Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
A father, husband, and student at College of the Redwoods, Johnny Jones has experienced more of life’s hardships than most people can imagine. But he’s pulling his life together and holding on tight, as his interview reveals.
I was born at Seaside Hospital on July 18, 1974 and raised in Crescent City. A lot of my early childhood I kind of block out. I don’t remember much. It’s starting to come back to me more and more as an adult.
It was pretty troubled. My parents were addicts—alcohol, marijuana, and meth—although I didn’t figure that out for a while. I remember the rain. That’s what I remember most. It started raining, and it never stopped for months. I also remember that we lived lots of different places. We moved from house to house. I stayed away from home as much as I could. It wasn’t that I ran away, I just remember they had to come find me a lot.
When I was twelve years old, my three brothers and I went to live with my grandparents. My parents checked themselves into a substance abuse rehabilitation center. We boys were supposed to stay with my grandparents for just 90 days, but we ended up staying there permanently. My parents sometimes stayed with us there, but my grandparents had custody of us.
My grandmother was Delma Nix Jones, and my grandfather was Clifford Jones. My grandfather had been an old growth logger—nothing but the biggest trees. But he lost his right arm in 1979 in a logging accident while he was training a new guy. He was very well known around town. He couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped by people all over the community. They would talk and share stories. But other than that, I don’t remember him talking very much. I don’t know if the communication was verbal, because
I don’t remember him talking to me—but I remember how dedicated he was to raising us right. He always made sure we were up, he always made sure we made it to school. He got us into sports and made sure we got to practices.
He had us playing sports year round. I played baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and wrestling. I never got into track, but all the other sports, that’s what we did. He was like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid. He’s had us doing work all the time. He would take us out to Pecker’s Nob, and take that trail all the way down to the beach. We’d walk the beach until we got to the rocks, and we’d harvest mussels there. I never knew until I graduated high school that you could drive up to these places to collect mussels! He had us doing all this strenuous work, but it basically trained us to work hard, and it made us all superstars at sports. For two of my brothers, it was basketball. My youngest brother and I were really good at football.
My grandfather raised eight of his own kids, and then the four of us grandkids.
My grandma was a strong woman. It was alarming the stuff that came out of her mouth sometimes. She had no filter. She could be very vulgar at times. I remember being embarrassed by the way she talked on occasion. But it was funny—so funny—the way she put things. I couldn’t be mad at her. I couldn’t ask her to stop. She wouldn’t. She was also really hard working and worked so long in the lily fields that she was able to collect retirement.
When I was growing up, that’s where I got my first job. It was hard labor. I worked with a lot of Mexicans, and a lot of Indians, too. It was hard for the two groups to communicate, and sometimes that caused a lot of friction. I ended up getting into some fights with them, too. It was the Mexicans against the Indians, both Yurok and Tolowa. I’m both. My dad is Yurok, and my mom is Tolowa.
Was there friction between the two tribes? When I was younger, there was really no separation. Even though people had their own tribal identity, everyone was on the Yurok rolls. What changed that was the Jessie Short case being settled. It was a 1963 case over the distribution of timber sale money, and it took until the mid-1990s to settle it (and actually, longer). The Yurok Tribe won about $90 million which they had to decide how to distribute. Well, a bunch of Tolowa folks got kicked off the roles at that time. So things changed a little between us then, but mostly in the fields in Smith River, where my ancestors have been living and working for thousands of years, it was the Indians against the Mexicans, who were newcomers there, who sometimes made remarks about “taking over” the land. The irony is that it’s owned by the Westbrooks, and the Crockets, and the Stanhursts—white folks.
So we fought over a lot of that land out there. At that time, there were a lot of drugs coming in from Mexico, including meth, and field workers were taking them, sometimes just to get through the day. I had a real problem with that—my younger cousins were getting strung out on that. They would take meth to work, to get boosts of energy. But if they took it for long, they would need more and more. And soon, you’d see them only until pay day, and then you wouldn’t see them again for a while. They’d do whatever they did and then come back later.
The owners had a hard time finding laborers, so they kind of allowed this, letting people come and go as they pleased. I didn’t like that. I also didn’t like picking up the slack for other people. It created some resentment. So did the drug sales going on at the reservation. Also, some of the older Mexican guys—in their twenties and thirties—were hitting on underage girls on the reservation— my younger cousins. So I got into some altercations, and at sixteen, I ended up getting felony charges for being in a pretty big fight out there. It was over the weekend. A bunch of us went out there. A white guy who was also having some problems with Mexicans stopped by our house and rounded up me and my brothers, and we went out there and started a fight. There was a lot of testosterone in the air.
I got put on probation. My probation officer, Allan Morris, was my football coach and my wrestling coach, and I was a pretty good player—an All-County player—so I never had any problems with getting violations for my probation, even though I never officially checked in with him other than showing up to practice.
