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To Protect Native Culture, Bring Back the Salmon

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Klamath River tribe members protest at PacifiCorp's offices in Portland in 2006 to demand removal of four dams on the Klamath. They won. | Photo: Patrick McCully, some rights reserved 

The people who have lived along the Klamath River for millennia are now facing crisis levels of violence, disease and depression. Diabetes and heart ailments run rampant in their communities, and suicide rates have skyrocketed.

To save his people, Leaf Hillman, Director of the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, believes there is one thing to do: Bring back the salmon.

“We’re salmon people,” says Hillman, a tribe member in his early fifties who lives in the riverside town of Orleans. “Our very identity is based on salmon.”

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His tribe, working with the neighboring Yurok and Hupa tribes, has been at the front lines of the political battle to save and restore the Klamath’s dwindling Chinook runs, both by demanding better management of water flowing out of the upstream reservoirs and by calling for removal of four dams that make hundreds of miles of salmon habitat inaccessible. In protests and marches the Klamath basin tribes have often targeted PacifiCorp, which owns the Klamath’s dams. They have crashed company meetings and even dumped bucketfuls of toxic river algae – which thrives in the slow-moving, sun-warmed reservoir water – on the front steps of PacifiCorp’s Portland, Oregon headquarters. They’ve done the same several times at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Sacramento office.

The tribes, working together as the Klamath Justice Coalition, have also negotiated over dam removal with state and federal agencies, and soon their efforts are going to pay off. The giant concrete barriers, built between World War I and the 1960s, are now slated to be removed – which will certainly go down in the books as one of the greatest environmental and cultural victories in the West.

Salmon, primarily Chinook but also coho, were the core of many California Indians’ nutrition, wealth and culture. For young Karuk boys, catching and killing a Chinook was an important rite of passage, and the villages along the river subsisted on salmon almost all year. Of several seasonal runs of Chinook, the spring run was the most plentiful and important on the Klamath. Using nets and spears, fishermen caught tens of thousands of the big fish, which often weighed more than 40 pounds. Tribes on other river systems along the north coast of California and in the Central Valley were similarly dependent on Chinook salmon.

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Klamath River and tributaries | Map: Wikimedia Commons

But in the space of less than a century, the salmon mostly vanished from many of California’s watersheds. As European Americans flooded westward, they dug away mountainsides to hunt for gold, cut down forests and grazed cattle in fragile watersheds. They heavily fished the salmon, too. These industries all took their toll on both upstream spawning habitat and the stock of adult fish.

The biggest blow to the West’s salmon came in the dam-building era of the 20th century. The giant concrete barriers gave the Americans electricity and water for irrigation. However, because the dams blocked the salmon’s access to their spawning grounds, the runs collapsed. In the San Joaquin River, the Friant Dam, built during World War 2, eliminated the Chinook entirely by the late 1940s. In the Sacramento watershed, Folsom, Oroville and Shasta dams had similar effects.

Six dams were built on the Klamath River, and today more than 300 miles of former salmon habitat are inaccessible because of them. The dams also cause warm, sun-baked water to flow through the lower reaches of the river, posing a serious and deadly threat to salmon and trout, which depend on cold water. In 2002 near-bathtub temperatures in the middle and lower reaches of the Klamath caused an outbreak of deadly protozoans that killed tens of thousands of adult Chinook before they had a chance to spawn. The disaster affected other species, too.

Habitat enhancement efforts aimed at supporting salmon and steelhead populations have been funded for years by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). CDFW even built a hatchery just downstream of the Iron Gate Dam with the explicit intent of mitigating the impacts of the Klamath’s dams. But Hillman says the hatchery hasn’t worked very well. He says the loss of spawning habitat resulting from the Iron Gate Dam’s construction in the 1960s was too great an impact to overcome for hatchery managers, whose job was to collect adult salmon gathered in the waters below the dam and manually blend their eggs and sperm in trays.

“Four years after the Iron Gate Dam went in, the returns of the spring run fell off the cliff,” Hillman says. “There weren’t even enough fish left to collect their eggs and make new fish.”

