Caring for the Indian dead
He sits in a white plastic lawn chair, his pet Chihuahua, Chico, curled on a tattered blanket at his feet. He sits at the West Sacramento Avenue entrance of the Mechoopda Cemetery in the sweltering afternoon heat. He sits in protest.
The straight, rugged lines of his face and his brown, weathered skin reveal his Native American ancestry. Vernon Conway, 79, is five-eighths Mechoopda Indian, and several of his relatives are buried in the cemetery.
His wife Charlotte passed away in 2002 after her fifth stroke and was buried there. Since then Conway has mowed and watered the lawn, pulled weeds and maintained the run-down cemetery grounds for free. But recently, he found out that the Mechoopda Tribal Council, the owner of the cemetery, was going to hire a groundskeeper. Conway offered to continue doing the job for $180 per month, but they hired someone else—for more money.
His next-door neighbor, Ray Leloup, 56, went to the Tribal Council office to question why the council had not hired Conway.
“They said he was too old to do the job,” Leloup said, “which I know is not right. He’s very active for 79.” Leloup was very upset by the situation, saying, “This is discrimination against his age.”
Conway was also bothered because the person they hired is not Native American. “It’s in the [council’s] constitution that all jobs be offered to members of the tribe first,” he said.
On top of that, the council will be paying the person they hired $250 per month, $70 more than Conway had offered to do the job for.
Determined to fight for his cause, Conway set up camp at the cemetery entrance on July 18 and 19. When approached by passersby, Conway was friendly and shared his story, offering to show visitors his family’s graves. On one such visit, he stopped first at his wife’s grave, which doesn’t have a headstone because he couldn’t afford one. Instead, Conway has adorned her grave with things she loved—flowers, American flags, small plastic windmills, and a white statute of an angel. He also planted roses near her grave and propped up a small plaque that reads “Glory to God.”
His mother’s grave also lacks a headstone because he didn’t have enough money. But, like his wife’s, it is decorated with an assortment of items. The tour continues to his brother’s, father’s and uncle’s graves, and along the way he points out several friends’ graves.
“I know almost all the people buried here,” Conway said. “I grew up with them.”
Conway purchased small American flags for the Fourth of July and placed one at every single grave in the cemetery. But the council removed the flags, and he was told he could decorate only the graves of his relatives.
Conway has encountered frequent conflict with the council over his devotion to the cemetery. He said they consider him a “troublemaker” and want him to leave it alone.
Leloup stopped by frequently during Conway’s two-day protest to keep his neighbor company and to make sure he drank enough water on the 100-plus-degree days. When asked why he is so devoted to helping Conway’s cause, Leloup said, “We’re veterans, so we kind of stand together.” Conway served in the Marine Corps in World War II and Leloup in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Leloup said he respects Conway because “he is a very honorable man, with a deep-seated conscience of what’s right and wrong.”
The Mechoopda Tribal Council declined to comment on the situation.