I was one of the popular kids. I liked to drink. I liked to throw huge parties out on the river bar—a different place each time. I would get four or five kegs and a garbage can full of whiskey, and I’d sell drinks. I made a lot of money, and I’d use the money to finance the next party. I think my probation officer knew what I was doing. That’s why, eventually, he would send me to treatment. But he didn’t know all that I was doing.
I got into selling meth, even though I wasn’t using it at the time. I was basically selling drugs to all my friends’ parents. The kids weren’t really using it, although a few were experimenting. It was adults. I’m not sure why they started. When I came into the picture, they were already addicted.
I’d see the signs in the parents, and I’d approach them. They became my customers. It did affect my relationships with my socalled friends. I wasn’t doing them any favors. I knew the effect it had on families. I’d lived it. But hustling—that was the lifestyle I knew.
We never had a lot of money growing up, and my grandfather had taught me to work hard, so selling alcohol and drugs was sort of an extension of that. It was illegal, but it felt right because it was work.
Growing up, I’d always had to work some job or some hustle. As kids, we used to peel chinna bark, dry it, and sell it in Brookings. When I was thirteen, I started commercial fishing, all season. I got addicted to money. I had to buy my own things, but I always had the nicest pair of shoes and new clothes for school.
I think my probation officer wanted to help me with this addiction— not just to drugs, but to money. He wanted to find out what I had missed—what I needed to learn to change my behavior—and that’s why I was sentenced to seven years. But there might have been a little bit of jealousy there, too. My probation officer had twin boys my age. We were friends. And by the time I turned eighteen, I had thousands of dollars saved—and a settlement from the tribe for over $40,000. I was one rich eighteen year old.
I went a little bit crazy. This is when I moved to Hoopa. I wanted to explore. I moved to Hoopa. With cash, I bought a ’55 Chevy, fully restored. Three or four of my uncles had owned that specific make and model. It felt like a family thing. I drove down to Southern California and all the way up to Canada.
When I was growing up, I never got to travel. I never went to Disneyland. So I took myself to Disneyland. Six Flags. I also went to Indian reservations. I was curious about how other Indians lived, and I wanted to hang out. I knew the language—I call it “Res Ebonics”—and most of the time I was welcomed and had a place to stay. Sometimes I got into fights. That’s kind of how it can be at first. You get put to a test. You have to show that you’re strong.
Like me, a lot of them were looking for opportunities—opportunities about what I had, what they could take, what they could be a part of. I know that’s a lot of why I put people to the test. I used to do that a lot—find out what they had. Most of the time, it was about what we could do together, although sometimes they could be malicious. I met a lot of cool people. I met a lot of real people. Coming from Humboldt County, I always had a good weed connection. So I would buy pounds and pounds of weed before I left and sell it at concerts and fairs. All these places were new to me. It was an adventure.
Up north, I stayed with a friend of mine in Puyallup, Washington. We sold fireworks for a time and made pretty good money. It was just one hustle to another—some legal and some not. But when I graduated, turned 18, and took off to Hoopa, I got all these probation violations. I had to go in to court to fight them. The judge wanted to know why, after almost four years on probation, I had never checked in or signed any paperwork the whole time. When I tried to explain to him that my probation officer had never asked me to check in before because he’d been my coach, he didn’t like that excuse. Yes, I should have done the probation like everybody else. I knew I was getting special treatment. But I didn’t realize it would stop so soon, when I was no longer of any value to my coach.
So, they sent me to a juvenile rehabilitation center and told me that if I could complete the rehab, I would be off probation. But I got kicked out and sent to the California Juvenile Authority (for offenders under twenty-five) where I was told I’d need to serve seven years.
So, I left Crescent City thinking I would be gone for seven years. At first, since I was a drug addict, I went to the part of the California Youth Authority for addicts. Then, when I was a little older, I moved to a different facility. I was shuffled around frequently. I, did 2 ½ years, and was released back to Crescent City.
It was very hard to stay out of trouble. When the cops saw me, they always pulled me over. Always. They had a right to, because, as a parolee, I had a search and seizure clause. But it didn’t matter if I was driving or just riding in a car, I was getting pulled over, and I was getting questioned.
I got a job as a roofer at McMurry and Sons. We had an all-Indian crew. It was just me and some guys from school that I played sports with. But even with having a job and going to work, I still got harassed by the police. And I kind of pushed back. Well, I really pushed back. I’d always had a problem with authority. Growing up, I remember police officers always coming to houses we lived in. Del Norte County sheriffs were rough on my dad and his brothers and Indians in general. I never had a good experience with cops. I witnessed a lot of racism from them, too. I was raised to resent them and everything they were about.
But I soon had another reason to be angry at police officers. In 1996, my dad—technically my uncle and stepdad, but the only father I ever knew—was beaten to death by Shasta County police. They were watching him because they thought he was a drug dealer. He’d just gotten a lump sum from the Jessie Short case, and he was driving a new car and partying and drinking. I don’t know if he was dealing. He might have been. He was well within those circles.
