Albion Monitor /Features

Round Valley

The Indian Wars are not Over

By George Snyder

All of the bloody frictions of the American frontier

This year, spring painted Mendocino County's Round Valley with a brilliant wash of wild flower, and a green carpet of uncut hay stretched to the ring of snow-peaked mountains that shape this place and bestow its name.

Round Valley, with the vintage border town of Covelo and Round Valley Indian Reservation, lies some 100 miles north of Santa Rosa. Up Highway 101 and across 28 miles of two-lane blacktop, a visitor winds along the dramatic canyons of the Eel River before dropping over the mountain to the green, valley floor. There, a faded wooden sign welcomes travelers to "Nature's Hideaway."

But behind this picture of splendid isolation, a hard legacy percolates like strong camp coffee. California's second-largest Indian reservation lives alongside white-dominated Covelo, with all of the historic and bloody frictions of the last-century American frontier.

This spring -- as it did 150 years ago, when the first white men rode into Round Valley and killed the first 40 Yuki they encountered -- gunfire split the night and Indians died.

Residents conducting traditional ceremonies denounced as "devils and Satan"

Two of the dead, Gene Britton and Leonard Peters, came from Round Valley. The third, a Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputy, Bob Davis, did not. Lawmen, including Mendocino County Sheriff Jim Tuso, say Davis was part Indian, although no one could say from where. It doesn't seem to matter to the people in Round Valley.

Nearly five months later, with the dead buried in Mother Earth or ashes scattered over the sea, a quiet current of bitterness and hope continues to flow through Round Valley as it has since its bloody founding in the 1850's. It was then, at the behest of land-grabbing white settlers, the U.S. Army marched the remnants of seven Northern California tribes over the mountains from the coast and the Sacramento Valley, some of them with ancient enmities, into the valley.

Even then, The People were not left alone; missionaries soon flocked to the area spreading the Gospel. They denounced what remained of the ancient, spiritual ways, planting the seeds of a spiritual warfare that continues through the present day.

Indians who became Christian believers were encouraged to turn against those who would remember the power of their sacred culture. Native American spiritual life, perhaps one of the most profound legacies left most Indian people, suffered.

Even today, according to some traditionalists, Round Valley reservation residents conducting traditional ceremonies find themselves denounced as "devils and Satan" by Christian Indians yelling from passing cars.

"It's still the same old trick of divide and conquer the Indians"

"My mother's people were driven from the mountains," said Norma Knight, a traditional basket weaver, elder and longtime Indian rights activist.

"We were deprogrammed and they did a good job. There is no language or custom...all of these Christian churches just made our people crazier than ever. Sixty years ago the Holy Rollers came in," said Knight. "And they left with our culture."

Ironically, according to Knight, perhaps the reservation's most educated people are the very ones who left Round Valley for work and school, then came back with a resolve to renew or strengthen traditional life and modernize Round Valley's economic and political circumstances.

"Some, like myself, left in the 1940's to get out of here to work. We wanted more money and education and be able to fend for ourselves. But a lot of the others just stayed here and either lived off the local whites or off the government on the reservation. They are the ones who are afraid of those of us who came back and want to bring back traditional life and empower our people."

As seeds mature into flowers, and little trees into big, so does a tragic past bring to the present it's violence and poison.

"The Indian wars are not over,'' said Ron Lincoln, a member of the Tribal Council and a leader of the traditionals, made up mostly of the Lincoln and Peters families. "It's still the same old trick of divide and conquer the Indians. Once the Indians are united, it means freedom in all ways, and they don't want that."

"In terms of culture, everything has been taken away."

The April killings seem to have sprouted from a frustrating legacy of decades of frontier-brand feudalism, still strong between some of the descendants of the valley's white settlers and Indians anxious for work in a job-hungry region.

And exacerbating the situation is a history of suspicion from those "making do" with the powers that be, against those supporting traditional spirituality as a means of Indian empowerment leading to economic and political self-determination for the reservation's 1,200 residents.