Salmon numbers in the Central Valley and in the Klamath have continued to dwindle further, even 50 years after the last dam was built. This year, just 50,000 Chinook are expected to return to lay and fertilize their eggs before dying in the riffles of the Klamath and its tributaries – one of the river’s poorest returns on record.

Watch Tending the Wild's segment on Salmon, Keeping the River

All told, California’s historic annual returns of perhaps four million Chinook, plus another million or so steelhead and coho, have dwindled to about a tenth their historical size. One of the largest and most remarkable runs of salmon lost to the U.S. government’s dam-building frenzy was the winter-run Chinook, a strain unique to the upper Sacramento River watershed but which the construction of Shasta Dam essentially eliminated. When this happened, the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which historically dwelt in the foothills below Mount Shasta, saw their primary protein source vanish. While discussions are underway to help restore the winter run – or at least protect it from extinction – by transporting the salmon around the dam with vehicles, the odds of bringing the population back to fishable levels seem small. The state’s agriculture industry and some lawmakers are even pushing to make Shasta Dam higher – a proposal the Winnemem Wintu have been protesting. This would create more storage space and would mostly benefit the state’s ever growing agriculture industry.

The Eel River was another huge salmon producer before European Americans arrived and destroyed the watershed with dams, water diversions and logging. Scott Greacen, with the group Friends of the Eel River, says a million Chinook, coho and steelhead probably entered this river each year.

“But when they built the dams, they didn’t put in a hatchery like they did on a bunch of other California rivers,” Greacen says. “That means the fish we have are wild, which is good, but it also means that we hardly have any fish.”

The Yuki people watched their way of life vanish along with the Eel River’s salmon and other fishes, including lampreys. Today several hundred people of Yuki heritage, as well as descendants of other tribes, live in a small Indian reservation in Round Valley, within the Eel’s drainage. They, as well as Greacen’s group, have called for the removal of the two dams near the river’s headwaters.

Hillman says the loss of the Klamath’s salmon has caused social unrest, dysfunction and disorder in the people whose cultures were shaped by the fish. A report produced in 2004 by UC Davis researcher Kari Marie Norgaard has documented a surge in health problems affecting the Karuk population since salmon mostly disappeared from their diets. Cultural morale has deteriorated as domestic violence has spiked, Hillman says. Worst of all these social ailments are the suicides. In the Yurok community of 150 people called Weitchpec, seven people took their own lives in 2014 and 2015.

“People have lost their feelings of identity and self worth,” Hillman says. 

Feelings of bitterness remain against the United States government, and for good reason. In the decades following first contact, interactions between white settlers and Klamath basin Indians frequently involved gunfire and bloodshed. In the 1920s, as the Klamath’s salmon began vanishing following the building of Copco I Dam, state officials blamed the decline on the tribes themselves, according to Stephen Most, author of River of Renewal. Having been accused of overfishing the resource, Native people were prohibited from fishing. This discrimination, preceded by decades of genocidal persecution by white settlers, led to hunger, poverty and further disintegration of the Klamath tribes. Many tribe members left for cities.

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San Francisco Chronicle coverage from August 26, 1978

Salmon runs continued dwindling through the 20th century, and the U.S. government continued reacting with regulatory action against tribal fishing. In the late 1970s, this all came to a head near the mouth of the Klamath, where Yurok Indians protested in the most direct way they could: They set their nets, which prompted a number of riverside scuffles between embittered Yurok fishermen and aggressive, gun-brandishing “fish cops” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The officials stalked through the Yurok villages at night, breaking up beach barbecues, intimidating women and children, arresting elderly men and confiscating valuable gillnets. In one confrontation described in Most’s River of Renewal, officers in boats zipped across the mouth of the river to face off with a crowd of Yurok fishermen and villagers on the bank.

“They were all geared up, flak jackets and machine guns and shit,” recalled Richard McCovey, a Yurok fisherman. “None of us were armed.”

