The Hoopa Valley Tribe kicks out a convicted drug dealer


Arthur Jones has calmed down. His long, black ponytail salted with gray has stopped swaying. There are now thoughtful pauses between his words. He's been talking for an hour with the fervor of one wrongfully accused. Standing at the rickety gate of his front porch, he stares out onto the Hoopa Valley. The expanse tranquilizes him. The sky, an opaque pale blue like pulverized turquoise, hangs above an earthly expanse of Douglas fir bluffs that look like the tops of giant broccoli florets. Just out of sight snakes the Trinity River, an artery that has been sustaining life for centuries.

The 90,000 acre Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, 50 miles inland from the Pacific, is the largest Indian reservation in California. About 3,000 people call Hoopa their home, 95 percent of whom are Hupa Indians. (The people themselves are "Hupa," while the valley is "Hoopa"). The tribe is one of very few that was never removed off ancestral grounds. Earth. Water. Sky. The Hupa were never forced to say goodbye.

"This is the center of the world for Hupa people," says Jones, whom everybody call Arty. "This is where the creator put us. We're as much a part of here as that tree over there, or that river over there."

With his dark eyes still fixated on the sweep of land, the 58-year-old Hupa tribal member vows to never leave. It's his home forever, he says.

But he doesn't have a choice.

Jones was convicted of felony drug charges late last year in Humboldt County Superior Court. Last week, the Hoopa Valley Tribe banished Jones through Title 5, its controversial exclusion ordinance. He's been ordered to leave the reservation and to never come back. If he won't go voluntarily, tribal police will swing by, slap cold handcuffs on his wrists and escort him over the boundary. Where to? It doesn't matter. Just not here.    

Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten Jr. promised to clean up the valley's drug problem -- particularly methamphetamine, a drug that plagues reservations across the country -- when he successfully campaigned for the position in 2009. He's already kicked out one non-tribal resident since being elected, and has enforced strict pre-employment drug testing for all tribal employees. Forcing people to pee in a cup and exiling drug dealers has made him both a loved and loathed figure in Hoopa.

Jones has some unusual supporters for a notorious and self-acknowledged drug dealer. Even Masten's predecessor, Lyle Marshall, is staunchly against the banishment. Jones contends that Masten and the tribe illegally altered the exclusion rules, and says the chairman selectively punished him because he's an outspoken political foe. For more than a year now, Masten and Jones have been battling in court, a battle that now will continue through Jones' appeal. Both men have lobbed vicious insults and accused each other of crimes and dubious tactics. It's a strange turn for two guys who grew up together, drank beers and dropped acid together in high school, and whose kids played together. When Jones came home from the military as a young man, one of the first guys he visited was Masten.

Two things stick out when Arthur Jones reflects on that September day in 2011 when he was arrested in Hoopa: The blistering heat and the impression it may have left on Jesus, his 2-year-old son.

Jones was driving home after picking up Jesus from preschool when Humboldt County Drug Task Force agents pulled him over for speeding. After searching his flashy silver 2011 Chevy Camaro, agents found 17 grams of meth packaged in plastic baggies, two pounds of marijuana, and more than $2,000 in cash. The district attorney's office would later issue a search warrant for his house near the Hoopa rodeo grounds, where agents seized an additional five ounces of meth, almost six pounds of processed marijuana, a 9mm pistol, $41,000 in cash, and an additional $151,000 from a Coast Central Credit Union bank account. It was one of the county's most lucrative busts in 2011.  

Jones was cuffed and stuffed in the back of a squad car as officers finished searching his Camaro. He demanded that officers allow a family member take Jesus out of the heat and away from the scene. Jones suddenly started having chest pains and struggled to breathe. He passed out and was taken to Mad River Hospital for treatment. After a quick recovery, he was booked into jail on six charges, including intent to sell drugs, possession of a firearm and child cruelty. He was out on bail the next day.

Jones hired Eureka attorney Greg Rael to represent him in Humboldt's criminal court. He pleaded guilty in February and was convicted of two felonies, possessing a controlled substance and possessing it with intent to sell. A probation report outlined Jones' life story: how all four of his siblings died before turning 21, how his military service left him a disabled veteran, how he struggled with substance abuse, how he became a wrestler and wrestling coach, and how dedicated he was to his 10 children and 19 grandchildren. And then there were the letters of support.

There were more than 30 of them. They came from librarians, teachers, drug abuse counselors, restaurant owners, a former tribal chairman, current tribal council members and retired federal employees, among others. (There were also an unknown number of opposition letters, but the Journal was unable to get copies before the court sealed his probation documents, which by law happens 60 days after sentencing.)

One of the letters came from Tim Kyle, a Hoopa tribal member who was working for the tribe's AmeriCorps program at the time and has since left for a higher paying job off the reservation. "Arthur is trustworthy and reliable; I believe he has more positive than negative to contribute to the community," he wrote of Jones. Because the letters were public for a couple of months, anyone could read them, including Masten.

