Organization by Miwok of Buena Vista Rancheria

Sacramento Press Dec. 7, 2012 2:25p   Protest of Casino Development at Buena Vista Rancheria

Introduction: changing Indian policy

In the place now known as California, there lived more than 100 indigenous languages, with 50 alive today and others sleeping. Now there are 105 federally acknowledged American Indian tribes. Indigenous people of this region still play traditional stick games with songs in our native languages. There are approximately 62 tribal gaming operations in California alone. Yolo, Placer, El Dorado and Amador Counties each have one tribal gaming operation per county, with none in Sacramento County. However, not all federally acknowledged American Indian tribes own gaming operations, not all groups of American Indians are federally acknowledged, and not all American Indian people are enrolled members of their federally acknowledged nation. There is a list of tribes eligible to receive services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal acknowledgement may be derived in three ways: through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment or the BIA; successful passage of an act of the U.S. Congress; and by a ruling of U.S. federal court. There are approximately 352 tribes in 44 states petitioning for acknowledgment with the OFA, and approximately 79 of those petitions are from within California. The minimum time for review by the OFA is about two years, and the clock is still running on the longest wait times. Some American Indian tribes within California have been acknowledged though Congress, though some of our members of Congress do not support this avenue as a matter of policy. Friends of Amador County, Bea Crabtree and June Geary are currently in federal court seeking consideration from the U.S., and the right of Bea Crabtree and June Geary to reorganize their tribe, Buena Vista Rancheria. Bea Crabtree and June Geary are the eldest known lineal descendants of the Buena Vista Rancheria.

In 1927, the U.S. bought 67.5 acres of land in Amador County to be the Buena Vista Rancheria, where Kay'sc (a.k.a. Casus Oliver) and Lizzie stayed and lived with their children, defending the land and cemetery. In 1915, a band called Richey included, among others, Casus Oliver and his wife; their eldest son John Oliver, his wife and three children; and probably John Oliver's two younger siblings, incorrectly listed as Lucy and Joseph Oliver. Their correct names are Louie and Josephine. In a 1917 correspondence between John Oliver, Louie Oliver and a Special Agent, the Special Agent describes "Buna Vista" as the "ancient village home among (John Oliver's) people.” The cemetery located within the Buena Vista Rancheria may have been one very important reason that the Rancheria was purchased for Miwok people, since so much of Amador County was not returned at that time.

The Buena Vista Rancheria was confirmed by the federal government with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, based on John Oliver, Louie and Annie Oliver, and Josie Ray. In 1959, the Buena Vista Rancheria was terminated by the Rancheria Act of 1958, along with many other American Indian tribes. After that the Buena Vista Rancheria was owned by joint tenants Louie and Annie Oliver. In summertime, our family would gather at Buena Vista Rancheria. My aunts and uncles would get out of school for the summer and my great-aunt, grandma and grandpa would take the whole family and stay with Uncle Louie and Aunt Annie. The tradition continued until 1973, when Uncle Louie died, one year after Aunt Annie.

The Olivers and hereditary Miwok leadership
John Oliver is my Great Great Grandfather, and he lived at Buena Vista Rancheria.  His eldest child was Ethel, and her life was strongly impacted by American Indian policies. Her parents, John Oliver and Lena West Oliver, were both Miwok of Amador County. Ethel lived in Amador County with her three younger brothers until she was sent away to school, then she began supporting herself as a waitress or a cook. Ethel was about 18 years old when Buena Vista Rancheria was bought for the Miwok who had been living there since time immemorial.

While Ethel was working in Sacramento, she met and eventually got married to John Ortega. John Ortega got a job laying railroad tracks, and when the couple got to Colusa, Ethel discovered that she was pregnant. My great-aunt Beatrice was born Sept. 11, 1930, in Colusa, and that is where the family settled, although they would regularly return to Amador County for summers, memorial days and burials.

