FREMONT — Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun tribe of Mission San Juan Bautista has waited 15 years for his tribe of 600 members to receive federal designation.

Although it could take 10 more years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make its decision on whether the Amah Mutsun should receive federal assistance, the 53-year-old Sacramento resident is not giving up hope.

The tribal chairman, Lopez says the designation not only would help preserve Amah Mutsun culture but also would help members of his tribe improve their lives.

"It would mean a lot," Lopez said. "Many of our people live at or below the poverty line. The designation would give us better access to education, child care assistance and medical assistance for prescription drugs."

Amah Mutsun is one of 25 American Indian tribes that make up the Ohlone Peoples, who lived for thousands of years in villages along creeks from Big Sur up to Diablo Mountain.

On Sunday, Lopez and about 60 members of various tribes held presentations and shared their culture at the 12th annual Gathering of Ohlone Peoples at Coyote Hills Regional Park.

From making soap root brushes to tribal dances, Sunday's event showcased the range of cultures within the Ohlone Peoples. The event also highlighted the efforts by modern American Indians to preserve their history, culture and customs.

About 5,000 people trace their heritage back to the Ohlones. Today, some work to preserve historic sites, while others attempt to revive their native languages.

"It's important for people to know the Ohlones are still here," said Beverly Ortiz, the event organizer. "And the fact that they are here to share their culture needs to be recognized, especially because what they've lived through."

Ortiz was referring to the suffering endured by Ohlone tribes after the arrival of the Spanish and other European settlers in 1700s and 1800s, which led to widespread disease, discrimination and dislocation.

Despite the turbulent history of the Ohlone tribes, a visitor only needed to sample the manzanita cider, Yerba Buena tea, fry bread and Indian tacos or watch abalone pendant making, basketry, fire making, flint knapping and bead making to see the richness oftheir culture.

Next to a bowl of acorn soup, 71-year-old Newark native Ruth Orta said she has spent much of her life rediscovering her Ohlone heritage, which she now shares with her seven children, 17 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

"I learned about what our ancestors did because I want to share it with my kids," she said.

"I'm here today because I want the public to know we still have our culture. When I went to school, we never learned about Native American culture. Now these kids have the chance."

Andrew A. Galvan, curator of Old Mission Dolores, San Francisco, and a descendant of the Ohlone, Patwin, Bay Miwok and Plains Miwok, says he believes the present challenge for American Indians is telling accurate stories about their ancestors, not just romantic ones.

"We lived, we loved, and we disliked and killed each other as much as any other group of human beings," Galvan said. "The difference was that 250 years ago, our peoples lived in the Stone Age. Today, in Fremont, we live in the computer, plastic and throw-away age, but the parts that make us human today are the same as they were back then."

Jonathan Jones covers religious, ethnic and cultural issues for The Argus. He can be reached at (510) 353-7005, or jjones@angnewspapers.com.