"The problem here has many facets," said Lincoln, who emphasizes he speaks only for himself and not as a representative of what many locals consider an impotent Tribal Council. "Some of the Indians here are Indian in name only. In terms of culture, for many of them, everything has been taken away." Lincoln, though, sees the possibility of increased tribal economic and political sovereignty if only the community can overcome its deep divisions and look into itself for power.

"We have a lot of money coming in through tribal grants of about $1 million annually, as well as wages and other funds," he said. "We tried to get our own store here on the reservation but the powers that be made it impossible. There are too many people in the pocket of the white people on the border town. It's no different than the 1860's, when they brought in a mill and logged Indian timber."

As he spoke that night in a reservation home, a tape of ceremonial songs and music played in the background.

The Sheriff's Dpartment has had a long history of problems with the Indians of Round Valley

Crucial to the on-going split between the traditionalist Lincolns and the Peters and the members of the other families -- in large part, the Brittons -- is the belief that those with an orientation toward the white power structure get better treatment, including law enforcement.

"We are trying to be calm," said Leona Luna, a Lincoln relative, "but the younger ones on the other side are still shooting it up, and we are not getting any help from the Sheriff."

Back in Ukiah, however, Sheriff Jim Tuso clearly disagrees: "We do respond equally to all calls out there," he said, although he admits the department has had a long history of problems with the Indians of Round Valley, including incidents in which deputies have been found in the wrong.

Some of these incidents have included being drunk on duty and using excessive force, incidents that occurred before he assumed office in 1991. For his part, Tuso says he has been attempting to build bridges in the community, including periodic community meetings and even a spaghetti dinner.

Unfortunately, he admitted, most of these have been lightly attended by local residents.

Round Valley and Covelo are something of a "time bubble"

Round Valley Public Librarian Georgina Wright, who is also a paramedic with the local fire department and a Native American, can be counted among the most torn over the conflicts raging throughout Round Valley.

A friend of the slain deputy and closely related to both the Lincolns and the Brittons, Wright, like many others, calls Round Valley and Covelo something of a "time bubble" floating along in the course of modern history. "I don't call Covelo the real world," said Wright, who spent twenty years in the Bay Area. "I left in the 1960's and when I came back in the 80's, nothing had changed. Covelo is like stuck in the Sixties. As long as the Indians stay in their place, everything is fine..but if they do something for themselves..they are too aggressive. Anytime anyone speaks up for civil rights, they are considered rabble rousers."

As an example of a kind of thinking still to be found in those parts, Wright, a kindly, soft-spoken woman, said that at the traditional funeral held for Leonard Peters, some whites expressed concern about the drumming that occurred on the way to the cemetery.

"Indian life revolves around drums and songs," she said. "Some people were upset when they held the funeral with the pickup and drums going to the cemetery. A friend of mine said a white lady called and asked 'what's going on?' This kind of ignorance really fits the situation in Covelo. People don't want us to have our heritage. Maybe they figure we want the valley back. They act like we are going on the warpath, when all we are trying to do is keep some of our traditions. They want us white, but we are not white. This whole thing has divided the Indian and the white community."

Meanwhile, Steve Luna, who earned a business administration degree at Brigham Young University and who now works in the tribal administration housing office, sees recent events as a possible turning point for the reservation.

"For the people who live here," he said, "this is like a wake-up call. If we don't turn things around, this will be the last hurrah and things will go on as they always have."

Not all of the Indian people, of course, agree with the traditional people. DeAnna Barney, for example, a descendant of the Wailaki people, related to the Peters, married to a white man and whose son is a Mendocino Deputy Sheriff working the Covelo area, believes that the traditional faction plays a big part in keeping Round Valley's troubles alive.

"There is a certain group that has an interest in conflict," said Barney. "I understand that culture and tradition is important, but this is the modern world. We have to be realistic. We can't have it the way it used to be. It's too late."

Be that as it may, even outsiders are not immune to the sense of the deep spiritual wounds to which Round Valley has been heir.

"I'm halfway a medicine man," said Vern Johnson, who as director of the California Council of Tribal Governments was one of several Native American outsiders called in to investigate the turmoil on the reservation following the killings. "And I could just feel the pain coming up out of the ground in that valley."

Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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Round Valley