We broke the law this weekend. The last of the elders living at the Winnemem Village, Dan Franco, died June 4 and we honored and buried him in the graveyard promised to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe -- the only promise kept when their homes were drowned with the raising of Shasta Lake Dam in the late 1930's.
However, without notifying the tribe, the US transferred the cemetery to the BLM in the 1980's. Not only does the BLM not hold lands in trust, but it is also illegal to bury people on BLM land.
The Winnemem did not discover this until another 2007 later when they went as they always have done to fill out the papers to bury their beloved last Winnemem elder, Margie Charles and were told by the clerk, "ooops, it's BLM land." A cemetery was made BLM land without any consideration for the party with whom the agreement was made. Does that make sense? Since then, we have done what needed to be done, the wake, the burial illegally. We have been made lawbreakers by the US Government whom the Winnemem leaders trusted back in the 1800's and again in 1938 with the Central Valley Project when they were promised like land, a cemetery, and again by the Freedom of Religion Act -- both of them -- that the Winnemem Wintu Tribe would be able to practice their religion freely, above ground, that their unique cultural and spiritual ways should not be exterminated but should be able to exist.
But the "lawmakers" become lawbreakers making laws "willy nilly" without any consideration for the Winnemem and other California tribes. In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court made a shameful decision which allowed the federal government to "de-recognize" 90 percent of the California historical tribes. The government created two lists -- Unrecognized and Federally Recognized. The vast majority of California's historical tribes were stripped of all their rights in an instant. Of the ten percent Recognized Tribes, only four percent are historical tribes. The other six percent are tribes created by the Federal Government. They are now the tribes with casinos and benefits and without that pesky special tie to the sacred lands of California. Handy for dam builders, energy companies, water bottling companies.
The Winnemem were told when they followed up on this making the case that they have many documents which proves they had a relationship as a tribe with the Federal Government that they had been dropped erroneously, however, it would take an Act of Congress to put them back on the list. After tenacious work, the California legislature passed a Joint Resolution in August 2009 which encourages the Federal Representatives of California to introduce a "restoration bill" restoring the Winnemem tribe. But it is not as easy as it seems. Congressman Herger of Shasta Lake who has made his hatred for the Winnemem known has already stated he would fight any attempt. Senator Feinstein, the same one who sneaked in an attachment regarding water into the work bill which would have eradicated salmon from northern CA doesn't care about the Winnemem. And Senator Boxer has never met with them and has let them know through her aides that she is not comfortable moving in front of Herger. Deadlock.
In recent years, I am disturbed how the Bush government has viewed the few freedoms and rights given indigenous people of this country. They have arrogantly taken it as the federal government's right to determine who the tribes are. It doesn't matter that the tribe is historical, still practices their way of life. In fact, it seems these are the very tribes who they wanted to stamp out. The only tribes which they seem interested in recognizing are the BIA tribes who have traded in their traditional way of governing so they can access federal grants. The Winnemem Tribe has never chosen to have a tribal council for of government. They do not care about grants and casinos. Florence Jones, the spiritual leader and Chief before Caleen Sisk Franco always said that casinos will rot a tribe from the inside out. All the Winnemem wish to do is follow their traditional way of life and keep their traditional responsibilities given them by the Great Olelbis to take care of the Sacred Lands, the Salmon, the Water.
It is such a deep disappointment that President Obama has chosen to maintain the Bush policy toward indigenous tribes. He has surrounded himself with BIA Advisors guarding their pot of money. Any petition sent by the Winnemem Tribe which has to do with sacred land, water, accepting an invitation to attend Obama's gathering indigenous leaders is detoured to a low level bureaucrat who whips off a form letter, "you must be a federally recognized tribe."
In the past, all tribes were considered in human rights laws such as freedom of religion. But Obama, like Bush, has grasped on to a racist Supreme Court's mischief which erodes what good lawmakers passed when they saw the Supreme Court could not do their job with the second Freedom of Religion Act. It is supreme irony that the spiritual leader who was the first to access the freedom of religion of the first Freedom of Religion Act, Florence Jones of the Winnemem Wintu, and brought her ceremonies above ground would today be sent an insulting, arrogant letter by a bureaucrat -- "are you recognized" -- and ignored under the Obama administration. When the Winnemem tribe access the rights of indigenous people of this country, they are told "you don't have these rights. You're not recognized."
