Under a purple pre-dawn sky, a small group of Northern Californian Indians ventured out onto the wet sand where the mighty Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean. They had come to honor and fight for the salmon that have sustained their ancient culture for generations.
Parents with their children burned sacred sage in the chilly morning air, then pulled out intricate wooden batons carved to look like salmon. As barking sea lions serenaded them, two boys accepted the batons from their elders and bolted down the beach. The boys dipped the wooden salmon into the tide, whipped around and ran as furiously as they could upriver.
The salmon runs performed by the Yurok, Karuk and other Northern California tribes have long spread the joyous news from village to village that the fish were returning from the ocean. This year, however, the event also brought bad news.
After years of drought, the fish are disappearing. For the first time, there will be no fall Chinook salmon fishing season for the tribes. The ceremonial run, which traveled 240 miles northeast from the coast to Klamath Falls, Ore., over Memorial Day weekend, dates back to when more than a million fall-run Chinook salmon – also known as king salmon – once tore up river to spawn.
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The 6,100-member Yurok, which means “downriver people” in their language, and their upstream neighbors, the 4,000-member Karuk, or “upriver people,” have built much of their culture and way of life around the salmon’s annual spawning trek, said Karuk tribal leader Crispin McAllister.
“If the salmon all die off, it’s basically the end of the river people,” said McAllister, who used training for the runs as recovery after being wounded in Iraq.
This year, disease plaguing the salmon, drought and other environmental woes have reduced the Karuk’s take to just 250 fish, while the Yurok and Hupa have also been limited to a few hundred fish each. The Karuk will serve the few salmon they catch at their annual World Renewal Ceremony to be held this fall.
“We’re not even eating fish this year, it’s the lowest run on record,” said Grant Gilkison, 54, a food security coordinator for the Karuk. “When I was a kid the streams would run black. We’d see nothing but fins.”
Karuk Tribal Chairman Buster Attebery remembered when salmon provided a rite of passage for young men.
“Part of becoming a man was being able to contribute to the family by catching fish,” said the former baseball star, who played at California State University, Sacramento. “Kids today can’t go out and do that. It was probably my saddest day as chairman telling my people we were not able to give salmon out to the elders as we do in a traditional way.”
For generations, the tribes would eat fish from the river “three to four days a week minimum,” he said.
Now, “people are eating processed foods and the obesity rate and the diabetes rate is a lot higher over the last 20 years,” Attebery said. “They’re missing the staple of their diet. … The restoration of the river is really past time. I hate to see the salmon go the way of the buffalo.”
The Yurok, Karuk and Hupa nations say the Klamath River has been their lifeline since the beginning of time. Designated America’s longest wild and scenic river, the 247-mile-long Klamath once sustained hundreds of villages, some dating back 7,000 years.
The tribes’ customs, languages and governments have endured in these fog-cloaked river valleys despite the onslaught of gold miners, settlers, bounty hunters and U.S. troops. In the 20th century, dam builders blocked salmon from reaching the Klamath’s upper reaches, and much of its watershed was transformed into a federal network of irrigation ditches that now grow crops and cattle in the high deserts of southern Oregon and northeastern California.
More recently, poverty, methamphetamine addiction and isolation have been blamed for seven suicides over an 18-month period, many of them involving young Yurok men.
About 35 percent of people on the Hupa and Yurok reservations lived below the poverty line in 2015, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. On the Karuk reservation, the poverty rate was 52 percent, more than three times that of all Californians.
Tribe members say the swift decline of the Klamath has only exacerbated those social problems. The river’s woes reached a crisis point in 2002 when the federal government sided with farmers in a dispute over irrigation water. At least 33,000 migrating salmon died from disease outbreaks on the lower Klamath later that year. The tribes argue that too much water was allocated to farmers. Klamath Basin farmers say there is no proof irrigation was to blame.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists cited atypical low flows in the river for the diseases. They concluded that the Klamath needed more water in future years to prevent outbreaks.
“Flow is the only controllable factor available in the Klamath Basin to manage risks against (disease) and major adult fish kills,” state biologists wrote in a 2004 report.
The tribes have been fighting for more water ever since.
“I was a freshman in high school when the fish kill happened,” recalled Kayla Carpenter Begay, now an assistant professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University. “People visiting the Yurok Jump Dance could see the salmon were dying, and an elder in our Hupa language class told us this is tuma, or famine for us if our salmon don’t survive.”
By the time of the die-off, the tribes had stopped their annual salmon run, but several Hoopa Valley High School girls did what they could to revive the run about a century after it ended. In the process, the girls were trying to take back their own heritage.
Begay said she and her friends thought the annual event “could raise awareness both inside and outside our communities that the rivers are a source of our medicine and our wellness.”
“The decline of salmon has affected our community with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression and suicide,” Begay said. “When the rivers aren’t healthy, we’re not healthy.”
Inspired by Standing Rock
As part of their quest to revive the salmon, the tribes have been pushing for the removal of four dams on the Klamath, three in California and one near Klamath Falls.
Last year, the Karuk and Yurok revived a dam-removal agreement with Oregon, California and the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, a few months after Congress let expire a hard-fought compromise reached a decade earlier by tribes, farmers and other groups. The agreement had promised habitat restoration and guaranteed Klamath Basin farmers a more reliable supply of water. Backers of the new agreement hope the dams start coming down as early as 2020.
The tribes on both sides of the Oregon-California border have also united to work against what they see as a major new threat to the Klamath: a 235-mile-long liquid natural gas pipeline proposed by the Canadian firm, Veresen, that will cross the Klamath River near Klamath Falls.
Tribal leaders and environmentalists fear pipeline leaks and explosions could be a death blow to a fragile river already blocked by the dams. The tribes see parallels between the proposal and the fight at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota where protesters have been trying to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their land.
“We’re worried these pipelines can break and cause severe damage to the river, degrading fisheries downstream,” said Karuk Chairman Attebery, who visited the site of the proposed pipeline that would export gas to Canada. “We have worked diligently for decades to get salmon home to the upper Klamath Basin by removing dams. It would be foolish to undermine this restoration with a gas pipeline. It’s a risk we are not willing to take.”
Veresen insists the pipeline will be safe and meet or exceed all regulatory requirements while providing an economic boost to the region.
Like at Standing Rock, the pipeline needs federal approval, which the tribes fear could could come swiftly from a Trump administration that has generally supported expanding fossil fuel extraction. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is hosting a scoping meeting on the project Thursday in Klamath Falls.
Mahlija Florendo, a 19-year-old Yurok, Siletz, Wasco and Hupa Indian, participated in the salmon run for the first time this year. She spent 2 1/2 months protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock last fall with several of her friends.
“We weren’t sure what we were going to do with our lives, we were a little stuck. And all of us came back home and realized we need to be preserving our culture and getting our youth involved,” Florendo said.
She said she ran four miles from Orleans to Happy Camp, where she works for the Karuk nation on social justice issues. As she ran, she said, she thought of young tribal men recently lost to suicide.
“Maybe the run couldn’t have saved their lives, maybe it could have,” she said. “I’ve know many of those people who have claimed their lives and seen how they grew up. People think it’s just about abusive parents and drug or alcohol abuse or depression, but it’s been proven that the trauma our ancestors received can be passed down through our DNA.”