California’s first Native American Legislative Assemblyman, James C. Ramos, champions tribal affairs

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

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

It is not uncommon for him to start a meeting or gathering with a traditional Serrano song, even in the hemicycle.

“You’re thinking of the same legislature when it started putting bounties on our people,” Ramos said. “And now I sit as one of the state legislatures, singing a traditional song in these chambers, representing our people.”

Ramos was born and raised on the San Manuel Indian Reservation. His mother worked as a cosmetologist and his recently deceased father worked for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. “I grew up in a trailer, down in some of the flat parts,” Ramos said. “When I was growing up … the infrastructure wasn’t there.”

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

But before that, he was inspired to do business by his grandmother, who ran a takeaway in her backyard. “Then I served as tribal treasurer and finally tribal chairman for the people of Santos Manuel,” he said.

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

“Here in the San Bernardino Valley, militias were formed to basically destroy and get rid of our people,” he added.

Among Ramos’ priorities is ensuring that Californians know this violent history, which reverberates to this day. “California ranks seventh in the list of unsolved missing and murdered Indigenous women. Acknowledging and witnessing to this trauma and history is something that can drive healing with California Indians,” Ramos said.

Ramos is a co-founder of the San Manuel Band’s cultural awareness program. He also introduced a bill, now enacted, that encourages local schools to form working groups of educators and tribal representatives to share tribal history and culture.

He has helped lobbied successfully for other bills, including one that will ban by 2024 using a derogatory term aimed at Native American women for geographical features and places in California; another helping to fill the gap in adolescent psychiatry, and the Feather Alert Act, similar to an Amber or Silver Alert. “Then you can take some preemptive measures to ensure that we don’t investigate murders of missing and murdered tribal people,” he said.

Ramos describes a deep sense of pride in his cultural identity, passed down by elders he reveres, including his parents and grandparents. While he still holds the title of first and only in some respects, he doesn’t want to be alone or last.

“It’s our chance to be engaged, to become that elected official who makes decisions about the country that was once the country of our ancestors, which really is still the country of our ancestors,” he said. “There are only a handful of tribes that are successful in gaming. The majority of California Indians, the majority of Indians in the nation, still live with basic infrastructural needs.”

Copyright © 2022 KABC Television, LLC. All rights reserved. California’s first Native American Legislative Assemblyman, James C. Ramos, champions tribal affairs

Laura Coffey

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