This is the most severe of human rights violations. No where else in the world are these ceremonies practiced, these languages spoken. No where else in the world are this particular Chinook Salmon prayed for. No where else in the world are these sacred lands. These rights which are denied them include advocating for their sacred lands, village sites, burial grounds. These rights denied them include practicing their religion, and ceremonies as they have from the beginning of time, ceremonies which exist no where else in the world, ceremonies which will become extinct without generations carrying them on. These rights include healthcare and college for their young people. The only and last generation of Winnemem who went to college was that first generation who entered in the 1960's but by the time their children reach college age, the federal government through Reagan's Supreme Court had rendered them non-Indians. These rights which are promised indigenous people of the United States so they do not become extinct are forbidden the Winnemem Wintu who are known all over the world as people who tenaciously hang on to their ancient way of life, their ceremonies for the water, sacred land and fish in a time when these places, the water and the salmon need prayers more than ever before. The Winnemem Wintu are important to people all over the globe; yet that means nothing to the law breaking lawmakers, the Reagan/Bush Supreme Court, and the President who made promises he could not keep because he surrounded himself from the beginning with Clinton's crew and his focus is "on more important things" -- Wall Street. There will be no justice this Presidential term for victims of environmental disasters, for middle income to homeless people who seek a just health care reform, immigrants, and there is no justice for the indigenous tribes of this land especially those of California -- the tribes who are the focus of greedy corporations and the Water Wars predicted by Mo Udall back in the early '70's. Obama, sadly, aspired to one thing -- the Office -- and now that he sits there, those who put him there will have to wait a long time for justice as he panders to those who did not elect him and do not want change, and who in fact, ran amok and profitted during the Bush years. What else can a tribal member think when the leaders of their tribe known to the world for who they are petitions their President and he never ever responds because he is upholding a bad policy.
We broke the law this weekend to bury Dan Franco the way he wanted to be buried, beside his wife in the Winnemem burial ground, proud Apache elder, Winnemem tribal member and last elder, an honored veteran who has served his country and the Winnemem tribe with distinction. We sent him off with a 21 gun salute. A grandson was there in uniform, a young soldier who served in Iraq twice.
Dan Franco, proud Apache man and patriot who spent his whole life serving the United States of America, as a Navy Man in WWII, seeing 8 campaigns, and an officer in the Police Department as well as the Sherrif Posse later and after retirement continued to work serve ended his life with the Winnemem Wintu. He has the distinction of being the only Indian John Wayne "Duke" shot and lived to tell about it. That is a joke the family shares. Wayne, his good friend, had accidentally shot his friend, a bullet ricocheting and hitting Franco in the forehead. Bloody as it was, he refused to go to the hospital and said a little bandage would take care of it.
As a Winnemem, he played the important role as grandfather to the tribe's many young men and women, elder and counselor to his son Headman Mark Franco and his daughter-in-law Caleen Sisk Franco, Chief of the Winnemem tribe. Dan Franco, proud United States Navy Man, Police Officer and Deputy believed that Chief Caleen Sisk Franco was doing the right thing by her people, one hundred percent. He was proud of her. He was proud of his son for dedicating his life to the Winnemem.
There is something wrong happening today when a man like Dan Franco is found to be on the other side of the law on the day he is buried, five days after his death. There is something very wrong.
It was a good day, with family and friends of Dan's family. The grave was dug by the young men of the tribe. One of them had flown in from Kansas to do this for his grandfather. The young men also put him in the grave after we all said our words for this good and honorable man. We had lost our last elder so it was a sobering day for us. The feast was cooked by his Winnemem "son," a Sac State counselor, and father of the Iraq War veteran. Everything of that day was done by people who loved Dan Franco, who owed him honor and the deepest respect. Surrounded as he was with family, on a blue - sky day, the American flag draped over his casket, with a color guard and 21 gun salute, this hero was sent off on his last journey. And in the Winnemem way, far from unjust laws and human rights violations, we surrounded him and sent him off with reverence, respect and love deeper and more personal than I witness in other places.
May our dear elder, our grandfather, rest in peace.
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