The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians is a federally recognized Indian tribe located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Tuolumne County, California. The Tuolumne Rancheria was purchased on October 26, 1910 and established as one of two local reservations for landless Indians. The original acquisition consisted of 289.52 acres. Today there are over 1700 fee and trust land acres. There are approximately 200 residents living on the Rancheria and an additional 200 non-resident members of the Tribe.
The governing body of the tribe is the Community Council composed of 119 members. The officers of the Community Council are Chairperson, Vice-Chair, Secretary and Treasurer. Recommendations are made by Tribal Committees and are brought to the Council for approval. These committees are Business and Finance, Constitution and By-Laws, Planning and Development, Social Services Advisory, Personnel, Health Board, Enrollment, Housing Authority, Education, Cultural and Historic Preservation and Tribal Law Enforcement.
The first known contact on record of Native perspective of the Spanish Explorers was the Moraga Second Expedition to Central California through Tuolumne County in 1806. However Me-Wuk peoples have a very long and rich history dating back for thousands of years. The Me-Wuk have always been knowledgeable about the resources of the land, and hunted and gathered what they needed. If the resources were not readily available on their land, Me-Wuk would migrate in order to trade with others. The primary food staples were fish, acorns, and deer meat. The diet was also supplemented with various wild berries, seeds and nuts. The typical village consisted of umachas (cedar bark homes), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the epicenter of village life and should be respected as would any place of worship. The roundhouse was used for a variety of purposes by different groups. It is typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and is covered by earth, bark, or shingles. Dances are still held in the roundhouse as a way of giving thanks and respect for all that the Earth Mother gave to the people.
Other traditional activities practiced by the Me-Wuk were acorn processing and basketry. There are many stages involved with making acorns suitable for consumption including gathering, sorting, storing, cracking, pounding, leaching and cooking. Baskets were used throughout the stages of acorn processing, as well as for other tasks. Coiled Basketry was the most common style utilized. Approximately 20 different traditional basket types could be made with this one style. Willow was the most widespread material utilized for basketry. Women were responsible for creating and maintaining the family’s baskets. Men had separate responsibilities, including hunting.
The California Gold Rush era impacted the Miwok people in many traumatic ways, changing their lives forever. In a very short time, the land and environment that had sustained the people for generations was irreparably altered. Stream channels were disturbed, sometimes re-routed, and eventually the land was blasted away causing huge amounts of soil to enter the streams and rivers, destroying the habitat of fish and other aquatic species that once were food for the Miwok people. Gathering areas that had supplied the Miwok with many foods were unintentionally damaged or cleared for cattle grazing. The cattle also ate the acorns, a major source of food for the Miwok people. Disease brought in by the newcomers entered the world of the Miwok taking many lives due to the people’s lack of immunity. There were many attempts by miners and militias commissioned by the federal government to address the “Indian problem,” to control or annihilate the Miwok population. The Miwok people were forced to flee from their homes and seek refuge in more isolated areas for protection and survival. Prior to outside contact, the Sierra Miwok population was somewhere around 10,000. This number fell drastically to 679 during the 1910 census.
“The slow, but eventual loss or abandonment of many traditional customs and traits, yet the perseverance of others, characterized Me-Wuk culture change during the 20th century,” (Davis-King, Shelly TMTC CRPP, p. 12). In 1924 two significant events in Miwok history were observed. First, the Miwok name officially came into use. Before this time Me-Wuk people were referred to as Digger Indians. On Sunday, April 20th, 1924 an effigy of a digger Indian was burned in a ceremony to change the Tribe’s name from Digger to Miwok. This was the culmination of a three day celebration, part of an annual cry ceremony that was held each year by the local Miwok. Then on June 2, 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.
Today, the Me-Wuk culture is alive and still widely practiced. There are traditional events that have been created to keep the traditions alive. The Acorn Festival, established in October of 1966, attracts people from all areas to celebrate local tradition. It is now held annually the second weekend of September. It features cultural demonstrations, traditional foods, dance, and Native American vendors. The Indian Market, celebrated in the spring, is another annual traditional event. It is a time to highlight the many traditional activities of the Me-Wuk, including basketry, acorn processing, sharing and games.
Game playing and gambling are not foreign to the Me-Wuk. They have played games of chance for most of their history. One of the more popular games is the “Hand Game,” played while singing gambling songs. Teams compete in guessing the “bones.” The Tuolumne Band joined the approximately sixty other California gaming tribes with the opening of the Black Oak Casino on May 15, 2001. It was re-designed, re-built and re-opened May 18, 2005 . It features four restaurants, a lounge nightclub, bowling alley and family fun center- along with over a thousand slot machines and 20 table games. The Casino has enabled the Tribe to broaden the range of services not only offered to the Indian community, but the broader community at large. Black Oak sponsors a wide range of community events.
In January of 2005 the Tribe opened the Tuolumne Me-Wuk Indian Health Center. It is a tribally owned and operated primary care health center located on the former Westside Property in the city of Tuolumne. It provides pediatric, obstetric, psychiatric, general medical care, minor surgery, and general health education. It continues to grow to meet the needs of the community, for example an on site pharmacy was opened in September of 2006 and the new, state-of-the-art Dental Clinic opened up in April of 2008 on Greenley Road in Sonora. An additional Tuolumne Me-Wuk Indian Health Center was opened in Sonora on Cedar Road in 2013.
In 2009 the Black Oak Casino added a 6 story 1000 space parking garage and smoke free skywalk gaming area. The Bear Creek convenience store and gas station opened in 2011. The “Black Oak Casino and Resort,” was created in 2012 with the addition of a 148 room hotel, outdoor pool, spa and exercise room, and conference center and banquet facilities.
In 2010 the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the Tuolumne Rancheria. The Tribe continues to fight assimilation and advocates cultural event participation, knowledge and utilization of traditional methodology, self-determination and Indian sovereignty. The Tribal Vision Statement accurately expresses this sentiment. It states that “The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians is a sovereign nation that is dedicated to uphold social and economic stability through self reliance and to promote the health, safety and welfare of our Indian people.”