Organization by Miwok of Buena Vista Rancheria

Indigenous Faith

Grandma June

Posted by Ya-Nah on May 30, 2016 at 9:30 PM

This is an excerpt from an essay that I recently completed about some of my experiences.

She Would Laugh


Once my daughter was out of bed, I got up and made a delicious smoothie with two peaches and several large strawberries that I found in my mom’s refrigerator. I added some lemonade that I bought at the Co-op last week and blended it all together. Then I took off on my bike for the gym while my mom started baking some brownies for my birthday. After swimming two-thirds of a mile, I lost the ability to be unhappy at all, and when I returned home, my mom’s house smelled like chocolate. The brownies weren’t done yet, so my daughter and I left on our bikes. We went to Target for a bite to eat, and then over to the cemetery for the holiday.



My grandma died almost a year and a half before, but she wasn’t buried in the Davis cemetery. She wasn’t buried in any cemetery because the Miwok cemetery that she thought she would be buried in has been closed to interment since the property has been slated for casino construction. Our uncle works at the Davis cemetery. He has worked there since before I was born, and when my grandma moved into a nursing home, it was just a block away from there. For this Memorial Day, we visited the grave of Dr. Jack Forbes, because he did battle against all ignorance to make this a better place for all of us. He passed away a few years before in Davis, and I hadn’t visited his grave site yet.


Grandma June fought the United States in the courts before she died. She meant to stop the desecration of her Miwok cemetery. Nothing should be built at anyone’s burial grounds. All Indian casinos should be built somewhere else or not at all.


Greed has motivated oppression of California culture over and over again—and it isn’t over. In 2010, I started to research the Buena Vista Rancheria, and what I discovered was so astonishing that I started filming a documentary in 2011. I filmed Grandma several times before her health failed, and I wonder what would have happened if I had started filming sooner.


The reason that I started my research was because Friends of Amador County filed a lawsuit in 2010; they wanted the casino profiteers to be taken off of the list of federally recognized tribes. The courts wouldn’t hear the suit until they got Great Auntie Bea and Grandma June to join. Auntie Bea and Grandma just wanted to be able to reorganize the tribe properly without any casino development investors.


In the beginning, Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, and the States have immunity, so in 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was terminated from the case. By January 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote an unpublished decision to uphold the 5th district court’s ruling and dismiss the case in the name of tribal sovereign immunity. Less than a month after that, Grandma passed away. Grandma June lived in Colusa. She said that she guessed she would die there, too, and laughed pleasantly because she had spent her whole life in that little town. She also expected to be buried in the cemetery at Buena Vista, where her mother and one of her sisters are still buried. The cemetery is for all Miwok people, but the United States stole it, and then they had to buy it back from settlers and return it to our people who lived there. I think it was because the cemetery is there, and even the United States can’t deny that. It was returned in 1927, and on paper, the land became “Buena Vista Rancheria,” supposedly named by the Chilenos who have lived in that area and socialized with the Miwok people. Grandma also wanted me to learn to dance Miwok style for her funeral and to learn the Catholic faith. She wanted her funeral to be a Miwok and Catholic fusion.


She passed away on February 12th, 2014 in Davis. We all thought that she would still have a few weeks or months, so I hurried to call a Catholic priest for her last rites. He arrived within an hour. I was relieved that he called back before she was taken away because it was so sudden, and I know that ceremonies are meant for such times. The cemetery at Buena Vista is also meant for such times, but Grandma was not able to be buried at Buena Vista, although she would have very much liked to have been. She was the first member of the Oliver family of Buena Vista not to be buried in the Miwok cemetery there.


Grandma’s name was June because she was born on June 1st, 1935. She could remember her mom taking her to the hairdresser through the back door after hours so that no one would see them because they were Indian. She worked in the fields from an early age, along with all of her siblings. Grandma June was the youngest, and she was born into a time in California history when the Miwok language was still spoken. Her mother spoke Miwok, Maidu, Spanish, some Portuguese, and English. My daughter would count to ten for her in Nomlaki, and she loved to hear that our languages are coming back alive.


When she was just 15, she married a Nomlaki man. He proposed to her and she thought that he was kidding, because he had a famous sense of humor and always made people around him happy. He was just a few years older than her, but I never met him. Sometimes I would joke and say that she married him even before she knew that he was a casino Indian, and she would laugh. They had six children together. My dad is the oldest, and the youngest was just a toddler when my grandpa died in a car accident on All Saints’ Day many years ago. When Grandma June talked about his death, she would look down and then sigh and shake her head. She would do that whenever she talked about anyone’s death.


