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Dispute arises at Buena Vista Rancheria over legal heir

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Amador County-based Buena Vista Rancheria thought the best way to improve its economic condition was to start a gaming operation.

That was before Rhonda Pope showed up with documentation and claimed to be the only legitimate descendant of the tiny Mountain Miwok tribe.

The fight apparently is the result of Buena Vista plans for a proposed 210,000 square-foot casino on Highway 88. Pope has argued her ancestors are buried where the tribe wants to build the casino and wants to prevent it from going forward.

Pope managed to prove she is the great-granddaughter of Louis Oliver, who won tribal recognition for himself and his family in federal court in 1928. The court decision stipulated that Oliver and his family were the only surviving member of the Miwok Indians of Buena Vista Rancheria in the Sierra-Nevada foothills.

Donnamarie Potts is chairwoman of the current Buena Vista tribe. She was named by Louis Oliver's daughter, Lucille Lucero, to head up a new tribal government shortly before Lucero's death in 1995. It was thought Lucero was the last living descendant of the tribe.

Sources close to the case say Pope applied for membership at the Buena Vista Rancheria but the tribe has not responded to her requests. This contradicts earlier reports, which had claimed that Pope had been denied membership.

Potts has long identified herself with the neighboring Maidu tribe, they say, and has no Miwok blood. She is, however, related to Lucero through marriage as her mother's brother was Lucero's husband.

Though calls to Potts were not returned, an anonymous source says Potts has never claimed to be Miwok, only that she is the legitimate heir of Buena Vista Rancheria. This contradicts a story in the Sacramento Bee that said Potts had declared herself a direct descendant of Louis Oliver.

It went on to say Potts was born out of wedlock and says county records that refute her claim are wrong because "in those days if you were born out of wedlock it was something you didn't print."

A U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled tribes have a right to determine their own membership and can even deny those with blood ties.

Since Lucero was named successor by the last recognized tribal member, she may in fact have the legal right to claim legitimate tribal control.

Neither side is talking. Pope said she was unable to respond to interview requests.

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"My lawyers got very upset when they found out that I had talked to the press and told me I couldn't do it anymore," she says.

Her lawyers at a Sacramento law firm, Albeitz Law Corp., did not shed much more light on the situation. Arnold Samuel, the Albeitz attorney representing Pope said they are waiting to see what the BIA will do.

"The ball is in the BIA's court," says Samuel, who refused to comment further.

Ray Fry, tribal operations officer for the Pacific Region of the BIA says his agency probably will not get involved in the case.

"We've remanded the matter to the tribe. The BIA regards this as an internal matter. When we've been involved in cases like this in the past, we've just been spanked by it," says Fry.

Fry adds that though the agency is reluctant to get involved, he hopes both sides eventually will work together.

The only person willing to discuss the case in full asked that her identity be kept secret. The attorney, familiar with the case, confirms that Rhonda Pope has filed an application for enrollment and there has been no response from Donnamarie Potts. She says that Pope has been "militant" and barged into the Buena Vista tribal offices demanding that she be included in the tribal process. Furthermore, the source says Potts was unaware of who Pope was.

Until recently Potts and her attorneys were not aware that Pope had any legitimate ties to Buena Vista. The source says a search of county records revealed that Pope was the daughter of Jesse Pope, Louis Oliver's grandson.

She goes on to say that neither Pope nor Potts are "bad guys" in this situation and that she is hopeful some kind of accord can be reached.

Neighboring tribal members have complicated the situation. A small splinter group of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians attempted to take over the Buena Vista Rancheria claiming some of its members are descended from Louis Oliver's cousins.

The federally recognized tribal council of the Ione Rancheria disavows this splinter group and says it has never tried to get involved in the Buena Vista affair. Their claim is supported by the BIA which say the splinter group has no authority and the actions are those of individuals who have sought to manipulate Pope.

Pope said in an earlier article in the Sacramento Bee she has talked to members of the Ione splinter group but her actions were not related to their wishes.