Highway 96 near Hoopa. Photo: Flickr user Tony Webster. Creative Commons License.


With the COVID-19 outbreak dominating everyday life, leaders in all of Humboldt County’s jurisdictions are trying to do what they feel is best for their constituents. This has caused a bit of a clash between the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and some members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

Although things seem to be smoothed over now, earlier this week there was tension between these tribal leaders and the Sheriff’s Office over the potential closure of free traffic on Highway 96, which runs through Hoopa tribal land. 

“What we’ve said, and what we believe is the law, and obviously our sovereign right, is that we can install inspection points anywhere along the highway for residents coming into the valley in order to keep our people safe,” Hoopa Tribal Councilmember Ryan Jackson told the Outpost. He also charged that Sheriff Billy Honsal threatened to arrest tribal officers if they decided to install checkpoints on the highway.

However, Honsal told the Outpost he never made such a statement, and that he never spoke directly with Jackson — only with Tribal Chair Byron Nelson. 

“The lines of communication between the Chairman and I are wide open,” Honsal said. “I know exactly what he wants, and I am advising him under the law that they can’t shut down Highway 96. They can shut down and close their reservation, all the tribal lands; they can restrict access and all of those things are within their rights as a sovereign nation to do so.” (Read Chairman Nelson’s comments below.)

Some of the tension seems to stem from personal animus between Jackson and Honsal. Honsal said Jackson has been accusatory in the past when it comes to how state law is enforced on tribal lands, and that they don’t see eye to eye on this. Jackson’s accusation of Honsal threatening to arrest Hoopa Tribal Police Officers seems to originate from from Honsal saying the tribe would be in violation of state law if they decide to close Highway 96. 

“What I was saying on the phone call was that we want to support [Hoopa] and we don’t want them to violate the law,” Honsal said. “We don’t want to get a call where we have to go and enforce state law on tribal land. That is not a situation we want to get into. We want to give them an opportunity and provide them an avenue to protect their people, but still adhere to state laws that are necessary.”

In a video released to the community on April 6, Councilmember Ryan Jackson castigated the Sheriff’s Office in relation to a dispute over whether or not the tribe could legally install checkpoints on Highway 96. His statements on the dispute start at about minute marker 8:30. 

Jackson feels that Honsal is being unfair in this, and that he is targeting Native Americans when it comes to their sovereign rights and their ability to protect themselves. Jackson even took it a step further and said Honsal is a “prejudiced man because of the actions he continuously takes against Hoopa.” 

Honsal called the accusation of him being prejudiced against Hoopa tribal members “outlandish,” and said it is difficult for him to address the accusation because it has no merit. 

“I am not prejudiced towards the Native Americans of Hoopa or any other tribe in our county,” Honsal said. “I take pride in the relationships that we’ve built. I am the chairperson for the state sheriff’s association’s tribal relations committee.”

Honsal put emphasis on denouncing this accusation. He said he has been advocating in Sacramento for tribes to have the ability to train their own officers so they can enforce state law, and also emphasized that the Sheriff’s Office and the Hoopa Valley Tribe are working together during this pandemic. 

“I think it is important for the community to know that there is not a war between the Sheriff’s Office and the tribes,” he said. “We are working together, and there are legitimate problems that we are trying to solve together.”

This past Saturday, a multi-agency phone call took place between the Hoopa Tribe, the Sheriff’s Office, CalTrans and the California Highway Patrol and a discussion over whether or not the Tribe has the authority to shut down the highway took place. Honsal said the question was brought all the way to the Governor’s Office, and the final say in the matter was that the tribe does not have the authority to shut down a state highway.

“However, what the tribe wants to do is establish a checkpoint for people that turn off of Highway 96 and stop on tribal land and we are working with the tribe,” Honsal said, adding that he is working with with CalTrans to find a way for a checkpoint to be established right off of the highway in the business district of Hoopa. “They are going to have a checkpoint at where all of their vital services are. The gas station, grocery store, at the core business area of Hoopa.”

Honsal said the Tribe will have an encroachment permit through CalTrans that will allow tribal police to stop traffic that pulls off of the road and funnel it into an area where they will be able to verify if the motorists are tribal members or residents that live on Hoopa land. If they aren’t, they will be asked to leave tribal lands.

Sheriff Billy Honsal responded to criticism from Jackson and others in this video released yesterday.

