The new-year had barely dawned and Tubatulabal Tribe Chairman Robert Gomez was hard at work on the priorities he and the council had established for the year.
It’s a heavy load: Federal recognition. Economic development. Professional development for tribal leadership. Community outreach. Continued relationship building with local, state and federal agencies, as well as the local Native and non-Native communities.
Gomez, 68, was re-elected to the council on December 8 and was subsequently elected chairman by council members. He succeeds Donna Miranda-Begay, who retired after six years at the helm of the First Nation in Kern Valley, California, where the Kern River meanders through a lower Sequoia National Forest landscape of gray pine and pinyon pine, chaparral yucca, horsetail, lupine, sagebrush, and native ferns and wildflowers.
Also elected to the council: Tina Guerrero, vice chairwoman; Louise Miranda-Akers, secretary; Josie Peterson, treasurer; Samantha Riding-Red-Horse, enrollment officer; and Jimmy Andreas, Sherry Click, Betsy Johnson and Rocky Stone. Council members serve four-year terms; the chairman also serves a four-year term.
As chairman, Gomez inherits the work of winning full recognition for his people. His predecessors signed one of 18 unratified treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s. The Tubatulabals are recognized as Indians by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and live on allotted land in their historical territory, but their government-to-government relationship with the U.S. is limited. For example, the Tubatulabal Tribe has contracts with the BIA and Indian Health Service (HIS) for water and wastewater improvements on the land allotments, and the council meets quarterly with officials from the local U.S. Forest Service office, but then-chairwoman Miranda-Begay’s request to attend the Tribal Nations Conference was turned down by the White House.
According to the BIA, full recognition gives tribes authority “to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands.” Recognition would give the Tubatulabals more authority over land use and economic development.
Gomez is well positioned to build on the relationships the Tubatulabals have with local, state and federal governments. He retired as a sheriff’s deputy and as program director for Kaplan College Bakersfield's Criminal Justice Department. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he and other Native Americans from Bakersfield, Tubatulabal and the Tule River reservation blessed the land that was donated by Tejon Ranch for a new national veterans cemetery in 2008, and worked for the creation of a monument there for Native American veterans. He started the Pakanapul Language School in Lake Isabella and served on the Tubatulabal Tribal Council for six years.
This year, “The big challenge is federal recognition,” Gomez said. The tribe is organizing its documentation and may be ready to file its petition this year. “We will be looking at some examples [of other recognition efforts], look at challenges others have faced and develop those areas,” he said.
In February, there were 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. To be federally recognized, a tribe must, among other things, have been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900; have existed as a distinct community from historical times until the present; and maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.
“The political component, the ancestry, we have that down pretty much,” Gomez said. “We’re now documenting that we have continuity.”
The Tubatulabals were led by hereditary leaders from pre-contact until the 1940s, when the last hereditary chief, Steban Miranda, died; he was alive when the treaties were signed and witnessed the massacre of 35 Tubatulabal men by U.S. Army troops in 1863. Following Miranda’s death, the Tubatulabals were governed by a council of elders until the 1970s when they, the Kawaiisu and other Kern Valley Indians formed the Kern Valley Indian Community. Miranda-Begay, Steban Miranda’s great-granddaughter, was vice chairwoman of the Kern Valley Indian Community in 2006 when the Tubatulabals, desiring to maintain their own identity, opened their own office and elected a council in 2006.
“We felt we needed to have a distinct community rather than be part of a conglomeration,” Gomez said. “We wanted to be distinct from others because these were our traditional lands.”
In the ensuing years, the Tubatulabal Tribe participated in state and regional water planning agencies, negotiated contracts for quality of life improvements on allotted lands, worked with the Tachi Yokut Tribe to repatriate ancestors’ remains and funerary objects, recorded oral histories, documented Tubatulabal baskets in the California State Parks Museum, and conducted artifact and language research in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Gomez said the tribe continues to be involved regionally in the Kern Council of Governments and the Kern County Water Agency. A project with the IHS to improve access to quality drinking water and wastewater disposal on allotted lands continues. The relationships with IHS and the U.S. Forest Service “are helping us maintain that government-to-government relationship,” Gomez said.
Tubatulabal government departments and committees include cemetery, enrollment, language, and water. General membership meetings are scheduled in March, June, September and December. Upcoming annual events include the three-day gathering to remember the ancestors killed in the 1863 massacre, and the two-day gathering and Bear Dance at the White Blanket allotment, both in April. Fundraisers are scheduled through the year.
The tribe is active on Facebook and launched Tubatulabal.org in February. Its parade float won first place for Best of Theme in the annual Whiskey Flat Days parade in Kernville, over President’s Day weekend.
In tandem with recognition efforts, Gomez said he wants to develop tribal leadership’s skills in communications and running a non-profit, foster more interaction with the non-Native community, and establish the tribe as “the ones to go to” on Native issues in the Kern River Valley.
The tribe participates in archeological and cultural resource monitoring. Tubatulabal leaders met with the Army Corps of Engineers and asked that at least 5 percent of the workforce on Corps projects in the area be Native American. “It looks like they were receptive,” Gomez said.
The Tule River Indian Tribe has offered the Tubatulabal Tribe the assistance of a grant writer. In addition, the Tubatulabals acquired a room next to the tribal office that it makes available for meeting space rental; it can accommodate up to 30 people.
Gomez is optimistic about the future. “The Tribal Council is new, but we’re reaching out, we’re more transparent – and we’re more visible.”