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California Lost

Cambodian youth confront ‘historical forgetting’

LONG BEACH – Youthful rebellion can come in many guises, from being anti-Google to defending animal rights. But for an all-female group of Cambodian American teens in Long Beach, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, the target of their adolescent disaffection is their parents’ generational hopelessness.

“We felt the word ‘action’ was important,” said Sophya Chum, an organizer for Khmer Girls in Action, an activist group whose members, young Cambodian American women, surveyed some 500 of their 1.5-generation (those who immigrated to the U.S. as children) and second-generation peers to better understand the issues affecting their lives. Their findings are the basis of Show Youth the Love, a health and wellness forum held last month.


The survey, completed two years ago, shed light on the ricochet effect of trauma on refugee families – families “caught in the process of historical forgetting,” in the words of Jonathan H.X. Lee, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Many of the girls’ parents arrived in Long Beach in the early 1980s after fleeing the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge regime, a genocide that resulted in an estimated 1.7 to 2 million deaths. Survivors of unimaginable horror, many have kept their stories untold, creating a generation of silence that has taken a profound toll on their children.


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Unincorporated neighborhood finally getting sewer service

The unincorporated neighborhood of Parklawn, one of hundreds of impoverished California communities that lack basic services, celebrated a breakthrough this month when Stanislaus County broke ground on a new sewer line connecting the district to the city of Modesto.

Parklawn, which has grappled with deficient septic tanks for about 60 years, is an unincorporated island of county territory nearly surrounded by Modesto. Around the state, such densely populated unincorporated neighborhoods on county land have long suffered from government neglect and lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains.

“After decades of struggling with failing septic systems, Parklawn will finally realize a dream that most of us take for granted – an adequate wastewater system,” said Phoebe Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance’s Community Equity Initiative. “Individual septic systems have proven grossly inadequate. Leaking and leaching wastewater threatens the groundwater and human health, damages homes and hurts property values.”

The organization sued the Stanislaus County in 2004 on behalf of Parklawn residents and later worked with the county to find funds to upgrade the neighborhood’s antiquated infrastructure.

Without access to a sewer system, wastewater in the neighborhood of 328 homes pools in yards and backs up into bathtubs, residents said.


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Mobile home park residents sue owner over sewage, electricity

Lilia Avila has lived for a decade in the Garcia Mobile Home Park in the Eastern Coachella Valley with her husband and three children. Ask her to describe the park, surrounded by farmland and empty lots in the unincorporated town of Thermal, and she doesn’t mince words: “It’s a pigsty,” she said.

As California Watch has previously reported, the park – which residents call Rancho Garcia ­– has an antiquated wastewater system. Avila and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks and cesspools. Raw sewage has regularly backed up into her shower drain, and effluent puddles on the park grounds.

Avila said faulty electricity causes blackouts, leaving residents sweltering in triple-digit summertime heat and food spoiling in refrigerators. There are no sidewalks or storm drains. And without streetlights, the park is pitch-black at night.

For the park's residents – who are all low-income and work on farms, in construction or at date orchards in the area – moving isn’t an option. So now, the residents are fighting to keep the park open after the owners gave notice that they may close it.

Avila and her husband work in the fields, and with the end of the grape harvest, they are currently unemployed. “We are here not because we want to be here, but out of necessity,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.


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Private wells outside Fresno test positive for contaminants

Locals like to say that Easton is closer to Fresno than parts of Fresno, but as an unincorporated community seven miles south of downtown, residents relish its small-town ways.

“We don’t have the same commodities and resources, but we can hear the crickets at night and it’s peaceful and there are freedoms here," said Sue Ruiz, who serves as the president of the Easton Community Services District.

A 2-square-mile enclave of about 665 homes, Easton has more than a half-dozen well-attended churches and two wide-lawned schools set against a backdrop of vineyards, almond orchards and two-lane roads. Chitchat with neighbors is easy and cordial – until the conversation turns to water, an issue that has divided neighbors and families who continue to debate whether Easton needs to move away from its system of private wells.

Because of its agricultural roots and the houses built with septic tanks on small lots near water wells, Easton is prone to groundwater contamination, community health advocates said. Yet the overall water quality there is largely unknown because the majority of the community’s 2,000 residents live in homes that rely on unregulated private wells.

Following requests from some residents and local businesses, the community services district – which primarily oversees streetlights, landscaping and recreational spaces on an annual budget of $65,000 ­– decided to hire a firm to test a portion of Easton wells last year.

“There are concerns about water quality, but we didn’t know for sure,” Ruiz said. "We decided to go beyond perception and find fact.”


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Video: Ghost tribe

The Winnemem Wintu, among thousands of California Native Americans lacking official federal recognition, struggle to continue their traditions without legal rights and protections.

At least half of California’s 150,000 Native Americans lack official recognition by the federal government. The Winnemem Wintu tribe of Shasta County struggles to continue practicing its traditions without the legal rights and protections that federal recognition would grant members. Gathering materials for religious rituals, protecting ceremonial sites from development and preventing harassment at ceremonies on public land are all challenges the tribe faces.



Caleen Sisk: The Coming of Age ceremony for young girls coming into their womanhood is ancient. We’re calling down the two sisters from the mountain to provide guidance; we’re asking for this medicine rock to give her all of those skills that she’ll need in her lifetime. The ceremony is a spiritual weaving of a belief system that holds a people together. You know, without that belief system, you really don’t have a tribe.

And because of the situation that exists – no rights to hold our ceremonies, no rights on the river anymore – we have to fight for it all the time.