"When I wrote the personal reference letter it seemed to cause a problem with the tribe for some reason," Kyle said. "People start picking sides and all that bullshit that comes with it. Kind of strong arm tactics stuff."

Kyle said Masten called his boss and told her that the tribe does not condone the letters, and that he might have to retract it down the line. But Kyle insists that he wrote on his own time and he's not going to let anyone pick his friends. Like many others on the reservation, Kyle feels the ordinance should be used for molesters and violent criminals, not drug offenders and "all the other pieces of shit out there."

Masten repudiates Kyle's characterization of the "strong arm" maneuver. "I didn't put pressure on anybody. We don't see those letters until after he was in the court system and being dealt with."

The military service and the character reference letters might have helped, but what ultimately saved Jones were California's overcrowded prisons. Under the state's new realignment laws, felony drug possession no longer makes criminals eligible for state prison. And even though he has previous felony charges for possession of a controlled substance and assault, Jones was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, 400 hours of community service, and forced to forfeit $100,000 of the seized funds. He got back close to another $100,000, and went home to Hoopa.

Masten called the letters of support "disgusting." He didn't much like the "slap on the wrist" sentencing either. "How are we supposed to clean up our community when this is the sort of sentencing that is handed down?" he told the Two Rivers Tribune earlier this year. Later, Masten said in his interview with the Journal, that he has put in an enormous amount of time with the drug task force and the sheriff's office to coordinate efforts to catch drug dealers, and he feels frustrated state courts won't do more. Next time, he said, he'll urge federal courts to prosecute Hoopa-based dealers.

The way Masten saw it, Jones did plead guilty to dealing and selling drugs. And so began the showdown in Hoopa Tribal Court.

At least 90 tribes currently have exclusion codes in their governing ordinances, according to the National Indian Law Library. Before Europeans arrived, most disputes were settled through payment of one sort or another, said Marlon Sherman, a Native American studies professor at Humboldt State University. "Local North Coast tribes are especially famous for having been able to mediate disputes and settle them relatively amicably through the giving or exchange of goods, such as ceremonial items or canoes." Banishment was more severe than other forms of punishment, he said, as it separated the person from all contact with his or her community. "Family and community were as essential to life in those days as food and water. Banishment was a punishment worse than death."

Modern exclusion ordinances may be a reaction to restrictive federal laws that prevent tribes from sentencing miscreants to substantive jail time, according to Sherman. Federal authorities did not believe tribes were competent to handle their own judicial affairs, he said, and many tribes did not have the funds to build and manage jails. While tribes in some states can impose relatively short jail terms, Hoopa does not have its own jail and has opted not to go that route. One tool it does have, though, is banishment, more formally called exclusion.

Exclusion is a milder punishment than disenrollment, which actually strips a person of his or her tribal membership. Disenrollment has become increasingly common in tribes with large casino wealth, and those who are ousted lose their share of the pot. By contrast, a tribal member excluded from Hoopa can still share in government aid, legal settlements and other benefits offered to native people. He just can't live there.

Jones is the first tribal member to be excluded during Masten's tenure, but Masten kicked out a non-member in 2009, soon after he was elected chairman. Delbert Pole, now 51, said he was to be the example that Masten was doing his job. "I'm not a tribal member and he figured I would be the easiest one to kick out of the valley and I'm not happy about it. ... They do things their own way in Hoopa, and I know that, but I didn't deserve that."

Pole grew up in Hoopa, and had lived there his whole life. In 2009 he was arrested for providing a space for selling and manufacturing meth. He served 150 days in jail and was put on three years' felony probation. While in jail he received word that the tribe intended to banish him with the exclusion ordinance. Pole pleaded to the tribal court to give him 30 days after being released from jail to prepare for the case. The tribe gave him three.

He assumed that it would be like the criminal courts he'd been in before. There would be an arraignment and he would be provided with legal counsel if he couldn't afford a lawyer. But this tribal court has no obligation to provide legal counsel. The tribal judge accused Pole of selling drugs in the valley, as opposed to just providing a space for sales, as Pole claimed. He didn't fight the ruling because he didn't want to stir up trouble considering he was on probation. The whole hearing lasted 20 minutes. And just like that, Pole was told he had 30 days to leave and to never come back.

He packed his Toyota and tow trailer and left his two teenage sons behind with his mom, eventually settling in Eureka. More than anything he wants to go back to Hoopa. "All my family is there and my parents are getting old. I kind of need to be there. I don't know if I can live there, but I want the ability to go back home," he said. "I don't understand Eureka and the people here. I just want to go back home."

Hoopa's banishment ordinance, passed by the tribe in 1986, is exclusively administered through the chairman and verified by the tribal judge. But Masten didn't want to be the sole force behind Jones' banishment and solicited support from the seven-member council.