While the Indians whacked the federal boats with oars, the feds pulled out their guns, according to Most. They seized Richard McCovey’s brother, Frank, and shoved his head underwater, threatening to drown him.

“They took us into shore, and they tried to put the guns to our head,” Richard McCovey is quoted as saying. “They shot my brother with the mace a couple of times.” McCovey said he and his brother, and two other Indians, were locked up in a county jail for four days without charges. This was just one of a series of ugly events would settle into history as the so-called “Salmon War.”

With the recent protests staged by the Klamath Justice Coalition, the Klamath’s tribes have brought the nation’s attention to their struggles and to the historically callous policies of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which has intensively modified California’s watersheds mainly to support the state’s powerful agriculture industry. Three times since 2008, tribal leaders have dumped mucky green water, scooped from the reservoirs behind the problematic dams, on the doorstep of the federal agency’s Sacramento office. This was partly an educational project, says Frankie Myers, 35, one of the more politically active members of the Yurok tribe.

“A lot of the time when we talk about ‘bad water quality,’ people don’t know what we mean,” he says. “By bringing bottles and buckets of this water, we’re making people understand what this means and what bad water quality really looks like.”

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Tribe members and allies at the 2006 Portland demonstration | Photo: Patrick McCully, some rights reserved

Removal of the Iron Gate, the Copco I and II, and the J.C. Boyle dams is slated for 2020. This will mark a huge step forward in reviving the river’s salmon runs. However, it will not entirely solve issues of fishery management.

“We’re going to see more fish once the dams are out, but we’ll still have problems to work out with water allocations,” Myers says.

Making sure enough water is being allowed through the drainage, which is heavily used by farmers, will be a pressing priority even after the dams are gone.

“There are farmers who pull almost all the water out of the Scott and the Shasta rivers,” says Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe’s Natural Resources Policy Advocate, who has worked closely with tribal people in their campaign to revive the Klamath ecosystem.

Dave Hillemeier, the director of the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Department, says there are also nuances in the way fishery and water agencies manage river flows that leave the tribes, as well as other fishermen, wanting for fish. A main problem is that these agencies – including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service – focus on maintaining suitable river conditions for threatened or endangered species, like coho and spring-run Chinook. The fall-run Chinook is the only relatively abundant salmon population remaining in California. It is not listed as threatened or endangered, which means it can be fished. However, it also means that it is not a priority for river managers.

“We’re often a little frustrated that the agencies usually manage flows based on Endangered Species Act requirements,” Hillemeier says. “We need to manage for a healthy ecosystem, and that includes all the species that the Yurok depend on.

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Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas P. O'Rourke, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and California Governor Jerry Brown celebrate an agreement in August to remove four dams on the Klamath. | Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

The Yurok, who occupy a 44-mile-long reservation along the lower Klamath, fish using gillnets near the mouth of the river. So do the Hupa, who live on the Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary. In a good year, these two tribes are allowed to catch 30,000 to 50,000 Chinook. In 2016, though, the Yurok’s allocation was one of the smallest in history – just 5,900 fish, less than one per person in a culture that used to subsist on salmon.

The Karuk, who live farther upstream, still fish as they traditionally did with dip nets in a 100-yard length of river below Ishi Pishi Falls, near the town of Somes Bar. Non-Indians are prohibited by state law from fishing here, and while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife does not specifically allow the Karuk to take all they want, game wardens also tend to look the other way as the tribe’s fishermen take what they need to feed their families. 

“Wardens basically got tired of arresting the same 25 Indians again and again,” Tucker says.

The current arrangement – a legal gray area, as Tucker describes it – is relaxed compared to the bleak days of the Salmon War. Still, Leaf Hillman says this informal arrangement makes him uneasy, and it makes his duties as a father and as a tribal leader challenging.

“The most important job I have in my life is to teach the culture of the Karuk to my children,” he said. “But when these acts have to be done underground, it sends a contradictory message to the children. It’s a tightrope to walk to teach our culture and lifestyle while trying not to get arrested doing it.”

Banner: Mouth of the Klamath River. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.