Deep in the foothills, miles above California’s Sacramento Valley, the 640-acre home of the Cortina Band of Wintun Indians lies empty except for six houses, a graveyard, and the spot where the band’s ceremonial roundhouse once stood.
A sign at the gate warns off outsiders, but on a recent afternoon there is no one inside to drive visitors away. All but 20 or so of the band’s 160 members live elsewhere. Most are scattered throughout California and the West. Some moved as far away as Tennessee and Canada.
The land is beautiful, but it’s hard to live on and harder yet to make a living from. Electric lights replaced lanterns only a few years back. Phone service cuts in and out. In summer, the communal well dries up.
Hilly, parched, and carpeted with prickly star thistle, the Cortina land isn’t much good for farming or running cattle. It isn’t good for much, but two outside developers have found a way to make the Cortina land pay.
In 2007, the band began leasing nearly 70 percent of its land to be used for a landfill by a joint project between a Canadian venture capital company and a California waste hauler. The company plans to truck in 1,500 tons of municipal waste a day and bury it deep in Cortina’s canyons.
The Cortina landfill is one among dozens of projects across the country for which developers and Native Americans are using Indian sovereignty to bypass state and local regulations and build projects that other communities shun – projects ranging from landfills, big box stores and a massive power plant to casinos, motorcycle tracks and billboards. Neighbors are paying the price.
In California, the Cortina tribal leadership calls its landfill deal a financial savior, but like the people who live near other controversial Indian land projects, the farmers and ranchers who live below the Cortina land, and some tribal members, fear the landfill will leak and ruin the local environment.