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Native American history for Thanksgiving

on November 26, 2009

It was a classic Thanksgiving dinner – except for the burning sage, a prayer to the Great Spirit and a history lesson about Richmond’s Santa Fe Indian Village.  After eating turkey, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes last Friday, the 40 people at the Native Wellness Center listened to three former residents tell stories of their time growing up in the now-defunct village.

Ruth Sarracino Hopper explained how the village came to exist. In 1922, the Laguna people of New Mexico felt the Santa Fe Railroad was laying tracks too close to their village.  At the same time, they also envisioned a future in which the pueblo life would require outside jobs and housing.  Hopper says the tribe made a verbal treaty with the Santa Fe Railway Company.  They agreed that if the track were moved, Lagunas would work in the Richmond railroad yard.  Santa Fe Railway Company was also dealing with the Shopmen’s Strike at the same time.  Hopper described the fear of some Laguna workers as they crossed the picket lines entering the Railroad yards.

Families soon followed the men who came to work for the railroad. The first homes the Santa Fe Railways provided consisted of two parallel boxcars connected by a passageway, where the kitchen and dining room were located. There, the women cooked on wood-burning stoves.

People from the Acoma Pueblo joined their Laguna neighbors in the village. Acoma residents lived in red boxcars while most of the Laguna boxcars were yellow.  The Santa Fe Indian Village was considered a colony by the tribes.  Residents voted in elections and sent dues to the community that remained in New Mexico.

Bertha Hicks also grew up in the Santa Fe Indian Village.  When her family arrived from the pueblo, Richmond was covered in fog unfamiliar to Hicks.  She didn’t realize she was living in a boxcar until she woke up the next morning.  Hopper said Hicks’ boxcar was ideal because its unusual design included a front window perfect for leaning out of while chatting with neighbors.

Hicks has fond memories growing up in the village with strong ties to her culture. She recalled a strong respect for elders and parents and no crime. Members of the village maintained Laguna and Acoma ceremonies and traditions in a community meeting hall.  “Our parents boarded up the windows when doing our dances,” said Hopper.  People in the village spoke Keres; the first time Hopper heard her English name was her first day of Kindergarten at Peres Elementary School.

Eventually the railway provided tract houses for village residents.  The new homes were still equipped with wood-burning stoves.  “All us Indians – that’s all we’d do is get wood for the home,” said Kurt Medina who grew up in the village until the power was shut off in 1982.

The Railway gave Hopper one week’s notice to find a new home for her and her seven children when they decided to close the village.  She unwillingly moved her family to El Sobrante. Ninety percent of Village residents have moved back to the Pueblo said Hopper, who plans to follow them one day.

Medina’s father fought the railroad to keep his home.  He succeeded by moving the entire house to Burbank Street in San Pablo. Medina lives there to this day. Medina brought photographs and Acoma pottery to share with the group.

Even though most people at the dinner were of Native American heritage, many remarked that they did not know the full story of the Santa Fe Indian village. “We have a living history in this community,” said Katherine Lewis of the Native Wellness Center, who hoped to raise awareness of this little known piece of Richmond’s past.

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