IONE, Calif. - Just a few miles from this Sierra Foothill town sits Buena
Vista Peak. Sitting on a perch at this tranquil spot on a clear day,
looking to the west across the expanse of the Sacramento Valley, sits the
distinctive outlines of 3,800-foot Mt. Diablo. A little north and further
to the west is the slightly less visible Mt. Tampalpais.
According to Miwok lore, the three peaks at one time formed a ring of
sacred sites in which Miwoks would travel in boats made of tule reeds
across the Sacramento Valley, which was then an inland sea. Indeed, to this
day there are two major groups of Miwoks in both the Bay Area and the
Sierra foothills, whose land bases are divided by this former sea.
Though the inland sea has long dried up, a wider gulf is emerging within
the Sierra-based Miwoks and has resulted in a three-way dispute.
The tribal government at the Buena Vista Rancheria is trying to build a
casino near Buena Vista Peak, and a faction of a nearby tribe not only
opposes the casino but is also claiming that they do not have the standing
to do so.
"We have two main problems with the casino: Number one, there really is no
legitimate place as the 'Buena Vista Rancheria' and two, the people
purporting to represent Buena Vista want to put a casino right on one of
our sacred sites," said Joan Villa. Villa belongs to a faction of the lone
Band of Miwok Indians who call themselves "traditionalists," and Villa's
husband Nick claims to be the hereditary leader of the tribe.
The Villas sent a letter to the new BIA Central California Agency
superintendent asking him to stop the casino project.
Villa claims that Buena Vista is not a separate historical Indian rancheria
at all, but actually the burial grounds for the Ione Band of Miwoks, which
are locked into a separate dispute of their own.
"The tribe [Buena Vista] didn't even exist until 1995, and it shouldn't
have been a Tillie Hardwick tribe at all," alleged Villa, referring to the
1983 court decision that restored the federal status of some 34 California
What happened, according to Villa, was that some confusion arose over the
separate nature of Buena Vista when Louis Oliver and his family asked the
tribe for permission to move to the burial grounds at Buena Vista to be a
caretaker in 1937.
In 1959, Oliver and the BIA attempted to have the trust land removed. A
draft document ended up languishing in the Amador County Clerk's office and
was never executed by the federal government. Furthermore, Villa also makes
clear that the document in question did not seek to establish a separate
rancheria at Buena Vista. She also claims that it is unclear how the land
issue ended up in the Tillie Hardwick decision.
Oliver's daughter, Lucille Lucero, was the sole Oliver descendant at Buena
Vista. Lucero died in 1995. Donnamarie Potts, a relative of Lucero's
non-Indian husband, cared for Lucero at Buena Vista in her last years. The
elderly Lucero named Potts as heir to Buena Vista.
In 1995, the tribe issued a constitution. Villa maintains that the Ione
Band at first opposed the separate constitution. However, shortly after
that time Ione became embroiled in its own dispute. Joan and Nick Villa, as
well as about 70 tribal members who call themselves "traditionalists,"
claimed that BIA officials at the local agency in Sacramento had padded the
Ione rolls with relatives and other friends.
Though the Office of the Inspector General concluded an investigation last
summer that cleared Northern California BIA officials of any interference
in a tribal election and of placing otherwise ineligible relatives of BIA
members on the tribal rolls, the traditionalist faction still claims that
the BIA acted improperly.
Ultimately, the new faction at Ione outnumbered the traditionalists and
elected a tribal council. The federal government recognized the new
council, which the traditionalists have steadfastly refused to do. Tensions
also increased between the factions last year when the recognized tribal
government made agreements to pave the way for their own casino, also
opposed by the traditionalist faction.
The two factions also dispute the Buena Vista situation.
"We acknowledge that they are a separately recognized tribe," said Matthew
Franklin, chairman of the federally-recognized group. Though Franklin said
that there was some initial question of crossover between the two tribes by
the government, he said that was previously resolved.
Meanwhile, after Potts struck a multi-million gaming deal, a young
Sacramento-area woman named Rhonda Pope came out of the woodwork and
claimed to be the great-granddaughter of Louis Oliver. A legal fight
ensued, and eventually the matter was settled out of court (according to
rumor, there was a large cash settlement) and now both women are with Buena
Vista, with Pope replacing Potts as the tribal chairwoman.
Interestingly, Pope initially opposed the casino project and said shortly
after her emergence that her only goal was to protect the graves of her
Calls to Buena Vista were not returned by press time.
Though Potts had originally signed a compact in the late 1990s, an amended
compact was signed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall. Buena Vista
recently inked a deal with Venture Catalysts Inc., a San Diego-based
company that helped develop Barona's casino and resort in Southern