write, and introduce a resolution fully recognizing the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area as a “Tribe”, could be the start of the silence surrounding Muwekma’s efforts finally ending.
Today’s events would start with a cleansing at the former site of the statue, followed by a procession around downtown San Jose to show people historic places which are important to Indigenous and Latinx Communities.
Controversial from the beginning…
The early history of the fight to remove the Fallon statue. As told to me by Kathy Chávez Napoli, a Mountain Maidu Elder, and core member of the original group fighting the statue, along with Javier Salazar (who started it), and Felix Arcano. With help from Yolanda Reynolds, and more. I was honored to have met one of the people who fought the installation of the statue from its commission in 1988, and to receive this oral history.
About the Controversy
The controversy around the statue stemmed from the fact that it blatantly romanticized American colonization; was a symbol of land theft (the annexation of Mexican land), oppression, and the dark and violent nature of the creation of America literally on top of the bones of Indigenous people.
There were also serious questions about whether or not Thomas Fallon even deserved to have a statue erected in his honor. Fallon gave himself the rank of captain; it wasn’t actually awarded to him in any official manner. And, John D. Sloat was the one who was ordered to land on Alta California and raise the American flag. Sloat simply gave the flag to Fallon.
Mayor McEnery’s Book About Fallon Was Fiction
Aside from those cultural and subject matter objections to the statue, there was also the fact that Tom McEnery wrote a book about Captain Thomas Fallon which was supposed to be based on Thomas Fallon’s journals. And the “historical facts” gleaned from these journal were used to bolster the Mayor McEnery’s argument for commissioning and installing the statue.
It was later revealed that Thomas Fallon kept no such journal, and the entire book itself was historical (fan) fiction written by Tom McEnery, himself.
Mayor Tom McEnery, meanwhile, was able to personally commission this art project (in 1988)–with a budget of $250k–which ended up costing $800k; and would require another $500K for installation and infrastructure. (Which is about $1.9M in 2023 dollars for the statue, and about $1.1M for installation and infrastructure.)
But, where did the money even come from? How did the Mayor Manage to amass the money to pay for the statue? And how did he intend to pay for the installation and infrastructure on top of that?
This was the fact that moved so many people to action.
Outcry Over Lack of Accountability Exclusion of Public Input
Kathy Chávez Napoli remembers the reaction to this sudden, and extreme expenditure: “Wait a minute, we don’t even have stop lights at certain places and you want to spend $800 thousand dollars on a person that you wrote a book about?!“
Tom McEnery (the Mayor at that time) had leveraged an alarming amount of public funds from the city to pay for it. This was possible because of the passage of Measure “G” which gave the mayor of San Jose more power to act without certain checks and balances (like City Council or Committee Approval/Review).
“Tom McEnery, at the time, was the most powerful mayor that San Jose had ever had.” Kathy Chávez Napoli told me, “They passed Measure G; it gave him a lot more power than the mayor had ever had, prior. And he had never been challenged. And so, when we challenged him, that was his first defeat.”
The Fallon protestors had managed to make their points heard, and break through the noise with verifiable facts, in black and white, on paper. An advisory committee was created.
“Because of that we were able to get a lot more support and they formed the Historic Art Council. I was appointed, Javiar was appointed. And we voted to destroy it, but we were out-voted.”
However: the statue was never installed in its intended place, or anywhere else. For a decade the statue sat in storage, somewhere in Oakland, California….
Until it was installed by Mayor Ron Gonzalez. At what’s now a bare median, at Julian & St. James, in downtown San Jose.
Storage Costs and Locations Still A Mystery
“We never knew how much it cost to be in storage, in Oakland, for ten years.” Kathy said, “They never would tell us. They never would tell us where the location was.”
Referring to Mayor Gonzalez’ decision to reinstall the offensive statue, “… we said, ‘When it goes up, it’s gonna get vandalized.’ And ever since it’s gone up, it’s always getting vandalized. Always.”
