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Nation of One : Lucille Lucero, 75, is the sole survivor of her tribe, But her plan to preserve her heritgage doesn't sit well with some other Native Americans.

November 14, 1994|DUANE NORIYUKI

BUENA VISTA RANCHERIA — An orange electrical cord extends out a window of the old house and winds its way to a small silver trailer, where Lucille Lucero sits in a wheelchair watching "Days of Our Lives."

Both she and the house have grown old over the years, and Lucero, 75, has come to need more warmth than the drafty house provides. So with winter approaching, she lives alone at the other end of the extension cord, in the Jet Stream trailer just yards from the house.

An electric heater hums at her feet as she skeptically observes the scandalous, messy turn of events unfolding on the small screen. It is how she has come to view life in general. Skepticism has become a part of her nature.

She has been feeling a heaviness, she says, as if word of sickness or death were approaching. When she was young, such word came by way of her father, Louie Oliver, who would sit alone beneath the big oak tree in back and sing a traditional Miwok song before delivering the news to the family.

She suspects such a message is forthcoming. It has been in her dreams the past two nights and in the voice of the owl the day before. "I wonder who it is?" she asks.

Perhaps it is her, she thinks. Lucero, who lives on 67 acres known as the Buena Vista Rancheria--and whose health is fragile--is the only surviving member of the Buena Vista Band of Miwok Indians.

So that the tribe can survive when she is gone, Lucero is forming a government. She is also increasing the size of the tribe by enrolling relatives of her late husband as members. A faction of the nearby Ione Band of Miwok Indians is opposed to "outsiders" coming in and taking control of the land, which includes a cemetery where they say some of their members are buried.

And they are opposed to a government-created tribe with one member being recognized and allowed to receive funds, services and programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs when many other tribes that have existed over centuries are denied those things.

It is an emotional issue in this valley, 40 miles southeast of Sacramento near the town of Ione. Politics and anger, perhaps even greed have swirled over the narrow strip of land, clouding a sky once the domain of the red tail hawks and other birds--the owls and California eagles.

For now, people on both sides of the issue say they want only for this elder, whose life has been hard, to live in peace. Such restraint could end when she dies.

*

Lucille Oliver was 11 years old when she started working in the fields, harvesting hops, grapes, prunes, tomatoes.

It was hard work, and that is what Lucero remembers most vividly about childhood. She can still feel the weight of boxes and buckets filled with grapes, and she can envision the sweat that soaked through the back of her mother's dress as she stood on the porch to look out on the valley after toiling over a wood-burning stove. Life was hard work.

Lucero has no memories of playing as a child and says she never had dreams that extended beyond the boundaries of daily life.

Her family gathered acorns, which were ground into flour or made into soup, and bought rice and beans by the 50-pound sack to carry them through winter. Some years, her father would take her to the bean fields that already had been harvested, and they would scavenge what had been buried in the dirt.

She sees beauty in this land, beyond the noise of the nearby coal mine, the rust of scattered wreckage and the old house too cold for her to occupy.

It is the beauty of history and space, of walking on the land of her ancestors, of seeing the rocks used in centuries past to grind acorn, of sitting in the shade of trees that like her, were once young.

There used to be more life here. Hundreds of people would come to Buena Vista on Memorial Day while her father was alive. They would eat and play games, including "Indian football."

"It was like regular football, rough," she says. "They didn't have a football. It was a big ball out of old rags and socks and anything to make a big football, and they played that down in the field--the men against the women or they'd play together. And on this side, we had baseball. We had something going all day on Memorials."

But even on Memorial Day, Lucero didn't play. She toiled around the house, helping prepare food and clean up.

She attended school grudgingly, speaking little English when she first started.

"I went to high school, didn't learn nothin'," she says. "The Indians were getting free clothes to go to school--that's the only reason I went--a new pair of shoes and new dress and all that. . . . I didn't care for school. . . . I didn't like being around those people. I still don't."

She met Donald Lucero while working in the fields. He would play his guitar and sing to her in the evenings. Nine years after they met, they were married on June 13, 1947.

He was a soldier, overseas during most of their marriage. He had heart trouble, and when he was discharged from the Army, he went into the hospital. He died on Dec. 5, 1959, at age 45.

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