But when you ask about injustice—what’s fair or isn’t fair around here—I can’t help but think of what happened. They put him in handcuffs, and then they roughed him up. Actually, they beat him so bad, he had to go to the hospital. In the hospital, they had him handcuffed to the bed. That’s where they said he went for one of their weapons. An officer hit him with a billy club to the throat and crushed his windpipe. He died right there in the hospital.
At first, I was so angry, I was going to go to war with them. I loaded up my truck with every gun that I had and started driving over the hill. I was going to shoot it out with them until they shot me. But the clutch in my truck went out, and I had to come back.
That was the only thing that stopped me. You know, when I think about it now, it’s possible that cop didn’t mean to kill him. I know that a lot of police are racist. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. But maybe my dad did reach for one of their weapons. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that my clutch going out is the only reason I’m still here now. A friend of mine called me and called a friend of mine in Washington. I stayed up there for about six months. I walked away from my job. I walked away from my probation officer. I wasn’t supposed to leave the state. But at the time, it was probably one of the best decisions I made. I don’t know how I could have stayed after that. It kept me from doing something really stupid.
Another time, I flew out to Texas and visited a cousin of mine out there. I drove all over Texas and the southwest and had another adventure. I went to Indian reservations there, too, and attended this big powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Gathering of Nations. I almost ran out of money out there, but I asked my cousin to send me $200, and I took it to a casino and won enough to get me on the road again. Up in Washington, I’d been in a knife fight. I cut someone from his ear down to his collar bone, and I got cut across the throat. They had me strapped down in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I guess the police were going to meet us there. But when we were going down the freeway, I unhooked myself and made the ambulance driver pull over. I jumped out and I ran. They never did catch up to me.
When I finally made it home to Crescent City, I was here only a couple of days until I got arrested and sent back to the California Youth Authority. But by then, I was tired of running. I was looking for a reason to stop.
What changed it all for me? When I was twenty-six, I met this girl. It was kind of a fling. She got pregnant and had my son. I wanted to be a father so badly—I always did, even when I was younger. My dad had been killed, and my grandfather ended up having a stroke and passing away that same year. I just wanted connections to people so bad, and this was my chance. We had our son, and then two years after that, a daughter. That was 2002. We eventually split up, but we stayed friends.
I gave up the fighting and the violence then. That was my first step. The only thing I couldn’t stop so easily was the drugs and the drinking. What drugs? At first it was marijuana, then coke, meth, and ultimately, heroin, which I was introduced to in prison.
As an adult, I got charged in Del Norte County a lot. I had a drug problem. I needed a couple hundred dollars a day just to stay normal. I never broke into anyone’s house or anything, but I was definitely bending the law. I was involved in petty crime. On the other hand, I got charged a lot for things I didn’t do. I was a frequent target of harassment by the police. I ended up in court a lot. I beat thirty-four separate charges against me. It was a real hassle.
Something dramatic happened to me that finally got me off drugs. I died. Twice. The first time, I was in the California Rehabilitation Center, the CRC. I was there as a “civil addict.” It’s basically a lockdown for drug users. Ironically, the place is full of drugs—by the bucketful. And the drugs are better. You can buy them with Reload-It cards from the commissary. I overdosed on heroin there. And I died.
They brought me back to life. I managed to stay clean after that for a long time, and I stayed in there nine months. But when I got out and came home, so many people in my family who had been using meth were now on heroin, and it was hard to stay away from it. It was in the house.
I overdosed a second time when I was commercial fishing down in Klamath. This was about four years ago. I was using heroin to treat the pain of an injury and also just to be able to function. I died then, too.
They hauled me in to Crescent City by ambulance. They had to breathe for me all the way. That was it. I couldn’t do drugs anymore. I never did them again. They say when you have an addiction, you experience either jails, institutions, or death. I experienced all those things. I don’t feel like I have another do-over.
I started thinking about how I grew up, how I didn’t have a dad or a stepdad. I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted to be there for them. It was easy to give up everything at that point. I don’t know why. I go to the Community Health Center and I take Suboxone. It takes away the cravings and the desire to do heroin. I participate in the group therapy.
I just had to have hip surgery, and they prescribed me opiates. What was going to happen really worried me. But the pain before the surgery was so great that I had to go through with it. I’m working with the doctors, and they’re monitoring me carefully to make sure I don’t get too much.
I really do have hope for my future and my role in the future of this community. Even though racism is not over, it is certainly headed in this direction. I do not believe this world, or this community needs to continue to grow in hate, bitterness, and resentment.
We all have a very real part to play. We all have choices to make. It boils down to what hope and desire we have for our children’s future. I would prefer very much for them to live in a community surrounded by the challenging work and feelings of connectedness= that can make something great. I watched the movie Peter Rabbit today, and in it, Peter Rabbit says, “We do not inherit the earth, we borrow it from our children.” With this in mind I believe I have a lot of work to do.
—March, 21 2018