The ordinance is laid out over several sections, and controversy has arisen over how it should be interpreted and when it can properly be amended. It allows the tribe to exclude people from the reservation for repeated commission of crimes, but that provision apparently has rarely been used. Beyond that broad language, in August 2009 Masten and the council passed resolution #09-180, specifically stating that people who distribute illegal drugs within Hoopa Valley Reservation "have committed an unauthorized entry" and can be banished. Only one member of the council, Hayley Hutt, voted against the change at the time, saying it might be unfair. "There are literally hundreds of members who qualify for exclusion under the ordinance if the resolution is used to amend the law," Hutt said at a tribal council meeting.

Jones and several council members have argued that resolution #09-180 is illegal because it fundamentally changed or amended banishment rules without public input. Such a "major action" would have required public input through Legislation Procedures Act. The chairman and the tribal attorney say that it wasn't major -- it merely clarifies existing rules. Whether that's so or not, the drug dealing clause was cited in the effort to ban Jones -- and so far it doesn't seem to be aimed at any other tribal member.

Rael, who represented Jones in both superior and tribal court, says tribal law is pretty clear that any repeat criminal living in Hoopa can be banished. "You could probably find hundreds of people in Hoopa and outside of Hoopa who would fall under that criteria. Why they're singling out Mr. Jones for this treatment is something I don't understand."

Masten offers somewhat conflicting accounts for why Jones is the first tribal member to be banished during his tenure.

For one thing, Masten really was after Jones, specifically. "Arty Jones is the largest drug dealer we have here on the reservation, and has been for years," Masten said. "He was the number one person on my list that I was going to deal with."

Beyond that, the tribal chairman added, he doesn't want to go after people whose repeat offenses occurred before he was elected. And for those arrested after he took office, they must be convicted and then somehow brought to his administration's attention. Usually, Masten said, community members or law enforcement would tell him about new convictions, because Hoopa is a small community and people know what's going on there.

Ideally, Masten would like to establish a new tribal law that would automatically initiate banishment for anyone meeting a certain criteria -- for child molesters, murderers and drug dealers.

"I don't have fun banishing anybody, especially a tribal member," Masten said. "But we have to start someplace. [Jones] just happens to be at the top. If he wasn't doing what he was doing, there wouldn't be concern. He's a convicted drug dealer."

How many other drug dealers are there in Hoopa? No one seems willing to say or even estimate. Jones was the one in Masten's sights.

So after Jones was convicted in February 2012, Masten served the banishment notice and a tribal court date was set. Richard Blake, the tribe's judge, recused himself from the case because he had written a letter of support to Jones and is his cousin.

The tribe hired a pro tem judge from San Francisco, Christine Williams, who refused to comment for this story.

As Jones' requests to postpone his tribal court date and a plea to allow character witnesses to testify on his behalf were rejected by the pro tem judge, the "slippery eel" surfaced. The eel is tribal slang for trouble-making put into writing. This three-page eel was slipperier than others; it was an anonymous memo, circulated around the reservation in spring, and made to look as if it came from Masten. It was printed on the official letterhead of the tribe, and stated: "Leonard Masten, Chairman, and six of the Tribal Council members are requesting a list of 400 names that fall under the new exclusion laws to help clean up the tribe and the enrollment."

Like Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast, the slippery eel was clearly theater, but many people took it as real, and a good deal of panic ensued. Especially because page three printed more than 100 names of Hoopa residents who had criminal records for various repeated offenses that could be subject to banishment.

And what slippery eel would be complete without a stinging accusation: "When Mr. Masten was head of the tribal police, he didn't do anything except what he's doing now, going to the gorge, getting drunk, and selling our fish." Masten called the accusations slanderous and absolutely untrue. The author of the slippery eel remains unknown. Jones denies having anything to do with it. But in his interview with the Journal, Jones answered some questions with almost verbatim excerpts from the document.

After Jones pleaded guilty to selling meth, he told a probation officer: "I did not sell anything on the [Hoopa] Valley floor. I sold it in Willow Creek and Orleans." Sort of a strange plea for sympathy.

It's especially strange because if there's anyone who knows the horror of substance abuse, it's Jones, who told probation officers that he abused meth and cocaine until completing an 18 month rehab program in Oregon in 1999. And for a man who feverishly speaks about uplifting his tribe, you have to wonder, why did he sling poisonous dope throughout the community?

He needed the money, he said that day on his front porch. He needed it to eat, and to help educate his grandkids. He needed it even though he gets a combined $3,470 every month in disability payments from Social Security and the Veterans Administration.

"I'm not looking for any sympathy. ... Do you know what a reservation is? For most white people it's where the Indians get to hunt and fish and play in the river." But for Jones, it is both a haven for the Hupa people and a near-gulag being created by its current tribal leadership. Because of Masten and his cronies, Jones said, "I'm a 20th century POW living in a 20th century concentration camp, but they call it a reservation and now and then they feed me."

Hoopa tribal members refer to themselves as Natinixwe. It literally means "people of the place where the trails return." For Jones, unless he wins on appeal or his exclusion is one day lifted, that trail will never return home to the Hoopa Valley.

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