We have the medicine there. We’re smudging them down, and the boat comes. And they’re holding up their beer – you know, going by, yelling. It’s a total disruption; it’s like everything just goes blank. All of the prayers – it just like disappeared, like poof. You know, they were yelling obscenities to the people on the bank, and the woman flashed them twice. It’s disgusting.

[Title card: Ghost Tribe, Shasta County, California]

Sisk: The Winnemem are among thousands of California Indians that don’t have recognition – meaning that our status is overlooked or not granted or invisible as a people for maintaining our traditions of accessing our cultural sites, of protecting our spiritual and sacred sites.

We’re here, we’ve always been here; we continue to want to be here into the future. We continue to teach our kids how to go to the sacred places and how to sing the songs to the water.

[On-screen text: In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave tribes special rights to protect ceremony sites and cultural traditions.]

[At that time, the Winnemem were eligible for benefits because government documents traced their heritage.]

[Then, in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes must be on a specific federal government list to receive benefits and tribal rights.]

[The Winnemem tribe wasn't on that list.]

Sisk: Any of the laws – like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Indian Arts and Crafts – all of these acts pertain to the rights that Indian people have. Like, you can’t sell something and say it’s handcrafted by an Indian unless you’re an Indian. That’s what that law refers to. So right now, when I make something or our people make something, we can’t sell that as a Native American-made item or an authentic Indian-made item because, you know, we’re not. That’s what the law says.

Indian Child Welfare gives tribes the right to speak up for the placement of their kids, the treatment and programs that are available to their children and families, and it gives them the right to place, within adoptions, in their own tribal homes or in other Indian homes or in approved homes by the tribe ­­– so that the continuation of the culture is at best for that child. We don’t have that right.

The one that hurts us the most is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. We were one of the first tribes to really utilize that act and have access on a more permanent basis on our cultural site that is in the national forest. Where as now, after the ’80s, we are not eligible to have those kinds of things anymore. It’s like, we’re still the same people, that’s still the same sacred site, we’re still doing the exact same thing there, but some terminology changed. So now, the definition of “Indian” has excluded us.

[On-screen text: Many of the Winnemem’s sacred sites are now on government land or private property.]

[Without federal recognition, practicing cultural traditions often means trespassing or breaking the law.]

[When the Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, it flooded the Winnemem’s village and many sacred sites.]

[Officials now plan to raise the dam 18.5 feet higher.]

[The water would cover or damage 40 more sacred sites.]

Sisk: Raising the Shasta Dam will flood seven more miles of our river, will drown and make inaccessible the sacred sites that we use now. And that in itself hinders our ability to carry on our way of life, teach what it means to be Winnemem to our kids. One of our sites is a puberty site, which is a right of passage for a young woman. And that place will be flooded and never come out.

Michael Preston: We are asking Randy Moore to close down the river for four days so we can have this ceremony in peace and dignity and help us continue our culture the best way that it can.

It’s been voluntary closure, is the closest we’ve got. But it’s still not good enough for us to conduct the ceremony without worry.

Sisk (to Randy Moore): OK, we went through the voluntary closure. It’s like, “OK, you think that’s going to work, you can keep the boats out? We don’t think so, but we’ll go ahead and do it.” And that’s what happened.

Randy Moore: Is the important thing to have the ceremony, or is the important thing to gain some kind of recognition to have it? I’m not sure.

Sisk: We have rights, federally recognized or not. We’re the indigenous people of that river. We show that boat and that woman exposing herself because everybody can see how insulting that is. But for me, any boat coming up there that’s not invited is insulting because they’re breaking away a spiritual thing that’s happening. It’d be like, you know, somebody walking right through a blessing or a christening. It’s like, “Oh, excuse me, before you sprinkle that water on that baby, I need to walk through here.” 

[On-screen text: The Forest Service ultimately agreed to close the McCloud River for the summer ceremony, but land access was kept open to the public. Without federal recognition, the tribe has no power to do more.]

Sisk: I think the biggest challenge is trying to figure out the right maneuver to get recognized, to get acknowledged as indigenous peoples. Most of the tribes in California that have been actively seeking recognition through the process are finding that all of their hard work and all of their struggles is not paying off, and there never was really a way to achieve it.

How do they expect that the historic tribes will continue to be tribes if they keep limiting and excluding us from those things that are necessary to carry on as a tribe? That, in my mind, is cultural genocide.

[On-screen text: California currently has 120 federally recognized tribes; 75 tribes have petitioned for recognition and are under review.]

[Only one California tribe has successfully petitioned for recognition since 1978; many have been denied.]

[The Winnemem are weighing the lengthy petition process against asking Congress to grant them recognized status. They also are considering filing a complaint with the United Nations.]

[Learn more about the California Lost series at californiawatch.org/californialost]

[Produced and edited by Carrie Ching]

[Ceremony and boaters video shot by Will Doolittle and Moving Image Productions]

[Reported by Marc Dadigan and Carrie Ching]

[Music by Guillermo Guareschi]


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Without federal recognition, tribe struggles to protect sacred sites

The Winnemem Wintu, lacking official recognition from the federal government, are fighting to preserve their traditions and save sacred sites threatened by a Shasta Dam project.

Video: Carrie Ching/California Watch 
Read full transcript

REDDING – Caleen Sisk, the chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, wore a traditional basket hat – representing clear thinking – to her meeting with congressional candidate Jim Reed. 

Amid the din of wheezy coffee grinders at Westside Java & Caffe in Redding, Reed pleaded with Sisk: End her tribe’s longstanding battle against the federal government’s proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet – a $1 billion retrofit that stands to flood or damage 40 sacred tribal sites used for ceremonies and healings. If elected, Reed told her, he would introduce legislation to grant federal recognition to the Winnemem. 


The Winnemem Wintu is a ghost tribe, lacking official recognition from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe’s members share their limbo status with at least half of this state’s 150,000 California Indians, according to the California Native American Heritage Commission. As a result, their cultural identities and rights may be subject to political bargaining. 

California Watch was present at the tribe’s meeting with Reed last October, part of a contributor’s research on challenges the Winnemem Wintu face in their quest to preserve their traditional religion and cultural rites. 

For the 125 remaining tribe members, federal recognition would restore not just scholarships and monetary benefits, but also less tangible changes the tribe covets, including added legal clout to protect their sacred sites. Because only one California tribe has ever been recognized through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ laborious petitioning process, Sisk had hoped Reed might offer a congressional shortcut. 

In the coffee shop meeting, Reed – a Democrat and attorney – presented Sisk with a catch-22. With federal recognition, the tribe would have more legal power to stop the dam expansion. The catch: Reed wouldn’t seek federal recognition unless the tribe ended its opposition to the project.

“It’s shovel-ready; it’ll bring jobs and new workers, which will benefit the local businesses,” Reed said. “And to get your approval, I thought, ‘What do the Wintu want more than anything?’ Clearly, it’s federal recognition.”

A deliberate thinker, Sisk gripped her coffee cup and said nothing. Reed’s campaign manager, Frank Treadway, stopped scribbling on a yellow notepad and broke the silence. 

Carrie Ching/California Watch In April, the Winnemem Wintu tribe and supporters held a protest outside the U.S. Forest Service regional office in Vallejo to ask for a river closure for their coming of age ceremony this summer. 

“The dam raise is going to happen whatever you do,” he said. “You might as well get something out of it.”

Luisa Navejas, a Winnemem tribe member, broke in.

“I’m not sure you realize what it means for us to lose those sacred sites,” she said. “It’s like you’re asking us to kill our mother in order to save our father.”

In the months that followed the meeting, a disappointed Sisk turned away from politics and back to her traditional ways, fasting to draw the attention of the BIA. That approach brought a surprising result in mid-July, reinvigorating the tribe’s hopes for federal recognition.

The Winnemem have practiced their traditional ways for thousands of years in the McCloud River watershed in Northern California, where academic and tribal accounts indicate their ancestral territory extends from Mount Shasta to just south of Redding. Archeologists estimate the tribe once numbered as many as 14,000, one of several groups that spoke Wintu. Among the pine-quilted mountains and glacial rivers of their homeland, the Winnemem lived as hunter-gatherers, surviving on acorns and salmon, deer and other game. 

The tribe lost most of its land during the bloody Gold Rush years and through the World War II construction of Shasta Dam, which flooded the lower 25 miles of the McCloud River. Today, the tribe’s only land is an isolated 42-acre village outside of Redding, where a nucleus of about 33 members lives. The rest of the tribe is scattered across Northern California. 

While the Winnemem have continued their traditions, they have done so without federal government acknowledgment that they are a tribe. This limits their standing to oppose the Shasta Dam project and curtails many other rights and benefits of indigenous people. 

Members of unrecognized tribes cannot legally possess eagle feathers, for instance, which are vital to American Indian spiritual beliefs. Sisk’s own 25-year-old feather permit was revoked in March 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They can no longer access federal college scholarships, even as American Indian students struggle to afford college and earn degrees. 

“I went to school on a BIA scholarship,” said Winnemem Wintu tribe member Jill Ward. “Now they say my children aren’t Indian and can’t have those same scholarships.”

Without recognition, tribes aren’t covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to help keep Indian children with their tribes. 

Recently, a child from the 180-member Tsnungwe tribe of Northern California was put up for adoption and, despite the tribe’s opposition, ended up with a non-Indian family. The adopting family moved away with the child, tribal leaders say, leaving the small tribe one young member smaller.

Challenges of the unrecognized

Ghost tribes lack authority over land management decisions in ancestral territory because they do not have government-to-government relationships with most federal agencies.

“Without recognition sometimes there’s no difference between being a tribal member and a member of the public,” said Bob Benson, a Tsnungwe elder, whose tribe has struggled to prevent cellphone towers from being installed on sacred Ironside Mountain in Trinity County. “Even when it’s our burial ground or an important sacred site, we’ll get notified when everyone else gets notified.”

For the Winnemem Wintu, this lack of government-to-government status is playing a role in the Shasta Dam negotiations, too. 

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, leads members for a war dance around a sacred fire in late May. 

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Pete Lucero said the tribe will have an opportunity to express its concerns during the dam-raising project’s public input period. Final environmental and feasibility reports are not expected until at least 2016. 

But Lucero acknowledged the tribe’s concerns will carry no more weight than those of any other public entity.  

“We’re constantly trying to do the correct thing for the entire public,” he said. “We get a lot of comments, and we respond to them all.”

The number of tribes seeking official status as governments increased after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The BIA sought to standardize the process, creating what is now known as the Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

Many California tribes left off the initial list of recognized tribes maintained their eligibility for various federal benefits through BIA-certified paperwork attesting to their heritage. Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe were among those with such paperwork. 

But in 1986, a Supreme Court case changed all that. By ruling that American Indians must belong to a federally recognized tribe to be eligible for benefits, the court relegated many California tribe members to a new class: “the unrecognized” – the ghost tribes.

Today, about 120 California tribes are federally recognized; about 75 ghost tribes are petitioning the BIA for recognition. The petition process is so arduous that some, like the Winnemem Wintu, are instead pursuing congressional legislation or complaints with the United Nations, claiming the recognition system itself violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Nedra Darling, who oversees public affairs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was provided questions related to this story but failed to provide responses on behalf of the agency.

Lee Fleming, director of the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment and a Cherokee Indian, said in a previous interview that he had worked to speed up the petition process. But Fleming emphasized that the government needs time to verify that claims to tribal rights are based on legitimate records and documents. 

Long petition process

In California and other states that grant Indian gaming licenses only to recognized tribes, the importance of verification has grown – as has a desire for federal recognition.

So far, only one California tribe has been recognized through the BIA process: Death Valley’s Timbisha Shoshone Band, in 1983. 


The Tolowa Nation, another now-small Northern California tribe, began its formal effort to become recognized in 1982. The Tolowa’s traditional territory is the Smith River watershed in the northeastern corner of California. 

The BIA petition process requires tribes to collect voluminous genealogical and historical proof that they have been a “continuous distinct community” since 1900. The Tolowa’s petition was rejected in late 2010 on the grounds that it didn’t include enough evidence that the tribe existed as a community from 1903 to 1930.

“They’re not used to all these small bands and tribes and the way we lived in California, sticking to our small territories,” said Martha Rice, a Tolowa Nation council member. “They have a model for what a tribe should be, and it just doesn’t fit in California.” 

Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” for more than a century is unrealistic, given the government’s history of interfering with tribal development. 

“These people went through massacres, dislocations and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” said Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Questions about whether the recognition criteria adequately reflect reality in California went unanswered by the BIA. But in 2011, Fleming said criteria were developed in collaboration with many tribal representatives. Petitions are reviewed by teams that include genealogists and anthropologists, he said.

“There was a need for a formal process, and so there was a total of 400 meetings, discussions and conversations with tribal representatives, as well as a national conference attended by 355 Indian tribes,” he said. “That is basically how we got started, based on input from all these tribes.”

Crude disruptions

The Winnemem Wintu was among the first tribes to receive a permit to hold ceremonies on national forest land after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act. Until it expired in 2011, the tribe also had a Memorandum of Understanding with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest offices, stating its members are indigenous to the McCloud River above the dam.

Neither of those documents could prevent what happened in July 2006.

For a Winnemem girl, crossing into womanhood begins along the banks of the McCloud River. Each teenage girl spends four days in a bark hut on one side of the river, learning from tribal women how to grind traditional medicines and receiving teachings from the spirit beings believed to inhabit nearby sacred sites. On the final day, the girl swims across the river to meet the tribe, which greets her with songs and dances around a sacred fire. 

“This ceremony weaves the fabric of our tribe together,” said Sisk, the chief. “It’s not just about teaching the women about their role as caretakers in the tribe, but also about establishing with the men how to have good relationships with the women.”

This sacred land, now a Forest Service campground, is threatened long term by the dam-raising proposal. It would be flooded and lost. 

Courtesy Will Doolittle/Moving Image Productions One woman flashed the tribe just before one Winnemem girl was to swim across the river, a representation of her transition to womanhood. 

But in the short term, the tribe’s inability to close the area during ceremonies has led to crude interruptions. Boaters have ignored the Forest Service’s “voluntary closure” sign and motored by, shouting insults such as “Fat Indians!” and “It’s our river, too, dude.”  

On the last day of the 2006 ceremony, a tribe member captured one particularly egregious activity on video: A woman on a boat, apparently drunk, pulled down her bikini top and flashed her breasts at the tribe – twice.

“Every time those boaters come through, I feel like the message that is being sent is that we should assimilate – like the government and the public doesn’t want our religion here,” said Michael Preston, 28, a Winnemem Wintu dancer.

Rite of passage marred

This quest to hold a private ceremony on public land took on added urgency this year. Marisa Sisk, the chief’s niece who is being groomed as her future replacement, was set to pass into womanhood in early July. In April, the Winnemem took their plea for a river closure directly to the Forest Service’s Vallejo office. 

In the office lobby, about 30 tribe members sang traditional songs and carried placards, several emblazoned with images of the bare-breasted flasher. The protest brought Regional Forester Randy Moore out of his office but ended with no promises.

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and her niece, Marisa Sisk, 16, pass a river closure banner on the McCloud River that the tribe put up in late May with help from supporters. 

The tribe’s campaign continued with phone calls, emails and a four-day war dance at the river ceremony site. Then, on June 21, Moore announced that the agency would enforce a mandatory river closure for the rite-of-passage ceremony, citing health and safety concerns. 

“This has been an incredibly difficult decision to make as I balanced both the tribe’s interest with our legal authorities,” Moore said in a statement. “Due to past incidents of harassment … we believe it is necessary to close the river to enhance the safety of the ceremony.”

But the tribe found itself once again in a catch-22: To obtain the closure order, the Winnemem had to sign a permit banning traditional activities central to the ceremony, such as gathering wood for the sacred fire. Caleen Sisk vowed to fast until the matter was resolved.

“We are the indigenous people of this land, and our religion is from here,” she said. “Recognized or not, we’re not compromising our religion. It’s not like the Forest Service doesn’t know who we are.”

A series of hurried back-and-forth edits to the permit followed, enough so that the tribe opted to hold the ceremony. But the Winnemem were far from satisfied, noting that the closure permit covered only the water, not the land, which means people on foot still could interrupt the ceremony. Only full recognition would give the tribe the power to prevent that.

Even with the river closure, Marisa Sisk’s Coming of Age ceremony was tense at times. 

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Forest Service law enforcement officers, led by Special Agent in Charge Scott Harris, in plain clothes, wait to meet Chief Caleen Sisk during the war dance. The Forest Service later said it would enforce a river closure for the right of passage ceremony, but it could not close access from the land to the sacred site, now a Forest Service campground. 

Because no motorized boats were supposed to enter the area, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and the tribe clashed over a motorized boat the Winnemem used to ferry older women involved in the ceremony across the river.

“They need to understand this is a Winnemem ceremony in Winnemem territory,” said Winnemem elder Betti Comas. “Their job was to keep outsiders from interfering with us, not to tell us how to run our ceremony.”

The morning after Marisa Sisk swam across the river to represent her transition to womanhood, three law enforcement officers entered the camp and wrote two citations against Caleen Sisk for using the motorized boat. Each carries a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in prison.

Frustrated by the ceremony closure restrictions, Caleen Sisk had begun fasting at the river on June 18, saying she wouldn’t stop until the BIA granted her a meeting to discuss the tribe’s status

“You could say (the BIA is) telling the Forest Service this treatment we’ve received is OK because we’re not recognized,” she said. “We think it’s time they fix their mistake.”

Virgil Akins, superintendent of the Northern California BIA, agreed to meet with Sisk on July 11, the 23rd day of her fast. At the meeting, Akins accepted a packet of the Winnemem’s historical records and promised to help them, sharing information that led in January to the Tejon Indian Tribe being restored to the list of recognized tribes. 

Winnemem Wintu government liaison Gary Hayward Slaughter Mulcahy said that, at first glance, his tribe seems to have at least as much documentation as the Tejon tribe. 

“We used to think we didn’t need federal acknowledgment because we’ve always known who we are. We didn’t need the government to tell us,” he said.

“But it’s become apparent … that to be able to protect our ceremonies and protect our sites, we need to be on their list.” 

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Amy Pyle copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.


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Drop in immigration clouds future of school for Spanish speakers

English and Spanish alternate seamlessly in the classrooms at the Mission Education Center in San Francisco. Decorative signs identify objects that in other schools would seem too basic to name: “clock” and “door.”

This public elementary school has for 40 years served children who have just arrived from Latin America and speak only Spanish, who beyond its walls are out of their element in almost every way.

Those students are dramatically fewer now. As the flow of immigrants from Mexico has dwindled in recent years, the school’s enrollment has plummeted from a high of 264 students in the mid-2000s to 72 this past spring.

“We had low enrollment in 1994, when Prop. 187 passed,” said fifth-grade teacher Lilly Chow, referring to the controversial ballot measure that sought to halt public services to unauthorized immigrants and was struck down in U.S. district court. “But never like this.”

The change has transformed the size and cultural makeup of the school’s classes. It has sliced the number of teachers nearly in half. And it has the small, close-knit staff deeply worried about whether the school will survive and how its young, vulnerable students will fare if it doesn’t.

Students normally stay for a year or two, learning English and catching up on academics before they plunge into a conventional school.


Many of those children arrive in the U.S. culturally overwhelmed and academically far below their grade level. In a classroom full of English speakers, without specially geared instruction and care, Chow fears, “Eventually they’re going to be dropouts.”


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Rural towns devise unique plan to solve water problems

For a good part of its rich history, residents of unincorporated Allensworth, the first African American colony west of the Mississippi, have gone without a reliable supply of safe drinking water.

This is still the case today, where the Tulare County community’s wells – which provide water to the neighboring Colonel Allensworth State Historical Park that commemorates the area’s legacy – exceed federal levels for arsenic. 

Arsenic is naturally occurring in the area, and consumption of the semi-metal can cause nausea and skin discoloration. It has also been associated with various cancers.

Residents of Allensworth and neighboring Alpaugh – both rural, unincorporated communities in Tulare County whose water has elevated arsenic levels – have advanced a novel proposal to resolve the water issues in their communities. Under the plan, the Allensworth and Alpaugh Community Services Districts would combine with the Angiola Water District, which sells water for irrigation, to deliver drinking water to residents. Late last week, Allensworth and Alpaugh’s proposal received nearly $420,000 in state grants [PDF] to research its feasibility.


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Unincorporated South Dos Palos struggles with economic development

Once a thriving rural community with a nearly equal number of bars and churches, South Dos Palos, an unincorporated area in Merced County, has been in decline for decades.

But it’s still possible to make out the contours of the community from a time when it was a growing place. On the edge of town, which borders the city of Dos Palos, there’s an abandoned reddish-trimmed building that used to be a popular pool hall.

The railroad station a few blocks away is now dark and defunct, and it's not far from the skeleton of the produce packing shed where workers used to give melons to local kids. The textile mill is now an empty edifice, a disintegrating monument to a more prosperous past.

Technological advances in farming and manufacturing, coupled with the economic downturn, have created fewer jobs in the area, said Jerry O’Banion, the county supervisor who represents South Dos Palos. “Basically, it’s gone the way of rural America,” he said. “Having the community out in a farming area is not a viable structure as far as being able to survive.”


Despite ongoing efforts to revitalize South Dos Palos, as a poor and unincorporated community, development has been hampered by a dearth of precise information about the place and people who live there.


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Neglected for decades, unincorporated communities lack basic public services

About 1.8 million low-income and often Spanish-speaking Californians live in unincorporated communities that lack sewer systems, clean drinking water and other basic services.

Max Whittaker/PrimeArleen Hernandez frequently has to unclog her backed-up shower because of the aging septic tank at her Parklawn home.

Nearly every day, Modesto Junior College student Arleen Hernandez battles an aging septic tank that backs up into her toilet and shower, bringing with it “bits of paper and chunks of mold.” 

Hernandez has learned to take quick showers and work swiftly with a mop. She has also tried to fix a leaking toilet herself, but her home repair skills have been no match for an outdated system with clogged piping. 

When Hernandez’s parents moved to Parklawn in 1986, they didn’t realize the extent to which their new neighborhood, an island of county land within the city of Modesto, lacks basic public services. 

Parklawn is not connected to nearby city sewer lines, so Hernandez and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks. There is only one short strip of sidewalk along the southern edge of the community and not enough storm drains. During heavy rains, children dodge traffic in flooded streets on their way to school in the neighborhood that locals call “No Man’s Land.” 


“I’ve lived here my whole life, and when you’re a child, you don’t think it’s something big,” said Hernandez, a member of the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council, which advises the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on issues regarding unincorporated communities. “But as you grow older, you start realizing that it doesn’t seem fair that people have basic needs met and you skip one community.”

Not all unincorporated communities are as bereft. Some, such as Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, are among the wealthiest in the state.

But across California, there are hundreds of neighborhoods like Parklawn. These poor, dense and unincorporated communities on county land – which uniformly lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains – have been the victim of years of government neglect. 

In the Eastern Coachella Valley, residents in mobile home parks pipe sewage into aging septic tanks and cesspools. On the outskirts of the city of Tulare, Matheny Tract residents can’t tap into the city sewer treatment plant, and arsenic contaminates their well. Arsenic also taints the tap water in Lanare, a community near Fresno. 

“It’s like people are living in colonies of the United States,” said Miguel Donoso, a longtime Latino community advocate in Stanislaus County. “Living in a Third World country, that’s close to what you see here today.”

In Modesto alone, there are at least four disenfranchised islands on county land – all just a quick drive from the city’s busy downtown and $55 million Gallo Center for the Arts. 

Statewide, PolicyLink, an Oakland-based public policy research and advocacy institute, estimates that 1.8 million low-income and often Spanish-speaking Californians live in unincorporated communities, many without the infrastructure that would curb gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory disease symptoms, and other public health and safety risks.

In Parklawn and similar unincorporated communities, language barriers, legal status and a lack of political know-how have made it difficult for residents to navigate the governmental process. 

“You’re looking at very small communities that are impoverished, and in many cases, (residents are) undocumented, and that puts them at a severe disadvantage,” said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno. “There are very few people who want to take on these communities as a priority for a variety of reasons.”

No sewer connections

Money and jurisdiction often stand in the way of progress. Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents Parklawn, said that in Modesto, city residents must first approve a ballot measure to provide sewer service to an unincorporated community, and then the county would have to forge a service agreement with the city. But the biggest challenge is “the cost of doing it – having to go in and completely retrofit these 50-year-old subdivisions to modern standards,” DeMartini said.

DeMartini said the county has been “working for quite a few years to upgrade and get Parklawn annexed to the city.” Since 1996, the county has spent $23.7 million on improvements to six unincorporated areas in Modesto, including $296,830 for Parklawn, according to county records

But when it comes to septic tanks, county officials say those are a homeowner’s responsibility, and they step in only when they get reports that residents could be exposed to raw sewage. Last year, there were three complaints of surfacing sewage in Parklawn and 33 in all unincorporated county areas, said Sonya Harrigfeld, the county’s director of environmental resources. In the last five years, there were 205 sewage complaints in unincorporated parts of the county.

Max Whittaker/PrimeTo cut down on the water flowing into his septic tank, Francisco González diverts his washing machine and kitchen sink to open pits in the back of his yard in Parklawn. He pours bleach into the pits each week to battle back mosquitoes, rats and cockroaches.

Septic tanks typically are pumped every few years. But because Parklawn lots are small and many sit on claylike soil that doesn’t drain, homeowners have to empty their tanks two to three times a year. At up to $300 a pump, that’s not an option in a community where the median household income, according to a community survey, is $19,000. 

To ease the load on their tanks, some residents, like Francisco González, divert water from their sinks and washing machines into their yards. The water pools in open pits in the rear corners of González’s yard. To battle back rat, mosquito and cockroach infestations, he pours a liberal amount of bleach into the pits each week. 

In rural areas or tony enclaves where there’s enough space and soil for wastewater to drain properly, septic tanks work well. But for public health reasons, sewer lines are the modern standard in dense developments like Parklawn. The community would not be constructed today without them. 

Built on the cheap for migrant farm workers from the Deep South, the Dust Bowl, Mexico and Central America, communities like Parklawn proliferated in the 1940s and ’50s, and now they dot the entire California landscape. Some are tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, but some are so small or remote that data is scarce. Census data isn’t always an accurate reflection of these communities, either.

“We don’t have the kinds of hard numbers that are really useful for presenting the residents’ reality or trying to secure resources, or even establishing that there is a problem to get resources to solve it,” said Robin Maria DeLugan, an assistant professor of anthropology at UC Merced, who is surveying two of these communities to gauge the need for services. 

Lacking official recognition

Until recently, there was little official recognition of these neighborhoods. Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October requires government officials to consider neighboring low-income unincorporated areas in city general plans, annexation decisions and other urban planning, and it finally gives them a name: “disadvantaged unincorporated communities.” Another bill, introduced this year, would allow cities and service districts to extend services to distant unincorporated communities. 

PolicyLink estimates there are about 525 of these communities in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley. They can also be found across the entire state, and they take many forms: neighborhoods surrounded by cities, tracts of housing on the fringe of urban areas or a cluster of housing on rural land. 

Among California’s forgotten unincorporated communities, some of the starkest conditions can be found in the Eastern Coachella Valley, not far from the resort towns of Indian Wells and La Quinta. Each spring, as many as 15,000 migrant farm workers flock there for the grape harvest. 

