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Valley’s First Tübatulabal ‘Mayor’ Wants to Make His Term Count

Rocky Stone, a Tubatulabal tribal member, is using his status as honorary mayor of Whiskey Flat to educate others about his tribal community.

Rocky Stone was elected mayor of Whiskey Flat, California in February. But he doesn’t have a town budget to manage, he doesn’t have to preside over council meetings, he doesn’t have to tend to important municipal matters.

The post is honorary, the election part of the lower Sierra Nevada town of Kernville’s annual Whiskey Flat Days celebration February 14-17. “Whiskey Flat” was the name of the community during the mid-19th century Gold Rush. You win by raising the most money; past Whiskey Flat mayors have had names like Dog Ear Dave, Moonshine Mike, Calamity Carrie, Tenderfoot Tony, and Mean River Gene.

But Stone is taking his election seriously. He is the first member of the Tübatulabal Tribe elected Whiskey Flat mayor in the 42-year history of the event. Running as “Rango Rocky” – a reference to the current drought – he out-fundraised his opponent Nicole Kent (aka “Nickel & Dime Nicole”) to win the mayoralty and raise $30,188 for the tribe, 4-H, and the local chamber of commerce, which sponsors Whiskey Flat Days.

Stone, 61, is a utility technician for a mineral company. He’s also an elected member of the Tübatulabal Tribal Council; he said the tribe will use the money he raised for office supplies and “to keep the office open.”

His goal for the year of his honorary mayoralty: To raise awareness in the Kern Valley about the Tübatulabal Tribe, its history in the valley, and its efforts to establish a formal relationship with the U.S. government.

The Tübatulabals signed one of 18 treaties in 1851 that the U.S. Congress failed to ratify. Many Tübatulabals live on land allotted to them by the U.S., and the council has worked with IHS to accomplish clean-water and wastewater improvements on the allotments, which are considered “Indian country” under 18 U.S. Code § 1151. But the relationship with the U.S. only goes so far. In 2011, then-chairwoman Donna Miranda-Begay received a rejection letter from the White House when she asked to attend the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Federal recognition would give the tribe authority to, among other things, make and enforce laws, establish land use regulations, and license and regulate activities within its jurisdiction. The tribe could engage in initiatives to improve economic, educational and housing opportunities for its citizens.

Despite the fact that the Tübatulabal people’s ties to this place are as old as the river that flows through the valley, many people are unfamiliar with the tribe, at least the fact it has its own government and office and services. According to Tübatulabal Chairman Robert Gomez, that’s partly because, for years, few Kern Valley Indians made any distinction between Kawaiisu, Paiute, Shoshone, Tübatulabal, or Yokuts.

“We were all just Indians from the Lake Isabella-Kernville area,” he said.

Kern Valley Indians, including Tübatulabals, banded together and organized the Kern Valley Indian Community in the 1980s and petitioned the federal government for recognition.

“Then in the 1990s, when I wanted to start a language program, I went to our elders and asked, ‘What language do we speak?’” Gomez said. That’s when the distinction was clear. He started the Pakanapul Language Program – Pakanapul being one of three Tübatulabal bands. The Tübatulabals broke away from the KVIC and elected their own council in 2006.

(The KVIC is still pursuing federal recognition. Another group, the Kern River Paiute Council, operates the Nuui Cunni Cultural Center on U.S. Forest Service land overlooking Lake Isabella.)

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“Our big goal is to raise awareness, to let people know there’s a tribe on the other side of the lake – the aboriginal tribe of the valley,” Gomez said.

In eight years, the Tübatulabal Tribe has been actively involved in water issues on the regional and state level, worked with neighboring tribal governments on repatriation of ancestors’ remains and funerary objects, and with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established a consultation process for the Lake Isabella Dam improvement project. The dam is located within Tübatulabal’s usual and accustomed territory. Tübatulabal monitors will be on hand during the project to ensure cultural resources and remains are not disturbed.

“We want to be recognized as the go-to tribe,” Gomez said.

Gomez said Stone was the right guy to help spread the word.

Courtesy Rocky Stone

Everybody knows Rocky.

“It’s a popularity contest, and he’s established himself over the years,” Gomez said. “He helps in the community, he’s known in the horse-riding community. [In the mayor’s race] the tribe helped out as we could, and he got a lot of help from friends and family.”

A dinner-dance auction raised $12,000. Cow chip bingo raised $10,000. Two nights of card games raised $1,500. A team roping event raised $500. Fifty-seven donors gave $100 each to be sponsors. The Tejon Tribe donated $500.

During the campaign, Stone hobnobbed with U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. Later, as mayor of Whiskey Flat, Stone participated in the Kern Valley Hospital Foundation’s annual Jeanette Rogers-Erickson Heart Walk on February 22, to raise funds for Kern Valley Hospital.

Charlie Busch of the local radio station told Stone he can finally pronounce “Tu-ba-tu-la-bal.” “He’s pretty proud of himself,” Stone said.

And, since his election, the drought-stricken valley has had some rain. Rango Rocky’s not taking credit for that, but anyone who saw the movie “Rango” must have thought about the film’s happy ending, when the citizens of a parched town celebrate the return of the water.

Stone’s sure his mayoralty will end on a similarly happy note. “I’ve met a lot of people who are interested in helping us,” he said. “It’s kind of humbling.”