Heavy rains from ongoing storms have disturbed ancient burial sites around Wilton Rancheria in southern Sacramento County. Parts of the Cosumnes River run through the Rancheria which flooded after heavy rain over the New Year’s weekend. Now, tribal leaders are concerned about continued flooding from the river.
“The Cosumnes River’s very important to the tribe’s Miwok and Nisenan ancestors, and we know there are burials nearby,” said Dahlton Brown, Executive Director of Administration for Wilton Rancheria. “Our concern is with the localized flooding, any of those burials being disturbed and possibly misplaced.”
Brown is requesting that members of the public immediately report any sightings of artifacts they may find near the river to local police or to the tribe. Sarah Eckhardt, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator at Sacramento State said the correct protocol when finding artifacts is not to disturb them.
“If somebody stumbles upon human remains, if they are for instance dislodged from their site during flooding, it is best to just leave them be and contact the coroner, and you can reach out to the tribe as well as an extra heads up,” Eckhardt said. “People shouldn’t be out there picking up these things after the flood.”
Native American burial sites are protected by state and federal law, and it is illegal to dig or disturb these areas. This is the first time in decades that burial sites at Wilton Rancheria have been disturbed by flooding, but Eckhardt added that it isn’t unusual for natural disasters to impact them.
“Any natural disaster, whether it’s a flood, a fire, has the potential to impact historic and prehistoric sites. Across the state, Native Americans were occupying the waterways for the same reasons as we do today; it's very common for there to be archeological sites along waterways,” Eckhardt said.
The tribe has been hard hit by the river’s flooding, several dozen people have been evacuated since Monday and others lost power. On Tuesday, officials were working to protect houses in the area to prevent further damage from upcoming successive storms.
Flooding and power loss is more likely to impact lower income and more marginalized groups in Sacramento. But experts say that Sacramento is unique in that its historically redlined neighborhoods are actually fairly well protected from flood damage today.
Robert Wassmer, a professor of Public Policy at Sacramento State, says that historically, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers have done flood mitigation work and levee strengthening in more affluent areas.
“They prioritized protecting property values. But to do that in Sacramento, you basically have to protect the entire central city and its surrounding areas; what happened was that the redlined communities were also protected with that. That is not the case in other communities,” Wassmer said.
But he says there are still disparities in the demographics of those who live in more easily flooded areas currently, even if they don’t correspond with historically redlined neighborhoods. Flood-risk neighborhoods today include Old North Sacramento and portions of south Sacramento, which tend to have more diverse populations with lower average income levels.
“Flood protected areas are still the more affluent areas, there’s policy working to reverse that, but it’s going to take a lot for that to happen,” Wassmer said. He said FEMA has begun to prioritize flood mitigation based on population rather than property values, but that change will take time to be reflected.
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