It was a shocking allegation from the press: A California congresswoman was deploying racist rhetoric against Native Americans concerned about their people’s survival.
But there was one problem. The site publishing it, a little-known outlet called the San Francisco Inquirer, wasn’t actually in the news business. And the man behind it, Matthew Ricchiazzi, had a history of running disinformation sites in New York.
He was working for the 500-member Muwekma Ohlone tribe, which has long struggled for official recognition by the U.S. government. The tribe needed Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s support, yet appeared to be sliming her online.
Lofgren’s “stunning reversal on Muwekma sovereignty raises questions about her motives,” the Inquirer thundered in a headline. It claimed that progressive activists were seeking to oust the San Jose congresswoman for, amongst other things, mistreating marginalized communities.
“Every time the Tribe engages with Rep. Lofgren, the congresswoman turns a conversation about the Muwekma’s people’s existence and survival—which should be celebrated—into a two-bit troupe [sic] about Indian casinos,” the Inquirer quoted a tribal spokesman as saying.
The mudslinging campaign, first revealed by The San Francisco Chronicle, was part of audacious comms strategy employed by the Muwekma. And it offers an unusual window into the politics surrounding government recognition of Native tribes.
The Muwekma wanted Bay Area representatives to introduce legislation to grant them federal recognition. But Lofgren is a long-standing opponent of gambling. The representatives would likely oppose recognition unless the Muwekma rejected gaming rights—potentially a source of enormous income for the tribe, which faces significant economic pressures associated with life in the Bay Area.
Tribal chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh didn’t want to do that, believing it would make the Muwekma lesser than other tribes. It’s a quandary not unheard of among Native American tribes.
“That’s conditional recognition, and I think that’s a problem,” said Andrew Jolivette, a professor of Native American studies at UC San Diego and member of the unrecognized Atakapa Ishak Nation. “People aren’t regulating Vegas, New Jersey or Louisiana in the same way.”
In a statement, Lofgren said the Inquirer had distorted her record.
Nijmeh did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The tribe’s spokesperson, Jonathan Lockwood, only offered to make her available at a later date. In a text message, Ricchiazzi wrote that The Standard reporter’s “malicious tone creates legal liabilities for anything defamatory that he might publish in the adderol-driven [sic] throes of whatever is motivating his behavior.”
Tensions between the Muwekma and the representatives boiled over earlier this month, when Nijmeh and her husband, Ken, paid a visit to Washington, D.C., and met with representatives Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Jimmy Panetta, Ro Khanna and Eric Swalwell.
As a result of the tribe’s harsh statements about the representatives, the meeting was recorded. Lockwood, the communications specialist serving as the Muwekma’s hired spokesperson, shared the recording with The Standard.
During the meeting, Nijmeh said that she personally opposed gaming and felt it had divided Indian Country. But other tribes had the right to gaming, she said.
“We would be the only tribe in the Bay Area to be less of a tribe,” she said.
But the Muwekma’s aggressive public relations strategy soon eclipsed the issue of gaming.
“My staff was told you should take this meeting because, if you don't, you’ll get the same treatment as a Zoe Lofgren,” one male representative said. “I've never seen anything like that before in a meeting request.”
The Muwekma leadership’s attempts to distance themselves from Ricchiazzi and Lockwood also angered the lawmakers.
When Ken Nijmeh suggested the attacks didn’t come from the tribe, a female representative was livid.
“We may be members of Congress, but we’re not fools,” she said.
Lockwood defended the Inquirer’s attacks on Lofgren: “The San Francisco Inquirer's articles have all been fact-checked, and there is nothing false in them. The articles report uncomfortable truths and issues that Lofgren would like to suppress,” he said.
In a statement, Lofgren said that “attacking me or my colleagues is counterproductive, especially at the very beginning of the legislative process.”
Since the Washington meeting, the Muwekma have continued to play political hardball.
The Inquirer has expanded its attacks, now focusing on other House members. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council has “formally condemned” the Bay Area delegation. And the tribe’s communications team is appealing to California officials and House Republicans about the delegation's alleged attempts to force the Muwekma “to forfeit our right,” according to multiple posts on the tribe’s Twitter.