“It should never have been there. It should never have even been created.” Kathy told me, “And that’s how we were able to bring so many people in the community together to oppose it.”
Commenting on how long it took for the statue to finally be removed, Kathy Chavez turned to me and said:
As I listened to the presentations from Muwekma Tribal Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh, Muwekma Tribal Member Joey Torres, Muwekma Youth Ambassador, Muwekma Tribal Members, Miwok Elder Razzle, SCU Prof. Lee Panich, SJSU Anthropologist & Archeologist Gustavo Flores, and the Speaker for Centro Aztlan Chicomoztoc–who described some of the horrors of the mission system….
It became more apparent how the removal of public art dedicated to the symbols of oppression, land theft, and white supremacy can open up pathways to healing wounds that we can’t always see.
That the removal of these blocks can also open up our eyes to see other places where we could do better. New opportunities to create pathways for healing on a community level. Something which is needed more often than not in area where wide disparities exist.
George Floyd’s murder (May 25, 2020) by police is what sparked the unanimous urgency behind the the deaccession and removal ordinance passed by the San Jose City Council on November 9, 2021.
The ensuing protests, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter, Defund Police Movement, Me Too, Missing Murdered Indigenous Movement, and more, reignited the struggle for civil rights which had remained dormant until then. It let loose our collective energy, which had been pent up and held back not just by our collective oppression, but our repression, and our silence.
All of these events helped people wake up and realize that there is a gap in the way people are treated in our society.
That the economic, justice, and welfare systems in American society were created to exclude nonwhite society members; or, include them in a predatory, exploitive way, which made the cost of inclusion too great a price to bear.
Because our eyes were open to the injustices and injuries visited upon other people by an unjust system created to oppress and subjugate them….
Because we were able to empathize with the pain and struggles of someone else who did not look like us….
Because we, as a society, started practicing restorative justice instead of making proclamations to do so, we have been able to move forward, and imagine a future which includes everyone.
“This is a we thing.” Miwok Elder Razzle told us, inviting us to share and participate in the cleansing ceremony, directly, as several people shared songs.
The removal of the Fallon Statue, and the introduction of a resolution fully recognizing Muwekma as a “Tribe” are the first steps in the journey towards the official recognition of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Muwekma Tribal Member Joey Torres talked about how our ancestors got use ready for this moment, how we are reawakening and searching for knowledge stored deep inside.
Miwok Elder Razzle talked about the seventh generation, and said this would not have been possible if the youth and young adults of today hadn’t spoken up and taken the lead on a battle that started so long ago.
We are at an interesting moment in time when the Seventh Generation is now beginning to take the lead as our elders begin to transition. Let’s do them proud and make sure we leave something good for the next seven generations.
You can help support this journey, too, by helping to support your local tribe and indigenous community.
You can help the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s fight for re-affirmation of their status as a Federally Recognized tribe. Find out more on the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area’s website.
You can also encourage your local leaders and politicians to acknowledge the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe with a formal Land Acknowledgement.
Not Sure If You’re In Muwekma Territory?
The aboriginal homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe includes the following counties: San Francisco, San Mateo, most of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and portions of Napa, Santa Cruz, Solano and San Joaquin
What about the “Chochenyo Ohlone”, and the “Lisjan Ohlone”?
Chochenyo is a dialect of the Ohlone language, spoken in parts of the East Bay. Jose Guzman, a famous Ohlone leader, who referred to himself as “Lisjanes”. [“Yo soy Lisjan.”]
Jose Guzman was thought to be “the last Chochenyo speaker” until the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe began speaking and learning their language again. He was a member of the Federally Recognized Verona Band of Alameda County.
The present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is comprised of all of the known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay region who trace their ancestry through the Missions Dolores, Santa Clara, and San Jose; and who were also members of the historic Federally Recognized Verona Band of Alameda County.