Fallen Idol

Gilbert Jones should have been among the hundreds of Indians marching to the Fort McDowell Casino last week.The five-mile walk and Sovereignty Day celebration commemorated the day eight years ago when the Yavapai tribe took its most dramatic stand, facing off against federal agents who raided the tribe's casino and confiscated its video games.

But Jones, 66, a central figure in that standoff, died in February after an accident at one of the tribe's sand and gravel pits. This year's Sovereignty Day ceremonies were dedicated to Jones, the Yavapai's "fallen leader."

But questions remain about what caused Jones' death, the result of a real fall at the mining site.

"I don't know just what really happened," says Evangeline Jones, Gilbert's widow.

Officials have said Gilbert Jones died after tripping on some metal stairs while he descended from the observation tower at Fort McDowell Sand & Gravel, where he worked. Doctors told Mrs. Jones that he must have struck one of the steps sharply with his abdomen, because the damage to his liver was irreparable.

Jones, the spunky, outspoken former tribal president and council member, died February 21, just hours after the accident. Since then, Mrs. Jones has talked to her husband's co-workers, read the police and coroner's reports and talked with investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor in an effort to figure out exactly what happened.

Three months later, she's still not sure.

The cause of death was internal bleeding and injuries stemming from the fall, the reports say. But what caused the fall?

A paramedic said Jones had been dizzy before heading down the stairs. But co-workers told Mrs. Jones he hadn't complained of dizziness. A report by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says Jones told someone he didn't feel well, was helped partially down the steps, then collapsed and fell. But a plant safety officer who'd been instructed not to talk instead told the Arizona Republic, mysteriously, "I can guarantee you he didn't fall down any steps."

Plant general manager Wayne Hallford says now that officials there are sticking with "no comment" until the investigation and insurance issues are settled.

Mrs. Jones says she's been told that the metal steps were hazardous and that a cable that served as a railing may have been weak and unable to support her husband if he'd grabbed it for balance.

An official with the Denver regional office of the Mine and Safety Health Administration, which originally expected to have a final report by late March, now says investigators are still "looking into the facts" of the incident. They won't comment on the case until the report is complete and Mrs. Jones has a copy of it.

Mrs. Jones says her husband died just when things were looking up for him. Jones had been deeply depressed by the death last summer of one of their 10 children, and was eventually hospitalized, she says. Last fall, the toes on his right foot were amputated, the result of diabetes and an infection.

Determined to recover his full health, he walked as much as he could, Mrs. Jones says, and was finally taking up golf again.

Cleared to return to work, his doctor told him not to go back to the sand and gravel operation as a truck driver, a position Jones had held for years. So he got the job on the observation deck, where he was responsible for making sure the operation was running smoothly, according to his wife.

He'd been back just a few weeks when the accident occurred.

Newspapers from as far away as Florida and Washington ran the notice of his death. Sympathy messages came from tribal leaders all around the country.

Jones made the news many times over the years. But he's perhaps best known for the tense confrontation at the casino that began on May 12, 1992. Other tribal leaders held out for a peaceful resolution, but Jones made defiant speeches in support of sovereignty and courage.

The confrontation eventually led Fort McDowell to sign a gaming compact with the state, paving the way for other Indian tribes in Arizona and across the country to expand or begin their gaming operations.

Jones spent his life protecting the interests of his people. He and others derailed federal plans to build the Orme Dam at the Salt and Verde rivers, which would have flooded the reservation north of Fountain Hills and forced its residents to relocate.

Rory Majenty, a tribal planner, recalls that Jones once asked Fountain Hills officials for permission to send sand and gravel trucks down one of their main streets. The town officials said no. So Jones sent the trucks along a dirt road at the boundary line between the community and the town, stirring up dust as well as controversy. Town officials relented, Majenty says.

More recently, Jones had been active in efforts to lure the Los Angeles Dodgers to move their spring training headquarters to the reservation.

Ivan Makil, head of the neighboring Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, was the keynote speaker at Sovereignty Day last week. He said sovereignty is the right of Indians to choose what is best for their tribe. But true sovereignty, Makil said, is more action than belief: "It is doing something because it is in the best interests of your people, being strong and confident about that."

Evangeline Jones says her husband was just that kind of leader. "He got out and got things done."

Now she wishes someone would take that sort of control in getting to the bottom of the accident that killed him.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin