Tradition, Culture, and Gratitude: Chairwoman Rhonda Pope Flores of the Buena Vista band of Me-Wuk Indians

Visiting Mission San Jose in present day is to experience a picturesque and peaceful oasis in close proximity to noisy Interstate 680.  This tranquil site belies the misery and misfortune experienced by the Native Americans who were removed from their homes to live and work at the mission more than two hundred years ago.

Imagine being taken by force from your home and land and finding the courage and strength to flee from captors.

Hundreds of Yokuts and Me-wuk (also spelled as Mi-Wok) families were taken to Mission San Jose between 1811 and 1836. These Native Americans were subjugated to the will of the Mission leaders and included exposure to disease, loss of life and land. It is known that missions were not intended to preserve native life and tradition. There is still a fight to reclaim the land that was stolen from the Indian tribes. Although nothing can bring back lost members of the tribes, the effort of land recovery and upholding tradition and culture is a significant part of preserving education and practice.

For thousands of years, the Me-wuk Indians of the Buena Vista Rancheria have been an essential part of California’s Native American history. It took over two decades for Chairwoman Rhonda Pope Flores to regain the land in Amador County. Pope Flores is the daughter of Jesse Flying Cloud Pope, great-granddaughter of Louie and Annie Oliver, and the descendent of Casus Oliver, who escaped mission San Jose with his mother and joined the Upusani village in what is now Amador County. Under Pope Flores’s leadership, the tribe went from acquiring 67 to 700 acres of land. Pope Flores did not allow the challenges she faced to stop her pursuit of doing what needed to be done. “It took our tribe 20 years to get our projects up and going,” stated Pope Flores. She recalls some of her challenges as a woman leader.

Chairwoman Rhonda Pope Flores

Facing a male-dominated board of supervisors in Amador County, Pope Flores also had to overcome roadblocks at the state level.

The pursuit of completing these projects for her tribe was an uphill battle. “You come across a mentality that having a woman leader isn’t accepted, and I believe that if I were a chairman, it would have been handled differently. Dealing with a woman leader was something different for the board of supervisors in Amador County. I had to develop a thick skin and not take no for an answer,” stated Pope Flores. The turning point of change was the groundbreaking of one of the tribe’s projects. Those who were in opposition finally agreed to work with the tribe. “In reality, they had failed to stop our tribe,” shared Pope Flores.

History is vital to understanding the contributions and the significance of the Miwok Indians.

Pope Flores acquired a cultural center and has made it rich with history for each generation never to forget. The Upusani Cultural Center is dedicated to the memory of Louie and Annie Oliver and the deep cultural history of the Miwok Indians.

Chairwoman Rhonda Pope Flores has made great strides in upholding traditions and bringing resources to her community, including establishing Little Big Time, the only Native American preschool in Sacramento, opened in 2008. The child development preschool serves ages two to pre-kindergarten, providing a culturally rich environment while learning Native American traditions. Chairwoman Pope Flores has also joined the California Tribal College Board. In addition, Pope Flores has helped to ensure that community resources are provided and restored by purchasing and restoring the Bryte VFW Memorial Hall in Sacramento. “We have been able to give and do for our tribe, and help other tribes with our community efforts and outreach. Restoring VFW Hall and turning it into a community center filled with resources was an important accomplishment,” shared Pope Flores.

Tribal Traditions and a deep sense of gratitude are integral to what Chairwoman Pope Flores honors.

She stated, “My great grandparents paved the way for our tribe, so the road was already there. We just had to follow it.” This practice includes keeping the tribal traditions and the ceremonies going. “One of the biggest traditions for us is the Memorial Day gathering started by my grandpa Louie,” stated Pope Flores, “He took pride in feeding the people as he was the most gracious host, and that is what I hold dear to my heart.” Being able to bring back ceremonies is what Pope Flores is most proud of. Pope Flores stated, “When you have your tribal land, you have to feed it spiritually through prayer and community.” Economic development is another major accomplishment for Pope Flores. “Being able to get economic development through our casino efforts has opened the door to purchase and [reclaim] our tribal land and develop more language and cultural outreach programs,” stated Pope Flores.

Resources and ongoing training are provided to tribal members, such as governance training and business classes for youth, college apprenticeships, and more. Chairwoman Pope Flores is to be commended for her devotion to keeping the Me-Wuk and Yokuts culture alive and helping it live on in our youth.

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