John Ortega and Ethel Oliver Ortega had four children altogether. One of their daughters, Christine, died as a child and was interred at Buena Vista next to John Oliver. Their son, Leonard, has been missing for some time, and their youngest daughter is my Grandma June. The whole family worked to rent and survive in Colusa, but home was definitely a place in Amador County called Buena Vista Rancheria.  Neither John Oliver, nor his daughter, Ethel Oliver Ortega Bill, consented to the termination of the Buena Vista Rancheria in 1959, and they were already interred at the cemetery there. There are Miwok people buried there with gravestones, like Ethel, and there are also many unmarked graves of our ancestors. The most distinctive lesson that is taught to us about Buena Vista is that it is a place for Miwok people to be buried.

Heredity works by blood, and it combines with the time that one spends with our tribe. It is often the eldest child who has the most time to get to know their parents and grandparents. For this reason, the eldest may be the one referred to for decisions, because that person receives the most input, and is relied on. When our parents are raised by their parents, and them by theirs, etc, we inherit a continuous, contemporary version of our ancient cultures. Transmission of philosophy happens by discussing experience, morals and history, to elaborate on a child's interests and questions. As children we learn about the physical world around us, and how we behave through observation and instruction. California has undergone irrevocable changes; one of these has been government. The Miwok of Buena Vista Rancheria have been here the whole time.

Indian gaming without the Miwok of Buena Vista Rancheria
Uncle Louie and Aunt Annie accepted termination, and the land that was formerly recognized as Buena Vista Rancheria was deeded to them. Uncle Louie remained amicable to the wishes of his family, but he made it clear that the parcel of land was not intended for investigation by outsiders. The land remained property of the descendants of Louie and Annie until their last surviving daughter, Lucille, died.  Then in 1997 all of the land that had been the Buena Vista Rancheria was deeded to an organization called “Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians.” When, Lucille Lucero died, she was laid to rest just east of her cousin Ethel in the family cemetery. In 1999, the state of California allowed Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians to obtain a gaming compact.

The gaming compact was signed by then California Governor Gray Davis. Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians had only three citizens in 1999, and none of these were identified as a Miwok individual according to the BIA. Since 1994 the BIA listed the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, due to correspondence. The woman responsible for Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians was Donna Marie Potts, and she took care of Lucille until she died in 1995. Mrs. Potts' two children were the only other members of the organization.

In 2004 the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians compact with California was amended as a result of a settlement between the former landowner and the great-granddaughter of Louie and Annie Oliver. The amended compact was signed by the great-granddaughter, in the position of chairperson, and by then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Sacramento Bee reported, March 8, 2002, evidence that the new chairperson was of Oliver descent included child support records. The girl was just about 2 years old when Annie died, 3 years old when Louie died, 5 years old when her father Jesse Pope died. The settlement supposedly satisfied two U.S. criteria for the federal recognition. First, that the tribe must have an enrolled membership with individual descendants of that tribe, and second, the Tillie Hardwick v. U.S. (1983) case, creating a class of people of those who became landowners as a result of the Rancheria Act (1958), granting that class of people the right to reorganize and their descendants. Her inclusion with the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians caused an opinion, dated June 30, 2005, from the acting General Council for the National Indian Gaming Commission, stating, “The tribal members who were on the land prior to the United States purchase are from the same family as those who continue to control the Rancheria today.”

The latest chairperson was Rhonda Pope, and in 2001 she stated that she was the only lineal descendant of the Buena Vista Rancheria, for a Dec. 16 Sacramento Bee news article. In 2009 she spoke for the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians in a press release, calling the Friends of Amador County (and Bea and June) “obstructionists” for their current lawsuit against the U.S. Her remarks were hurtful misrepresentations of Miwok people who lived at Buena Vista Rancheria. In 2001, when my grandma June was still able to dial numbers on a telephone, she got in contact with Rhonda. In 2001, Rhonda's public position was in opposition to casino-style gaming at Buena Vista Rancheria, and my grandma began giving her pictures of the old round houses at Buena Vista, family gatherings and one picture that Rhonda said was the only picture that she ever had of her father, Jesse Pope, whom we called “Buddy.” During that time, Rhonda told June repeatedly that she considered her a member of the tribe and not to worry about getting a lawyer. Today, June is still considered an unenrolled member of the Buena Vista Rancheria, and this limits her ability to defend the land of our ancestors from casino-style gaming that Rhonda now supports. Rhonda did not uphold her oral contracts with my grandmother, and the U.S. has allowed the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians to continue pursuing gaming since 1999, though Miwok people oppose that pursuit.

