The first time Katherine Perez helped uncover the remains of one of her ancestors, she just wanted to see if she could do it.
She and her tribe, the Northern Valley Yokut, had known for years that the graves of her people were scattered throughout the northern Central Valley. She just never could understand why they needed to be unearthed.
And she needed to.
"Until you see it you don't understand the impact it has," Perez said.
Her first time at a burial site that had been excavated, she sat down next to the tomb and used her hands to brush away the dirt from the remains.
Then, unexpectedly she began talking to them, not as someone long gone and forgotten, but as a live person taking part in a conversation.
"I think you'd rather I do this than somebody who doesn't have any empathy," Perez said.
Since then, Perez has become the main point of contact, or the "most likely descendent," for San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced Counties, whenever American Indian remains are found.
As the most likely descendent, Perez sometimes fields as many as three phone calls a day from people who have accidentally exhumed one of her relatives.
Officials from Lodi Unified School District called on Perez to help them with the excavation of American Indian remains found last month in north Stockton at the future site of Podesta Ranch Elementary School.
Construction workers found even more remains at the site on Tuesday.
As part of a business that her tribe runs, Perez sends representatives to the grave sites to make sure the remains are treated with dignity and respect.
A slight woman with small features, Perez is a mosaic of contradiction. Speaking in a voice barely above a whisper, her words are measured, direct and certain.
She doesn't so much lift as cradle the objects she touches. Her movements seem to be intentionally slow and gentle, but given the right reason, her eyes could turn you to ashes before you even realized there was a fire.
While arguing with somebody at work, Perez, who was in her early 20s, told the man she was fighting with, "If you strike me, better make sure I stay on the ground."
"I could be very dangerous if given the right circumstances," Perez said.
Now a mother to two and a grandmother to nine, Perez said she's mellowed some.
Perez was born to a Mexican mother and a American Indian father in French Camp, but was raised in Stockton.
As a child she attended the Catholic school during the day, but when she got home her father made sure she knew about her American Indian heritage.
From him, her grandmother and other native people, Perez learned how to cleanse herself and others of any negative spirits they might have come in contact with throughout the day, how to respect Mother Earth and how to pray, all skills that she's passed along to her children.
"We were always aware that we were Native American," Perez said.
As part of her culture Perez avoids photos of herself whenever possible, so that after she dies her spirit can pass on to the next world without hindrance.
Perez made an exception when her daughter wanted her to pose for pictures for her wedding. Even then, though, she missed one of the photo shoots.
After high school, Perez went to California State University, Hayward to be an airline stewardess, but she was told she was too short and too thin to even be considered.
Disheartened, Perez left college and married her husband.
Ten years later she enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College, where she received a degree in administration of justice.
Perez had aspired to be forensic specialist, but soon after graduating from Delta, she landed a job as a counselor for Peterson Juvenile Hall. Five years later she became an officer's assistant at the Stockton probation office.
As part of that job, Perez would make recommendations to courts, advising them whether or not her clients deserved jail time.
Realizing the gang members she worked with could make her a potential target, in public Perez's husband would call her by an alias. If anybody ever called her by her real name in public, she knew she might be in trouble.
Luckily, only once did she come in contact with one of them on the street.
He ended up thanking her for helping him turn his life around.
After two years, Perez quit the gang unit and went to work at Stockton's Employment Development Department, where she's worked for 14 years.
Her second job
Often, she receives calls for her other job, rescuing the remains of her ancestors. Sometimes she gets as many as three calls a day.
In 1982, the state passed legislation enabling the California Native American Heritage Commission to contact the most likely descendent - a person who has registered with the NAHC and has proved beyond a doubt that he or she belongs to the native people of an area - when remains are found.
To register, Perez traced her ancestry from one government entity to another using a number given to her by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Eventually, it led her back to Mission San Jose in Fremont, where she found her great grandparent's marriage certificate from the early 1800s.
Perez said she might have found another ancestor from the 1700s, but hasn't confirmed the lineage yet.
As the most likely descendent, she oversees excavations and gives recommendations to the people developing the land.
Most of the time, she said, people are respectful of her tribes wants and wishes. But it wasn't always that way.
"I meet developers or land owners that just don't care about anything but their development," Perez said.
One developer, Perez said, dug up the remains of several bodies, put them all in a box together and handed them over to her.
"Here," he said. "Do what you want with them, but they're not coming back here."
Laying her ancestors to rest
Over the years, the Northern Valley Yokuts have developed a memorandum of agreement with the San Joaquin County Coroner's Office and the Board of Supervisors to bury the remains she and her tribe receives in an undisclosed location.
The hidden burial site protects against the curious, who dig up remains for sport.
Upon reburial, Perez and other members of the Northern Valley Yokuts hold a ceremony for her ancestors.
During the ritual, they ask that the remains never be disturbed again. Blessing them and the ground in which they lay with herbs and medicine, the tribe members wish their relatives a safe journey back home.
Perez then notifies the state of the location of the remains, so it can warn anybody who may buy the land not to disturb them.
The Northern Valley Yokut tribe applied in 2000 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to become a federally recognized tribe. The process is known to take decades and Perez said her tribe is in the very beginning of it.
If the BIA approves the Northern Valley Yokut's petition, the tribe will be able to establish their own government and have their own land to bury their ancestors.
Perez said her tribe wrestles with the idea of exhuming the remains again.
Traditionally, Perez said, her tribe believes that the remain should never be disturbed. But if the tribe gets a chance to welcome them onto their own land again, it just might be worth it.
"It's a constant battle to do the right thing," Perez said.