More Than a Game
While Nijmeh’s simultaneous opposition to gaming and advocacy for the Muwekma receiving gaming rights may seem contradictory, it makes sense in the context of Native American politics.
For all the controversy surrounding it, casino gaming is an important source of revenue for Native tribes—and it’s about more than just putting money in members’ pockets.
Gaming is governed by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was an attempt by the federal government to redress economic disparities in Native communities, UCSD’s Jolivette said.
Operating casinos allows tribes to gain economic independence. It can provide scholarships for tribe members, put money into local coffers and employ large numbers of local people, both Natives and non-Natives.
For the Muwekma, the issue is particularly serious.
The tribe once had official recognition, but lost it in the 1920s. All their attempts to regain it through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the court system have failed.
Federal recognition means that a tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the United States: It can make and enforce laws and impose taxes. Recognition also confers certain benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the tribe’s members can also receive care from the Indian Health Service.
But Jolivette says the strict standards for a tribe to gain recognition through the bureau are outmoded.
“I think some of the criteria are, to be honest, absurd,” he told The Standard. “And they're strategic ways to prohibit tribes from being recognized.”
This leaves only one avenue open to tribes seeking recognition—an act of Congress. But that means House members can tack on caveats to any legislation that would grant recognition. Gaming is a common one.
Jolivette notes that not all tribes engage in gaming, with some choosing to pursue other ventures like golf courses, resorts and water bottling. Opening too many casinos in one area can also dilute profits.
“But casinos have shown to be successful,” Jolivette said. “I think foreclosing that possibility for the Muwekma group is wrong.”
Casinos have also been controversial among Native Americans for noneconomic reasons. In October, Muwekma chairwoman Nijmeh published an op-ed in The San Jose Mercury News arguing against Proposition 26, which would have legalized in-person sports betting and table games at Native American casinos.
She wrote that gaming had made several tribes fantastically wealthy but furthered tribal divisions.
“These wealthy gaming tribes act in direct oppression of their native brothers and sisters by using their casino profits to lobby directly against the sovereignty of other tribes,” Nijmeh wrote. “By opposing ‘legitimate’ unrecognized tribes’ efforts to become federally recognized, the gaming tribes have lost their indigenous ways of community and solidarity and embraced the greedy ways of the colonists.”
Who’s Behind the Inquirer
Regardless of the legitimacy of the Muwekma’s concerns, the tribe’s approach to pressuring the Bay Area delegation has raised eyebrows.
Ricchiazzi, described in the Inquirer as a Haudenosaunee activist, has a history of using sites that present themselves as news outlets to influence politics.
The Cornell graduate previously ran a site in Buffalo, New York, called the Buffalo Chronicle. Among the subject’s Ricchiazzi has covered extensively on the site and supported in op-eds? Native American gaming.
In 2019, a joint investigation by Buzzfeed and the Toronto Star found that the site had “published unsigned articles based on unnamed sources that allege backroom dealings at the highest levels of the Canadian government,” some of which were debunked by fact-checkers.
"My perception of [Ricchiazzi’s] work is being very ham-fisted and sloppy and only credible to people who don’t have a lot of practice parsing fake news," said Robert Galbraith, a Buffalo-based researcher for the Public Accountability Initiative.
In comments to The Standard, Ricchiazzi denied that the site contained false information and said he doesn’t like “drive-by media hit pieces.” But he also has not hidden the fact that he isn’t a journalist.
“I’m a political consultant,” he wrote in a post on the Buffalo Chronicle. “The intersection of business and politics has long fascinated me, and I’ve found that owning digital publications has allowed me to shape the public discourse more effectively and to educate the public around critical issues more efficiently.”
Ricchiazzi told The Standard that he owns “a couple dozen” news sites, but declined to name them.
“Everytime my ownership becomes public, people want to make the story about me and not about the issues being discussed,” he said.
As for the Muwekma, they appear to be using Ricchiazzi's site and tactics to set the narrative about their campaign for recognition. But whether it will be successful remains to be seen.
In the meeting with House members, Nijmeh conveyed a message from her people: “We want full sovereignty, just like all the tribes in California.”
Matthew Kupfer can be reached at [email protected]