Indigenous Activist Auntie: 
Tribute to Mary Tarango

Mary Tarango leads a prayer at a press conference about a land acknowledgement for city council meetings outside Sacramento City Hall, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Andrew Nixon, CapRadio.
Mary Tarango leads a prayer at a press conference about a land acknowledgment for city council meetings outside Sacramento City Hall, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Andrew Nixon, CapRadio.

I met my best friend, Mateo Gin-Tarango when we were in the eighth grade, and we’ve been close since. Both Mateo and I were raised by single mothers. But we connected with a deeper understanding that being raised by single mothers actually meant having an abundance of a family rather than lacking a parent. Our mothers—tenacious and loving as they are—created networks of support systems of strong, influential women who mothered us. Women who brushed our hair, cooked our meals, picked us up from school, told us stories, and guided us through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Of these women, one stands out. She is Mateo’s grandmother, Mary Tarango whom they drew in the third grade when asked to draw pictures of their superhero.

‘My superhero’ 

“If you asked me to draw my favorite superhero today, the drawing would be exactly the same,” said Mateo. He regards his grandmother adoringly with words such as  “humble, beautiful, regal, strong, iconic, resilient, wise, warrior, matriarch.” 

When asked how she’d describe herself, Mary is certainly humble. “My kids have to remind me, mom, you’ve done this, you’ve done that.’” This is coming from a woman who, for over 20 years was a fierce advocate for reinstating federal recognition to the Wilton Rancheria tribe aka Miwok people. 

Indigenous Territory

Wilton Rancheria’s Indigenous Territory encompasses Sacramento County, and tribal members are descendants of the Penutian linguistic family identified as speaking the Miwok dialect. The Tribe has endured, despite Spanish, Mexican, and American colonizers’ violent annihilation of Tribal ancestors through disease, slavery, murder, and invasion. As military forces and colonization plowed through tribal land without regard for land or lives, the Indigenous population of California fought hard for land protection. 

According to Wilton Rancheria’s website, negotiations for the Treaty of the Forks of the Consumes River took place between March 1851 and January 1852. The treaty promised to establish a rancheria beginning at the Cosumnes River, “commencing at a point on the Cosumnes river, on the western line of the county, running south on and by said line to its terminus, running east on said line twenty-five miles, thence north to the middle fork of the Cosumnes river, down said stream to the place of beginning; to have and to hold the said district of the country for the sole use and occupancy of said Tribe forever.” 

Sadly, it was shortly after signing this treaty that Indigenous Boarding Schools were implemented by the U.S. government. More horror began. Native children were forcefully taken away from their families to boarding schools where they were abused and stripped of their indigenous language and culture. It was in July of 1928, finally, that the United States of America acquired a 38.77-acre tract of land in Wilton, Sacramento County, California, in trust for the Miwok people that were living in Sacramento County. The land was purchased from the Cosumnes Company and formally established the Wilton Rancheria. 

Wilton Rancheria was then arbitrarily stripped of its tribal status in 1959. It wasn’t until several decades later when Mary got involved that things changed. Someone asked her: “What are you doing for Wilton? Wilton isn’t even recognized as a tribe, so you’re not even Indian!” It was at that moment that she decided to start the fight against her tribe’s erasure and for legal, federal recognition. 

Unfulfilled Fed promises

Mary didn’t grow up on the rancheria. “I’m a city Indian! And I say it proudly!” Still, she was always connected to the rancheria. Through her grandmother, who lived on the reservation, Mary was physically connected to the land from childhood from her many visits to her grandmother’s home. But not living on the reservation made her relatively unaware of the unfulfilled promises of the US government. The elders petitioned the federal government for services, such as health and dental care. Because Wilton was not recognized as a tribe, the Federal Bureau ignored their simple requests. 

It was in the late 80s when Mary started seriously organizing for the federal recognition of Wilton Rancheria. Seeing her drive and work ethic, she was asked to be the spokesperson for this fight. Looking back, Mary laughed and said: “Had I known how crazy it was going to be I would’ve said No!” But shying away from this struggle was not her style. “If you want something done, and done good, you do it yourself.” 

