For millennia our Miwok ancestors hunted, fished and foraged across a large swath of the Sacramento Valley, from the American River drainage to Yosemite and the Western slopes of the Sierra to the California Delta.
By the mid-1800s, the Native population numbered more than 200,000 in California. Then came the Gold Rush of 1849 and the genocide that followed, and by the 1870s only about 20,000 Native Americans survived. The next 150 years have been marked by broken treaties, loss of our homeland, and forced assimilation into white culture. We were given federal recognition with the Wilton Rancheria in 1928, then lost it in 1959, and ultimately regained our federal tribal status in 2009.
Once, Miwok villages were located along creeks and streams throughout the Sacramento Valley, including many along the Cosumnes River where the historic Wilton Rancheria was established. It was customary to bury our deceased along those waterways. As European settlers came and staked claims to land along the fertile rivers and streams, those villages and burial spots quickly disappeared along with the local Miwok population.
My great-great-grandfather, Aleck Blue, was a medicine man and healer from this area. He was born in 1839 or 1845 (Native American history at that time was oral, not written, and there were no records of his birth), and he lived and worked on the Valensin Ranch, one of the largest Spanish land grant holdings in California. It was said to be as large as 50,000 acres, spanning from Hicksville, north of Galt, to Ione.
Aleck was taken in by the Valensin family as a young boy. His parents were unknown Miwok. He worked as a ranch hand but visited other tribes in the area where he knew his people were from. He was respected in the Indian community and wanted to establish a permanent place for the local Miwok to lay their family members to rest.
At that time, the Hicksville Cemetery, just east of Highway 99 near Galt, was only for white settlers. Pio Valensin granted Aleck permission for the Miwoks to bury their family members on the east side of the cemetery. To this day, the cemetery district recognizes and designates the east side of the cemetery only to lineal descendants of Aleck Blue and Miwok families from the historic Wilton Rancheria to be laid to rest there.
Aleck Blue died in 1934. A memorial at the cemetery’s entrance explains that the cemetery area was given to him by “employer and friend” Pio Valensin. It goes on to say: “Aleck was well known for his healing, his leadership as a medicine man and for maintaining the traditional ways of the Miwok people.”
The Rancheria Act terminated Wilton Rancheria’s federal recognition, and only after a 50-year struggle was it eventually restored, but with no tribal land. Today, we remain a landless tribe, something we are working hard to change. We do, however, have a small and sacred space at Hicksville Cemetery that helps tell the story of our people.
Raymond Hitchcock is chairman of Wilton Rancheria, and is leading an effort to place land in trust with the federal government in Elk Grove to restore tribal land and provide opportunities for self-sufficiency. Rhitchcock@wiltonrancheria-nsn.gov