The Garcia Mobile Home Park – home to Mexican-American landscapers, farm hands and construction workers – is a collection of dilapidated trailers and a building divided into three ramshackle and recently shuttered apartments in Thermal, just outside the city of Coachella. In the warmer months, as the searing heat abates in the evening, squealing children race through the streets, kicking up dust. Stereos blast ranchero music as dinners are prepared al fresco on grills and hotplates. 

Until they moved in February, retired date palm worker Manuel Duarte and his wife, Alicia, had lived in the park for 12 years. As they sat at their usual perch outside their home on a late afternoon last spring, they watched a stream of sewage spurt in their yard where a shallow pipe had burst. The stench slowly seeped into the Duartes’ kitchen. 

In their bathroom, effluent gurgled into the shower nearly every time they bathed. Alicia Duarte suspected that’s why a large, purplish skin infection near her ankle didn’t heal for more than a year.

The park, which residents refer to as Rancho Garcia, is one of dozens of mobile home parks in the area without a permit. Wastewater disposal at the park is a mystery – reportedly a makeshift network of septic tanks and cesspools. One resident pointed to a 7-foot-deep hole he dug behind his rusting trailer. That’s where he pipes the sewage from his home.

Riverside County officials say the owners of the park are responsible for maintaining septic tanks, and like in Stanislaus County, they step in when they receive complaints that residents are being exposed to sewage. According to county records, there were three complaints of surfacing sewage at the park last year.

John Benoit of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, who represents the Eastern Coachella Valley, said the county spends a “disproportionate amount of time trying to meet the needs of disenfranchised communities.” 

“We have come in after multiple decades of neglect,” he said. “It’s frustrating. But you have to deal in reality, which is that some of these communities may be 15 miles from a water source, and it costs a million dollars a mile to connect.” 

While the sewage fountain flowed at the Duartes’ home, Hermenegildo Cabrera and his family across the street finished a dinner of tamales and soda at a table outside their trailer. With his foot, Cabrera tapped a patch of soil – about a dozen paces from where his family had just dined and a few feet from his children’s tree swing – that was soggy with wastewater from a neighbor’s mobile home. 

“I feel bad about it,” Cabrera said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s an economic situation, and I don’t know where to go.”

Residents said the owners have been dismissive of their concerns. But Carlos Garcia, whose family owns the park, said the septic tanks work “the way they are supposed to.” 

When problems are reported, they are fixed “usually within that day,” he said. “Every once in a while there’s a leaky toilet or the water is left open and that’s when we have a little problem."

The mobile home park originally was a settlement for a family of laborers in the 1950s. It grew when relatives and friends – and eventually, tenants – moved trailers onto the property, Garcia said. The upgrades to obtain a county permit will cost about $2.5 million.

“It is our responsibility, and I’m not saying it’s not, but we would like to have time and some kind of help,” Garcia said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

The Garcias plan to shutter the park, and unless they contest the closure, the 40-plus tenants will need to move by October.

Residents fight for change

While some officials have been supportive, for the most part, residents have led the push for change. They have lobbied, filed lawsuits and organized their neighbors – with limited success.

While motivated, residents lack resources and access. Policy experts agree that California’s lost communities have persisted for decades for two reasons: money and politics. 

“As with all questions related to development in California, this is at the intersection of dirt, dollars and duties,” said Peter Detwiler, retired staff director for the state Senate Governance and Finance Committee, formerly the Local Government Committee. “What appears as a land use problem is also a question of political power and governance and a question of public finance.”

Just outside the city of Tulare, Matheny Tract is a pocket of about 300 homes that’s bordered by cotton fields, orchards, and cheese processing factories. The median household income is about $33,000 and residents’ tap water flows from a single well with arsenic levels that exceed federal limits. 

The community is vying for $6 million in state grants and bond money for clean water projects, which would allow Matheny Tract to connect to the city’s water system by 2013. 

The city and Tulare County also have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore connecting Matheny Tract to the sewer system, which could cost about $5.5 million. Residents hope the money arrives soon. They resent the irony that they can smell the nearby city sewer system but can’t connect to it.

The Matheny Tract upgrades are slowly becoming a reality because residents, with the help of advocacy organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides free legal services in poor communities, banded together. They began meeting in January 2010, when they learned that the city was planning to annex a swath of county land surrounding Matheny Tract. There are no public spaces in the neighborhood, so Reinelda Palma’s home became the meeting hub.  

“Unity is where strength is,” said Palma, the neighborhood matriarch who serves spiced homemade horchata while lap dogs and roosters mingle in her yard. “Some people don’t get involved because of work or they have children, and others get used to how it is, but it’s important to get mobilized to improve where we live.”

The residents started showing up in force at local government meetings to make their demands. After several months, they were able to persuade local officials to make the annexation of the surrounding land contingent on connecting Matheny Tract to city water and sewer services. 

It’s been a crash course in civics. 

“My advice to them is: Keep it up,” said Tulare City Councilman Skip Barwick. “Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Politics play role in struggle

For communities seeking annexation, like Matheny Tract, the hurdles aren’t just financial. In some cases, residents say they prefer to maintain their country lifestyle by remaining unincorporated. In other instances, they have to battle perceptions that they aren’t willing to abide by city rules and regulations. 

“We up here, we keep our yards watered and mowed, we try to keep our house exteriors looking nice, and a lot of Hispanic people, those are not their priorities, whereas it is ours, because of where we come from and how we’re raised,” Barwick said. “And sometimes we think, ‘Why would you want to live like that?’ … They don’t want a nice, clean home and no animals in their yard. They want to park their cars in the grass and do what they want to do. They don’t have the same values, and trying to impose those values on them is very difficult. That’s one problem when you have a diverse community.”