There was no doubt in her mind that she could get it done. After fighting for nearly 15 years, while at the same time raising a family of four children and working full time, paying for legal services out of her own pocket, meeting at night, and spending time in night circuit courts, through various litigations, Mary ran out of money. 

Fateful encounter

In 2004, Mary and her sister Darlene attended a Native education conference in Southern California. As she tells it, they saw a beautiful elder with an arts and crafts booth. She introduced herself as Vivian Kirk. The three of them started chatting and realized they were all from Sacramento. Mary started telling the story of Wilton Rancheria, and Vivian said: “My daughter is an attorney. Christina Kazhe. When you get back to Sacramento, you contact her. You tell her: ‘Your mother said!’” So they did. Mary calls it “fate,” and to this day, said that Christina is one of the most impactful people in her life, considering her as part of the family.

It was five years later, in 2009, finally, when a judge said: “You know what? This is going to cost us many millions of dollars. Let’s just give you back our recognition.” It was a moment of relief, as well as frustration. Mary says she thought: How damn simple was that? When you took away our tribal recognition in ‘5 minutes with a simple stroke of a pen. Why couldn’t you just give it back? When it’s that simple?” 

Now, Wilton is thriving. The tribe has an over-million dollar health department, a tribal court where Mary is a peacemaker or judge, and a casino just months away from opening. Mary’s kids remind her that the state of the Wilton Rancheria would be much different if not for her. Mary called the meaningful work she did for her community: “Restoration. Achieving a goal for our tribe, that’s top of my list.” 

Today, Tarango is a self-described tribal elder and a strong woman of faith. Though she notes she’s “pushing 70!” Mary seems nowhere close to slowing down. In addition to the various roles she plays in the tribal community, as a peacemaker, chairwoman, and elder, she also does blessings. “I leave myself open for blessings,” Mary said. “If your creator gives you this gift of a sense of comfort, welcoming, belonging to people, then that’s what you do.” 

Family involvement

All of her children are involved in the tribal community in various ways: Her eldest daughter, Elena, is the director of the tribal health department, and her eldest son, and Mateo’s father, Jesus Tarango, is the tribal chair (“That’s like our president,” she said proudly). Tarango diligently passes down her knowledge and wisdom on Miwok culture. She is a storyteller, expertly connecting generations to family history. 

Every week, Mary calls Mateo, and together they cheekily refer to this time as their time to “Solve the World’s Problems.” Her lived example inspires a shared commitment to each other and their community. When they were last together, Mateo admired a beaded bracelet she wore, and quietly, she moved it from her own wrist to his, saying she could sense that it needed to be passed on to them. 

Keeping traditions

Traditions are important to Mary. Learning traditional arts, songs and dance is key to maintaining pride and joy in native culture. Indeed, Mary even captained one of the first young woman’s hand game teams in California. Hand game is a native game of chance, and Mary’s father played growing up. “Now, everybody plays it. But back in the day, women didn’t really play. But I started a team. We even had our own T-shirts!” 

Mary Tarango creates moments, carries stories, and she protects the Miwok culture. 

“I see the pride in my Mateo. Strength of who you are as a native person, you understand your uniqueness to this land, world, and universe. Confidence, pride, commitment for fighting for everything that is important,” Mary said.

Mateo Gin-Tarango and their grandmother, Mary Tarango
Mateo Gin-Tarango and their grandmother, Mary Tarango

An article in Vogue about Indigenous Aunties, stated: 

“In many Indigenous families, aunties are the matriarchs who carry forward our traditions. Though the moniker “Native auntie” is more of a term of endearment for Indigenous elders. They can be your literal aunts, a close family friend, or a respected figure in your community.” 