Grandma and I would talk for hours and hours. I told her about all of my disappointments, and she told me about what the world was like when she was young. After I turned 25, I started spending more time with Grandma, and got to know her much better. I told her about being left by my husband, and how it made me feel as if he had a child with me just so he could take her away. I told her how it hurt so much, that I thought nobody should like me anymore. She gave me a powerful hug and told me: “Not everyone is going to like you, and not everyone is going to dislike you.”


I liked to hear the stories about how I was almost never born. She had two stories about that. The first came from the times when my Great Grandma Ethel Irene would help her take care of my dad and his younger brother. They were always happy to go with her, except once. One day, when the two boys were supposed to go with their Grandma Ethel for a drive, my uncle started crying and refused to go. The two boys stayed home, and on that same day in 1956, Great Grandma died in a car accident. At the end of that story, Grandma would look down and shake her head.


The other story is of the time when my grandpa took my dad and uncle hunting, and the same uncle who wouldn’t go with Great Grandma, accidentally shot my dad. I can’t help but laugh when I hear that story; it’s like something out of a ridiculous comedy. No one died, but Grandma never cracked a smile when she told that story. She had to clean them up after they got home from the hospital, and that was before wash and wear. My dad and my uncle don’t think it’s funny either.


Memories are like time travel. I have seen an elder affectionately remember Grandma as a little girl. She was 77 years old when the elder greeted her by saying, “I remember that little girl.” They remember her from family gatherings in Auburn and at Buena Vista Rancheria. Grandma June and her sister, Auntie Bea, are two of four children; one sister died as a child, and nobody knows where their brother Leonard is.


Before Grandma had to quit driving, she made it to a D-Q University Pow-Wow. I was sitting at a table and talking with one of my cousins when Grandma came through the door. I recognized her silhouette immediately and cried out, “Is that Grandma?” Even though I had mentioned the event during a recent visit, I was completely surprised that she made it.


There was a famous California Indian photographer at the Pow-Wow that day. He was taking pictures of the event, and he agreed to take a portrait of Grandma. He later sent the photos to me in the mail, and they were perfect. From then on, she was always delighted to talk about how she had her portrait taken by a famous California Indian photographer. Then she would ask me,


“What was his name?”


“Dugan Aguilar, Grandma.”


Grandma was a professional nurse, and after she retired, she became a masseuse. Even in the nursing home in Davis, she would pop my back from her wheelchair. If it weren’t for women like Grandma, many of us wouldn’t be doing as well as we are. I’m not as kind and generous as she was, but she inspires me.


We spent her last Thanksgiving together. It was also the first day of Hanukkah. We only had a small gathering: just my parents, my daughter, and Grandma. That morning, my mom and I cleaned the house. My daughter was drawing butterfly princesses and watching TV. The bird had songs to sing, and my big smelly dog was overjoyed. For Christmas, we did the same thing, and my aunt and uncle joined us, too. Thinking of Grandma June still makes me happy.



I remember my mom’s mom, Grandmama, too. She died on Halloween in 1994 at my mom’s house. We don’t know exactly when she was born, because she was born on Navajoland, and the event was not recorded according to the Anglo calendar. My cousins and I had just gotten back from trick-or-treating, and as soon as the phone rang, I knew that it was my mom, and that Grandmama had passed away.


Grandmama lived in a hogan until she was 12, when her father took her to live with him and her three half-siblings off the reservation at the Gallegos trading post. That was way before the Indian Child Welfare Act. Her dad was a white trader and her mom had died when she was just a baby. When she was an adult, she got a job working at a university, where she met my grandfather. He was an engineering student. They got married, had a daughter, and raised her in a mining camp in Nicaragua, where my grandfather got a job. My grandmother would bake bread every morning in a wood stove, and she homeschooled my mom until my mom was 11. Eventually, my grandfather had problems with his families in Nicaragua, and divorced my Grandmama. That’s when she moved to Northern California, where my mom was. She was happier in Northern California, where she made friends and could walk to the farmers’ market. Her home was always beautiful, and she created exquisite textiles. She named me after her own mother—and coincidentally the tribe of the area in California where she was living when I was born.



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