The Round Valley Indian Tribal Council declared a state of emergency on the reservation during a special closed session meeting Sunday night. That was a day after the body of 16-year-old Ruby Sky Montelongo was discovered in a field, and two weeks after 20-year-old Nicholas Whipple was beaten and shot to death. The resolution cites their murders and other crimes, including human trafficking and drug use.
The declaration reads in part that, “The survival of the first colonists unto this great nation was supported by the Native American 600 years ago and counting. Now we, Round Valley Indian Tribes, seek the same support for our survival.”
Yesterday, at a four-hour long meeting in open session, community and council members got started on determining exactly what it means to be in a state of emergency, and what it will take to stop the violence. In 2021, the Yurok Tribe issued an emergency declaration after some members went missing and others narrowly escaped abduction. But, unlike in a natural disaster, there is no familiar template for a social and historical emergency.
Round Valley Indian Tribal President Randall Britton summed up the objective of the declaration, which he expects to refine further in upcoming meetings with young people and other entities in the valley. “What we are looking for is an outreach and help from local, state, and federal agencies to help quell the violence within the Round valley Tribe’s territories,” he said. “We have limited tribal police officers. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has limited patrol deputies. Even though we are a sovereign nation, we still are governed by Public Law 280 state, so the county has jurisdiction on the law enforcement front.”
Tribal members at the meeting suggested requesting funding for counseling, recreational and mentoring programs for kids, a special day to celebrate youth, and vigorous involvement in ceremonies and cultural stewardship practices. Parents and grandparents called on adults in the room to set an upstanding example for young people, and insist that their children speak up when they witness a crime. Others told stories of being at their wits’ end with defiant teenagers and receiving no help from law enforcement or social services when they pleaded for it. Tribal Council member Michelle Downey got a round of applause when she urged the community not to pass old grudges down to their children. “Just because your auntie is mad at so-and-so, that my grandchildren are going to be mad at so-and-so’s family?” she demanded. “No! When does that circle stop? When do we teach our children that it’s not okay to hate somebody just because your auntie hated somebody?”
Downey also told the crowd that council members left messages with the Bureau of Indian Affairs yesterday morning, trying to find out if resources are available to Round Valley in the wake of the emergency declaration. They hadn’t gotten a response by midafternoon.
She added that tribal leaders from around the county are planning to meet this week to form a strategic plan in advance of a trip to Sacramento in the first week of May, when the state capital will be lit up in red to commemorate Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
By the end of the meeting, a 10:00 pm curfew for people under the age of 18 was in effect. The law is already a tribal ordinance. Enforcement will be up to tribal police and community members, who were encouraged to take an active role in correcting young people and supporting wholesome activities. Forming a community watch was another idea that received enthusiastic support, but was not formally adopted.
Tribal police in Round Valley are stretched thin, with one chief of police and two officers. They can detain suspects until personnel from other law enforcement agencies arrive, like the sheriff’s office or highway patrol; but they do not have the authority to arrest anyone. Public Law 280 is in effect in California, which means that, although tribes are sovereign nations, they are under the jurisdiction of county sheriffs.
Another measure that was put into effect immediately was closing the tribally owned convenience store an hour early, at 10:00 pm. Alcohol is a popular item, and sales of it contribute to the tribal economy. Still, many of the community members at the meeting called for banning alcohol sales on tribal land and asking the owners of stores on neighboring county land to put their supply under lock and key.
After the meeting, Round Valley Tribal President Randall Britton said that Assemblymember James Ramos had reached out to the council after reading an article about the murder of Ruby Montelongo over the weekend. Ramos is the first California Native American to be elected to the state Legislature. He’s formed a Native American Legislative Caucus and will host next month’s events at the capital. His office was also involved in editing drafts of the local declaration. Britton is optimistic that, with support from such a strong state leader, it might be possible to overhaul the conditions that led to the most recent tragedies.
“The plan in general is to protect our youth,” he summarized. “To clean up our tribal lands. To reach out to the parents. We need more wellness programs. We need more communication. With the ongoing atrocities that we’ve been experiencing, we are behind in getting this work done. It’s unfortunate that it takes something this tragic to bring this to the table, when this could have been addressed fifteen years ago, twenty years ago. It’s heartbreaking to see the community suffer so many losses in such a short amount of time. Building the model for this is taking a lot….the grieving, the mourning, needs to happen, and then the healing can start. And we will have a Celebrate Youth Day, and positive activities. It’s bringing the light back to the darkest day, any way we can.”