California's 1st Native American state lawmaker works to protect tribal causes

Anabel Munoz Image
Saturday, November 19, 2022
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Assemblyman James C. Ramos was elected four years ago as the first and only Native American from a California tribe in the state Legislature.

Four years ago, voters elected the first and only Native American from a California tribe to the state Legislature, Assemblyman James C. Ramos (D-Highland).

Ramos is a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation and member of the Serrano/Cahuilla Tribe.

It's not unusual for him to begin a meeting or gathering with a traditional Serrano song, including in the Assembly chamber.

"You think about the same Legislature, when it first started, put out bounties on our people," said Ramos. "And now I'm sitting as one of the state legislators, singing a traditional song inside those chambers and representing our people."

Ramos was born and raised on the San Manuel Indian Reservation. His mother worked as a beautician and his father - who recently passed away - worked for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. "I grew up in a mobile home trailer down on some of the flat parts," said Ramos. "When I grew up...the infrastructure wasn't there."

Prior to running for the California State Assembly, he served on the Tribal Council, successfully ran for the San Bernardino Community College Board of Trustees, and then served on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

But before all that, he was inspired to pursue business by his grandmother, who ran a snack shack in their backyard. "Then I served as tribal treasurer and then ultimately, tribal chairman for the people of Santos Manuel," he said.

It's because of leaders like Santos Manuel, his great-great-grandfather, that what we see today exists, Ramos said. "Who led the remaining clan of the Serrano people out of these mountains in 1866 when there was a 32-day battle that took place to rid the mountains of all Indian people, where shooting and killing took place," he said.

"Militias were formed right here in the San Bernardino valley to basically annihilate and get rid of our people," he added.

Among Ramos's priorities is ensuring Californians know this violent history that echoes today. "California ranks number seven in unsolved missing and murdered indigenous women. Acknowledging and attesting to that trauma and that history is something that can start to move forward in a healing with California Indian people," said Ramos.

Ramos is co-founder of the San Manuel Band's Cultural Awareness Program. He also introduced a bill - now signed into law - that encourages local schools to create task forces of educators and tribal representatives to share tribal history and culture.

He's helped successfully champion others bills, including one that by 2024 will prohibit a derogatory term toward Native American women from being used for geographic features and places in California; another that helps close the gap in youth psychiatric services, and the Feather Alert bill, similar to an Amber or Silver Alert. "Then you'll be able to bring some preventative measures to ensure that we're not investigating homicides for missing and murdered indigenous persons," he said.

Ramos describes a deep sense of pride in his cultural identity, passed down from elders he reveres, including his parents and grandparents. While he still holds the title of "first" and "only" in some regards, he does not want to be alone or last.

"It's our chance to get engaged, to become that elected official making decisions over the lands that were once our ancestors', that are truly still our ancestors'," he said. "There's only a handful of tribes doing successful in gaming. The majority of the California Indian people, the majority of Indian people in the nation, still live with basic infrastructural needs."