TULE RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION — This is a sovereign land of otherworldly beauty. Mist spills down a valley that winds from the giant sequoias to the elderberry and oak of the Sierra foothills. Stars in a black night sky seem as close as the candles that have been lighted in vigil during this tribe’s darkest moment.
For nearly two weeks, Yokut tribal members have been coming to the Church on the Hill, lighting candles. The gatherings began spontaneously Dec. 8, the night Hector Celaya, 31, killed his mother and two uncles, critically wounded Andrew, his 6-year-old son, and sped off in a Jeep with his two daughters, Alyssa, 8, and Linea, 5.
“We held hands tight and we just prayed and prayed for those little girls," said tribal member Shawn Gonzales, who works at the reservation’s health center.
Tulare County, Calif., sheriff’s deputies chased Celaya at low speeds, but he kept driving. At 2 a.m. in a citrus grove in Lindsay, Calif. — about 30 miles from the reservation — the Jeep stopped. Officers heard shots. They fired at Celaya.
He was struck multiple times, but the coroner concluded that the gunshot to his head was self-inflicted. Linea survived a gunshot to the head. She is in fair condition at a local hospital. Alyssa’s autopsy showed that her father shot her at the reservation and she bled to death as he drove.
She was buried last week in a grave that the men dug by hand and the women covered with flowers, in accordance with Tule River tribe tradition.
Since 1933, the bells of the reservation’s oldest church have rung out whenever a community member died. The day after the attack, the bells tolled all day.
At one of the many vigils that have followed, 7-year-old Dakota Heggie, the associate minister’s son, rode his new green bicycle around the circle of candles. A sheepdog everyone calls Little Norman (because he belongs to Norman, who lives across the street) bounded after Dakota, and they wrestled on the grass.
Mike Carrillo, the tribe’s community support officer and a Vietnam War veteran, watched the dog and boy play.
“It always continues," he said. “Life continues."
Carrillo, 66, confessed he’s not one for religion. His source of strength since the shootings has been Nettie, Celaya’s grandmother.
“Her grandson killed her children and shot his own children. The grief in her eyes as she took it in was unbelievable. But her manner of standing. She held herself. She would not crumble."
In front of the candles, two teens beat out a rhythm with clap sticks. An older woman, with a voice that seemed to travel to the farthest hill, sang an ancient song of grief in the Yokut language.
Roxanne Carrillo, the minister and Mike’s cousin, opened the doors to the church, where services freely mix elements of Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and native traditions. The lights blazed, there was hot coffee and country songs spilled out the doors. As they entered, people swayed to “That’s What I Love about Sunday."