But Barwick isn’t unsympathetic to residents in unincorporated areas. 

“They’re concerned about making it through the day and putting food on the table,” he said. “The last thing they care about is whether their septic tank is far enough from the well. … It’s hard to pass judgment on them.” 


Matheny Tract residents are making progress, but they remain impatient. Those who grew up there reminisce about their childhoods, about the friendships that developed from playing football in the dusty streets or hanging out as teenagers on summer nights under the neighborhood’s lone streetlight. But 40 years later, they are still fighting for the same basic services their parents did.

“We are working people, and for them to ignore us bothers me,” said Vance McKinney, a truck driver who lives in a royal-blue house with a well-tended lawn. “It’s crazy how they overlooked us. We’re not asking for nothing that we don’t deserve.”

Progress has been slower in Modesto, where a dozen residents living in the unincorporated islands filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city and Stanislaus County in 2004. In their complaint, residents claimed the city selectively annexed primarily white communities while ignoring Latino enclaves like Parklawn, which is about 80 percent Latino. The suit also contended that the city and county failed to provide the same level of infrastructure and services to Latino neighborhoods as they had to predominantly white ones. 

County and city officials denied that race had been a factor. County Supervisor DeMartini said the $2 million the county spent to defend itself was “money thrown away on attorneys for no benefit at all because the county is committed, especially to the sewer system, because a subdivision on septic tanks is unacceptable in today’s world. There are health concerns, and some are failing.” 

After a seven-year court battle, the case was settled last year. As part of the deal, projects that affect public health will become a priority, so Parklawn’s sewage connection moved to the top of the list. 

Two months after the settlement was inked, the county secured state funding to plan for a sewer connection from Parklawn to Modesto. But it’s unclear whether an additional $8.5 million in county funds earmarked for construction will still be available now that the local redevelopment agency is being dissolved. For now, Parklawn’s overloaded septic systems remain. 

Community’s solution backfires

Similar conditions exist in Lanare, which lacks sewer service, sidewalks and adequate storm drains. But residents’ foremost concern is their tap water, which is contaminated with high levels of arsenic and, at times, E. coli. 

Residents of the community, about 30 miles from Fresno, pay at least $54 a month for non-potable water. They also spend $25 each month on bottled water, which everyone in the neighborhood relies on, at least “until the money runs out,” said Ethel Myles, 74, who has lived in Lanare since 1954. 

“We need clean water,” she said. “We stay in America, and there’s supposed to be clean water. Because we’re a little place, they don’t care about us. It makes me feel left out and without.”

Aware of the potential cancer risk and other health threats from arsenic, the community built its own water treatment facility. Their effort serves as a cautionary tale.

Lanare received $1.3 million in federal funds and installed the plant next to the community center in 2007. But the 600 residents who live there couldn’t afford to operate it over the long term.

Costs ran up when some customers abused the unmetered system, and some farmers used treated water for irrigation and livestock. After six months, the plant was shut down and the state eventually took it into receivership in 2010.

The $140,000 debt incurred from the plant’s short run was transferred to the local community services district and the receiver. To help pay the debt the receiver raised rates for residents, the majority of whom live in households with an average of four people and a combined income of $41,000 a year. 

A lawsuit eliminated some of the debt, but the district remains on the hook for about $96,000. 

Residents formed a group, which they call Community United in Lanare, and asked local officials for help. In July, the Board of Supervisors voted to relieve $2,400 of the residents’ debt related to a community services district election.

Underlying the decades of inertia is an unresolved debate about who is responsible for upgrading infrastructure that threatens public health.

“Should California just pay out of its general fund to bring these communities to standard?” said Richard G. Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California. “It’s a valid question that can be argued strongly both ways. Ultimately, it’s going to be a political decision. All of these questions need to be worked out first and foremost at a community level: What are people able and willing to pay?”

Max Whittaker/PrimeNeftalí Gutierrez, 7, plays near his home in the Rancho Garcia Mobile Home Park, where the wastewater system is a network of septic tanks and cesspools.

Public health suffers

With little historical attention paid to these neighborhoods, government data, including public health data, doesn’t always accurately reflect the conditions of these communities. Although it’s difficult to link ailments to specific environmental causes, physicians believe there is a connection.

Dr. Raul Ruiz, an emergency room physician and founder of the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative, said patients from communities like Thermal experience high rates of stroke, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other chronic diseases that tend to be more common in low-income communities.

Poor infrastructure exacerbates bad health, he added. Cars and trucks on dusty, unpaved roads kick up sand and dirt, which can aggravate asthma or emphysema, Ruiz said. Improperly treated wastewater can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, and drinking water tainted with arsenic can lead to learning disabilities in children. 

In the Eastern Coachella Valley communities where Ruiz practices, his organization found there is one doctor for every 8,407 residents. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers an area where there is one doctor for every 3,500 patients to be medically underserved.

Ruiz said his patients, many of whom pick grapes in unforgiving triple-digit temperatures, confront health risks on a daily basis. “We are dealing with the bottom of the barrel in terms of potential health outcomes,” Ruiz said.

California Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, a Democrat who represents the Eastern Coachella Valley, said he’s aware of public health problems in his district, but he’s hamstrung.

“We have Third World conditions, not only in this area, but in other areas of rural California,” Pérez said. “Some of it has to do with political will – perhaps in the past, they never had politicians willing to ensure that infrastructure goes to areas that really need it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the town of Woodside's incorporation status.

This story was edited by Denise Zapata and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick. Bernice Yeung's reporting for this California Watch project was supported by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.



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