GALT - A group of Miwok Indians whose descendants inhabited the Cosumnes River area are once again trying to acquire burial sites at historic Hicksville Cemetery - sites they insist are rightfully theirs.
It goes back to what local Indians admit is a handshake agreement in 1870 that settlers in the Galt-Wilton area would share Hicksville Cemetery with local Indians, according to Galt residents Darlene Brown and Billie Blue-Elliston.
Now there are two disputes affecting the Galt-Arno Cemetery District, a tax-supported institution that operates Galt and Hicksville cemeteries. One dispute is how many plots are to be allocated to local Indians. The other is whether Indians should be charged for burials.
"This is really complicated," cemetery board chairman Guy Rutter said. "The drama associated with it is overwhelming at times."
The issues are so acute that Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli convened two meetings between cemetery and Indian representatives in April and May. Attorney Bob Hunt, who represents more than 25 public cemetery districts, laid out the elements for a possible agreement between the two factions. Hunt was not available for comment Tuesday, but Nottoli said he left the two meetings believing that significant progress had been made.
What complicates the matter is that Brown and Blue-Elliston, in addition to fighting the cemetery district, also sit on the five-member cemetery board, which is appointed by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
Blue-Elliston said that relations with the cemetery district changed in 1992, when her family was charged $700 to bury her father, William Blue, at Hicksville, a four-acre cemetery on Arno Road, just east of Highway 99.
"That's when it hit the fan," Brown said.
Since Miwok Indians perform their own burials and don't hire professionals to dig the graves, Indians hadn't been charged to bury their relatives at Hicksville Cemetery, Brown and Blue-Elliston said.
Indians stopped being charged for burials later in the 1990s, and the Blue family was reimbursed its $700 payment. However, in 2002, the cemetery board voted 3-2 to charge Indians the same as people from any other denomination.
"That's when the nightmare began," said Brown, a descendent of several Indian tribes. "I could not believe we were going backwards."
The other issue is what Indians perceive as having some of the land at Hicksville taken away from them by the cemetery district.
The cemetery is divided by a concrete walkway. Brown and Blue-Elliston maintain that the Indians get the east side of the walkway, and people from other cultures get the west side.
But cemetery district officials say that Indians get two rows of 90 plots each, not the entire six rows that are on the east side of the cemetery grounds.
Depending on who you talk to, the issue is in limbo, or the cemetery board is stalling on a decision about both issues.
Rutter says attorneys are reviewing legal aspects of it, one issue being whether a public district can give away land to Indians. Would it constitute a gift of public funds, which would be an illegal act?
Rutter expects to receive a legal opinion in the next couple of months so the board can take action, but Brown said that attorneys aren't reviewing anything. The board could act on these issues any time it wants, she said.
History of Hicksville CemeteryHicksville Cemetery was named after Billy Hicks, founder of Hicksville, in about 1847. The site, on Arno Road about a half-mile east of Highway 99, was a major stagecoach stop between Stockton and Sacramento. The town had a post office, blacksmith shop, hotel, stable and the former Arno School.
Today, the four-acre cemetery is surrounded by pasture land and corn fields. It was officially established in 1870, but it is believed to be used by local Miwok Indians as early as 1847.
Hicksville has about 600 grave sites, and there are about five burials there per year. A majority of burials in the area are conducted at Galt Cemetery on Joy Drive.
Source: Galt-Arno Cemetery District
Galt Indian leaders at a glanceBillie Blue-Elliston's family is federally recognized through the Ione Band of Miwok Indians. Her grandfather, William Blue, was born in 1907 along the Cosumnes River, but she isn't sure where. Her parents and other relatives are buried at Hicksville Cemetery.
A 15-year Galt resident, Blue-Elliston retired three years ago after more than 35 years with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. She became an expert in identifying Indian remains at the State Museum Resource Center in West Sacramento. She returned Indian remains housed at the resource center to tribes and remains a consultant about remains.
Brown has the blood of seven Indian tribes, five of them recognized by the federal government, she said.
Originally from the Round valley Reservation in Mendocino County, Brown's grandparents were farmworkers who moved to the Sacramento Valley. Her grandfather, Colonel Brown, was one of the original signers of the Wilton Rancheria. The rancheria is seeking nonprofit status by the state.
Brown lives in Galt and has worked 30 years for Herberger Publications, where she coordinates the printing of publications with publications not owned by Herberger.
- News-Sentinel staff