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PlaceMaker: National Park Service Ranger Desiree Munoz Talks About Her Ohlone Heritage

Wednesday, Nov 15, 2017 Category Nature and Science; Park Management; History

Desiree Munoz’s roots in the Presidio run deep. She’s a member of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe, an Ohlone tribe. The Ohlone are the indigenous people of the Bay Area, including the Presidio. She’s also an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service (NPS), where she shares the story of the Ohlone people at the Presidio Visitor Center. In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, we talked with Desiree about her tribe and her work in the Presidio.

Can you explain your ties to the Presidio?
The Presidio is part of my tribe’s ancestral homeland – our territory extends from Vallejo all the way down to Big Sur and throughout the Salinas Valley. But we’re a displaced tribe – meaning we no longer live together here, so I didn't grow up in the Presidio. I grew up in Southern California and went to Cal Poly Pomona University, where I studied Gender Ethnicity Multicultural Studies. I moved to San Francisco and began living in the Presidio four years ago.

Although my tribe is a displaced tribe, we’ve been working with the Presidio since it became a national park site in 1994. Throughout my life we visited the Presidio a couple times a year. During the years when Crissy Field ​​ was being revitalized, my tribe held an annual ceremony during the restoration process. The year Crissy Field was set to open, our tribal chief – my grandfather, Tony Cerda – made it known our tribe wanted to dance as the water was coming in at high tide, so we danced! I was about seven years-old. There’s a photo of us dancing that day on a visitor display along the trail at Crissy Field.

Today, I act as a liaison between my tribe, the Presidio, and the agencies that manage it – the Presidio Trust, the National Park Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. I do a lot of work to coordinate our tribal events – like the fasting ceremony, our Big Time Gathering at Rob Hill Campground, and the presentations and blessings we do in the park.

How did you become a national park ranger?
Dancing at Crissy Field was the first really powerful connection I had with the Presidio. I remember meeting Michele Gee, who’s now the Chief of Interpretation and Education for the National Park Service. She was an intern at the time, and from that day forward she reached out to me, even when I was home in Southern California, and asked me to be more involved.

I was about a year and a half into my program at college when Michele offered me an internship at Crissy Field Center. It was a tough decision to make. The Presidio is far away from my family and I didn't know anybody in San Francisco. In the end I packed up and came here for the internship. This led to three other internships and two seasonal positions. This allowed me to become what I am today – a park ranger for the National Park Service! Now, I'm happy to live and work here on the ancestral homeland of my tribe where I can share the narrative of my people.

How does it feel to be working in your ancestor’s home?
This is a really big deal for me and my tribe. I'm the first in my 2,000 member tribe to return to live in part of our ancestral homeland. I also live in the Presidio where my ancestors lived seasonally, so it’s amazing to think that I live where my ancestors once lived. I love to feel the spiritual vibes that are all around the park. My ancestors are here all around us – I can feel them. Being here also allows me to interact with other Ohlone tribes and with the visiting public. We’re still active through our gatherings, songs, dances, and practices. It’s often a surprise for visitors to hear this because people have been taught we no longer exist.

How do you use the Presidio today?
My tribe uses the Presidio as a seasonal meeting place, for our celebrations, and as a place to gather. We hold ceremonies twice a year at Rob Hill Campground​ – in the last week of July, we have our fasting ceremony, which is only open to members of the public who are in need of healing from our Bear Dance. In October, we have our Big Time Celebration, and the public is invited to come see our cultural dances, presentations, and enjoy our traditional food.

My tribal members and I still consider ourselves the stewards of this land. We put our hands in this soil all the time. We gather tule from Mountain Lake, and willow at Dragon Fly Creek and Tennessee Hollow. The willow is for our boys to build their dens while they’re fasting. At the end of their fasting, they add the willows to the Monterey Cyprus, Redwood, and Eucalyptus trees to build the structure for our arbor that we dance in at our gatherings. We re-erect the arbor twice a year.

I also use the park recreationally – when my mom or cousins come to visit, we go for walks on the trails and celebrate birthdays and have picnics. One of my favorite places is El Polín Spring.

What do you want people to know about your tribe?
I want people to know the Ohlone people are still a living, breathing, active entity that practices our songs, dances, and ceremonies. It’s true we don’t live in a tribal community all year around like we once did, and we don’t wear our traditional Ohlone clothing every day – and, yes, we drive cars to work and do our hair and makeup. But whether we’re getting to work by a tule boat or a car, it’s important for people to know we’re still true Ohlone people, and the Presidio is our ancestral homeland.​​