And on this point Jackson and Honsal seem to agree. Jackson said that right now is not a time for recreation, and that non-tribal members and non-residents of the Hoopa Valley should not come to the area for now. 

“We don’t know if they’re carrying the virus or not,” Jackson said. “We just want to make sure that now is not a time for tourism. This isn’t a time for sightseeing, this isn’t the time for hitting all the favorite camping spots. This is a time to actually be at home. And this is our land, whether you like it or not. We have exclusive jurisdiction over it and we’re going to assert that jurisdiction and sovereignty because we feel like it’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive.”

Recently a positive test for COVID-19 of a resident in Hoopa was registered, and Jackson feels that aggressive measures are needed to prevent future ones. He said the tribe has purchased bulk food for anyone who may come down with the virus in order to keep them from having to leave their home, and to hand out so that people do not have the need to travel into towns where community spread is happening. 

“We’re working through trying to provide enough food and supplies for people that we could just hand out and give to them in order for them to stay home,” Jackson said.

The tribe has also been working on sectioning off a portion of its clinic to provide for any severe cases, and is working on getting ventilators and ramping up their testing. Jackson said the Tribe has identified the hotel as an alternative care site, and that a county official came out and helped them prepare. 

The Yurok Tribe is taking similar measures. In a press release issued on April 5, the tribe said, “The Yurok reservation will be closed to non-residents; however, essential tribal government employees, authorized vehicles and essential services will continue to have access. State highways will still be open to through traffic.”

“We are taking every step possible and necessary to protect the health and safety of our community,” Yurok Vice-Chairman Frankie Meyers said in a recorded statement on Facebook. “At the end of the day, that is what you elected us to do and that is what we are trying to do.”


UPDATE 4:53 p.m.: 

In a phone conversation this afternoon, Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Byron Nelson elaborated on the relationship between the Tribe and HCSO. He said the Tribe and Sheriff Honsal are on the same page when it comes to moving forward with what is best for the residents of Hoopa. 

“Sheriff Honsal has been really cooperating with us and really trying to get approval for us to limit the traffic through the reservation. It’s CalTrans that we are having problems with, not Sheriff Honsal,” Nelson told the Outpost.

He said CalTrans does not want the traffic flow along Highway 96 to be interrupted at all — no checkpoints, no advising any motorists not to stop or anything.

“We want to be able to keep people from the outside from coming in and using our facilities,” Nelson said. “We have the same regulations that the state has, to shelter in place.”

The only thing that is up in the air as far as what the Tribe can and can’t do is limiting traffic, he added. He said that a true “agreement” was never really reached with CalTrans, but are going ahead with the checkpoints near the main facilities. 

“We didn’t really have a choice but to go along with what CalTrans was proposing,” he said. “It would come to a lawsuit because we do have the jurisdiction. In 1988 our Constitution was ratified by Congress and in that it gives us jurisdiction on any interior boundaries in the reservation. If we went to court we would probably win, but right now we are just going to make do.” 

As far as the personal animus between Jackson and Sheriff Honsal, Nelson said the history between the two goes back a few years and essentially surrounds what kind of tribal police force Jackson wanted to set up when he was chairman of the Tribe. Nelson said Jackson didn’t want the Sheriff’s Office to have jurisdiction over the reservation. However, Nelson pointed to Public Law 280 that gives the Sheriff’s Office the authority to enforce state law on tribal lands and said Jackson was trying to go against this law. He also said that Jackson was placing officers in the tribal police departments without proper background checks. 

“It was a mess and so when I came in as chairman, I was told by members to straighten the police department out, to clean it up. And I did that, I ended up firing about five people from there.”

Nelson called the relationship between the tribal police and the Sheriff’s Office a “partnership” that works to provide protection on the reservation adding that Jackson was completely against this partnership. Jackson wanted tribal police to operate separate from the County, Nelson said. 

“What good were [tribal police] if they can’t make arrests? That’s what existed when I came in as chairman,” Nelson said. 

As far as the accusation of prejudice goes, Nelson also felt this was unfounded. He said his relationship with Honsal is a good one and rooted in familial ties. 

“I do not believe that Sheriff Honsal is prejudiced, he is not racist,” Nelson said. “I know his father really well and have a good relationship with his father. I don’t think that family is like that at all.”