Buena Vista Rancheria and Me
Amador County in California was richer before the Gold Rush, and people today can enjoy the county's beautiful scenery and small-town atmosphere. I asked a woman leaving a bar what she thought about a casino planned for Buena Vista near Ione. She smiled and said that she can't find a job. At the Ione City Hall and police station, I explained my protest of casino development at Buena Vista Rancheria, and an officer called it “interesting.” A librarian said she has never even been inside of the Jackson Rancheria casino near Jackson. At the Ione Hotel, a man said he would like more business brought to the area, and, of course, it should be done properly.

The first time my dad, grandma and uncle took me to Buena Vista Rancheria was before 2004. It was Memorial Day, and we met the Villa family, who were caretakers of the cemetery. We planted flowers, and went to Glen Villa's home for a barbeque. I asked my grandma June why the family hasn't stayed there since Uncle Louie died. She said people didn't seem to want to go there anymore.

This year, I ran with the Peace and Dignity Journey from Buena Vista Rancheria to Tuolumne, caught a ride back to Buena Vista Rancheria and ran to Lodi also. The Peace and Dignity Journey happens every four years, and has grassroots organization. It takes many routes to connect with many communities on the same latitudes, uniting these continents traveling from north and south to meet in Guatemala, like the eagle and condor of prophecy. Along the way, people like me carry staffs, representing our ancestors and our message. This year, it is about honoring the water.

During the time that the Peace and Dignity Journey was at Buena Vista Rancheria, some of us hiked up the Buena Vista Peaks on the south side of the Rancheria to a spring. The spring water is being harvested to supply the lower Rancheria, but the view from there is gorgeous. All that I could see was another mountain ridge to the east, dappled and marked with dark-green blue oak trees on golden tan grasses. Others went further up the mountain, where they saw mortars and pestles. Ancestors who found sanctuary in the Buena Vista Peaks could survive with water from the spring. The only disturbance now is noise that comes from the Buena Vista Biomass Power Plant across the street, which replaced a coal power plant.

Conclusion: the elders have a significant use for the Rancheria
According to the county assessor's office, the Buena Vista Rancheria is now owned by the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, an organization now operating out of a downtown Sacramento office, that became federally acknowledged as an American Indian tribe in 1994 with a gaming compact since 1999, due to Bureau of Indian Affairs correspondence that was not sufficiently investigated. The Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, partners with respected organizations, spends money on local events, and supports numerous causes; yet, Great-Aunt Bea and Grandma June, the eldest known lineal descendants of Buena Vista Rancheria, are not enrolled citizens of their American Indian nation because federal acknowledgement of their heritage went to Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians.

Sadly, Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians would like to divide our sacred site to construct a gaming facility for housing 950 slots. I protest the construction of such a facility because the location is reserved as the final resting place of our ancestors and relatives. Also, Great-aunt Bea and Grandma June have plans to be buried there with all of the ancestors and their sister Christine. In the words of my great-aunt Bea about the proposed desecration of our most important sacred site, if we don't stop them now, they'll do whatever they want.

Friends of Amador County, Bea Crabtree and June Geary versus the United States of America et. al., is the case asking for the right of the elders to reorganize.  This case was dismissed from the U.S. Eastern District Court of California in 2011 and it is currently in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. 

Disclosure: I am Nomlaki, Wailaki, Miwok, Maidu, Yuki, and Navajo, enrolled with the Paskenta band of Nomlaki Indians of Tehama County, California.

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