Wednesday Apr 29 2009
Why lock cemetery gate? Native Americans want answers
By: Tom Durkin
Community, Colfax City Council upset
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe has been locked out of the Colfax Indian Cemetery since January. About a dozen members and friends of the tribe asked the Colfax City Council Tuesday night to unlock the gate to the cemetery. Council members listened in surprise and shock as tribal spokeswoman Judy Marks read a prepared statement: “[The cemetery] has long been the cremation and burial site of our ancestors — the Miwok, Maidu and Nisenan — who once lived in this region. They used the area for spiritual and ceremonial purposes, and our rights to continue to do so have been ignored and terminated. “It has been told to us that if we were to lose a loved one, at this point we would not be able to bury them alongside their family,” she continued. “We would like to reach some common agreement with the city to let us gain access to the land that was taken away unjustly and without warning.” Other members of the tribe and friends, some near tears, explained how important the cemetery is to them and why they want to be allowed to tend the graves and conduct ceremonies sacred to their community. According to a March 16 letter Marks wrote to the city, “Placer County has issued a request through Craig Ballenger, Colfax city cemetery manager, to have the tribe purchase the land containing the Indian Cemetery ASAP due to … the liability to the county.” “The city will do what it can,” Council member Steve Harvey pledged, adding, “We don’t hold the strings on this.” About size of a house lot, the Indian Cemetery is just outside the city limits at the intersection of S. Canyon Way and Iowa Hill Road. The city has no jurisdiction over the cemetery. Rob Haswell, Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery’s aide, told the Record Wednesday morning that Colfax’s cemetery district is an independent entity. “We [the county] don’t really have any jurisdiction at all.” Cemetery District Manager Ballenger responded that the county counsel’s office advised the district to lock the cemetery because the liability risk was too high. He said the tribe had clear-cut about 10 Ponderosa pines without consulting the district. Additionally, hand-digging graves and bonfires are considered dangerous activities at the cemetery. “We’re lucky nobody’s been hurt,” he said, explaining the district could not afford to be sued again. He emphasized he is personally sympathetic to the tribe’s plight. Apparently, there is a $3,000 mall claims court decision against the district for a tree that blew down in a storm and damaged a neighbor’s fence. Ballenger said that incident made the district realize it could not afford the risk exposure. County counsel’s advice to the district was to sell the property. Haswell indicated Wednesday he was unable to find evidence the county counsel’s office had — or would — advise the district about how to handle the liability issue. Meanwhile, Ballenger stated the district offered to sell the property — appraised at $80,000 to $100,000 — to the tribe for $37,000. Ballenger asserted the Auburn Indian Community is in the process of buying the property. However, the Record was unable to confirm this information as of press time. In her presentation Tuesday night, Marks noted her tribe could not afford to buy the cemetery. She acknowledged that some members of the Auburn tribe are buried there, but she said the Colfax-Todds Valley tribe wants to own their ancestral burial ground. Tuesday night, community members Robbie Robinson and Elan Vitkoff both spoke out in support of the tribe. Vitkoff announced she was organizing a community meeting with the tribe at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 7 at the old Colfax Pharmacy building, 30 N. Main St. Mayor Suzanne Roberts explained that, as much as the council members wanted to, they legally could not vote on a resolution of support since the issue was not an action item on the agenda.