Native Aunties

 Responding to the Vogue magazine description of Native Aunties, Mary elaborated: 

“Not only within my tribal community but within my own family circle, women are the strength, the wisdom, the doers who make things happen.  Even in our dance circle, it is the women who stand strong and dance in the wider circle protecting the men as they dance for healing and wellness for all.” She describes her own family as “matriarchal that flows out into the greater tribal community.”  

Becoming Aunty

Mary became an aunt in her late teens, nearly 50 years ago. “Becoming an aunt gave me a sense of being responsible for more family members,” Mary said. Now that she’s an elder herself, Mary rarely calls anyone “auntie.” But she did have aunts by blood, on her father’s side. Her dad had three sisters, Aunt Diana, Aunt Roberta, and Aunt Evelyn. 

Mary was close to her Aunt Roberta and lived with her during her teens.

 “She was like a second mother,” Mary said. “She was a woman of simple means, hard-working, vibrant, full of life, love, and humor. She taught me to laugh and reminded me: ‘getting old is inevitable, but growing up is optional.’” Mary said that her Aunt Roberta’s words were pivotal: “I would not have gotten this far in life had I not been able to laugh at life’s sometimes hard journey.” 

Auntie as Elder

As an elder, blood relatives and tribal members alike call her “Auntie.” “Auntie is a respectful and loving word that I take pride in hearing,” Mary said. “I am the wisdom, the caretaker, and the voice. I am the ‘Auntie Mary.’”

From Left to Right: Elena Tarango (Mary’s Daughter, Mateo’s Godmother,), Jesus Tarango (Mary’s husband, Mateo’s grandfather), Mary Tarango, Leticia Tarango (Mary’s daughter, Mateo’s tía), and Mateo in front (at age 10)
From Left to Right: Elena Tarango (Mary’s Daughter, Mateo’s Godmother,), Jesus Tarango (Mary’s husband, Mateo’s grandfather), Mary Tarango, Leticia Tarango (Mary’s daughter, Mateo’s tía), and Mateo in front (at age 10)

Mary has a mantra, which she tells her children: “Go do you, represent.  Not only for yourself but for your tribal people—they’re not just looking at me, Mary Tarango, they’re looking at Wilton Rancheria.” 

Clearly, Mary carries her pride in her tribe with her everywhere. Informed by a connection to her Indigenous culture, Mary has a strong sense of purpose, and clearly, she stays true to that purpose. 

“Strong Miwok Woman”

When asked if she has received recognition for her leadership, Mary said: “Not really. In the end, we had broken into two more factions and it was a fragile, challenging time. At this point in the struggle, no one could afford to break again or lose the traction we have with the federal government.” 

Still, she maintains pride in her leadership role: “No one can say they had the leadership of being the spokesperson for the tribe as I did, for as long as I did. And more importantly, I got the ball rolling.”  She carries the pride of her work in gaining federal recognition status for Wilton Rancheria today.

 “I stand strong when asked to lead as an elder for recognition in the community in representing our tribe at events. No one else can or will do that. As I am a strong Miwok woman, a traditional singer/dancer, a leader!” 

Wilton Rancheria’s official website states: “In 1991, surviving members of Wilton Rancheria reorganized their tribal government and in 1999 they requested the United States to formally restore their federal recognition. Ten years later a decision of a U.S. District Court Judge gave Wilton Rancheria restoration, restoring the Tribe to a Federally Recognized Tribe in 2009.” 

Tribe legacy supersedes recognition

Never once does the site mention Mary’s tireless work for several decades. Her work to protect their legacy includes federal recognition, as well as a deep persistent commitment. Her purpose runs deeper than federal recognition. She acknowledged her commitment to her Tribe supersedes any formal recognition. Still, too many women, especially Indigenous women, are erased in the telling of history. The fact remains: Federal Recognition of the Wilton Rancheria Miwok Tribe would not have happened without Mary Tarango. 

For More Resources about Wilton Rancheria and the Fight for Federal Recognition: 

Wilton Rancheria – Native Ministries International 

Sacramento will require government meetings to begin with recognition of Indigenous and tribal land rights –

Wilton Rancheria regains recognition as a federally recognized Indian tribe