Apr 15, 2008 10:01 PDT
The tribes on the Klamath know that as the river goes, so go the salmon
The Klamath River surges just below Merk Oliver's house. Right now, the
water is slightly turbid, clouded and green - perfect for steelhead
fishing. The Klamath is the second largest river in California,
following the Sacramento, and its watershed encompasses a landscape that
seems removed from the rest of the state by time as well as distance.
Freeways, the digital economy, the entertainment industry, industrial
agriculture - up here they seem like ill-recalled dreams.
But what happens on this river affects Lower California greatly. It
determines whether commercial fishermen and recreational anglers can
take salmon - and whether there'll be fresh wild salmon in markets and
restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ultimately, it figures
into the availability of water for the state's homes and farms.
Oliver's home is several hundred yards from the river's mouth, and from
his property you can hear the muffled reports of big combers breaking on
the beach. A group of Yurok Indian youths are in the yard, grilling
Pacific lampreys - anadromous, eel-like fish with circular mouths filled
with sharp radula. Lampreys are highly esteemed by the Yurok, and are
gaffed in the winter during low tides, when they skitter across flooded
sandbars from the sea to the river. The close proximity to the big surf
makes eel snagging a dangerous business, and fatalities from sleeper
waves occur with some regularity.
Inside the small, clapboard house, Oliver, a tribal elder, is eating
strips of smoked salmon. Oliver is thin but not frail, an exceptionally
handsome man with long iron-colored hair and dark eyes glimmering with
humor. He is 78, and has lived in this home for 55 years. A wood stove
provides radiant heat. On the walls are photos - of family and tribal
members, but also of fish: big salmon arrayed on a plank, skewered
salmon staked around a fire, a close-up of a lamprey in shallow water, a
huge sturgeon hanging from a tree limb. The room smells pleasantly of
smoke and fish.
A few Yuroks are seated and standing around Oliver, who is ensconced in
a comfortable chair near the stove. As he nibbles on the fish -
symmetrical, long strips of blood orange chinook, translucent as stained
glass - he uses a jack knife to carve a lamprey hook handle from yew
Lamprey hooks are the essential tool for eel fishing. The requisite
technique is to chase an eel as it lunges across the sandbar, snag it
with the hook, then flip it high up on the beach with a flip of the arm
and wrist. Oliver's eel hooks are held in particularly high regard, a
set of finished hooks hang on a wire above Oliver's chair, the golden
yew wood handles glossy. They are carved with uncanny accuracy to
represent a lamprey head, right down to the radula in the mouth and
staring, inquisitive eyes. The lamprey is an intelligent fish, say the
Yurok; when you run after them with the hook, you can see the alarm in
their faces. Somehow, Oliver has captured that sentience in his carving.
The talk is discursive, humorous and mildly chaffing. Oliver asks one of
the young men if he is still seeing a Tlingit woman. Tlingits are a
southeastern Alaska tribe, accomplished fishers and marine mammal
hunters who have long... enjoyed must be the operative verb... a
reputation for pride and aggressiveness.
No, the young man says, a half-smile on his lips. She went back north.
Oliver nods his head sagely, intent on his carving.
"That was a tough woman," he says after a time. He looks around the
room, fixes on a visitor sitting nearby on a stool. "That woman could've
whipped three of you," he says. "She was fierce. Ate too much seal
meat." There are gentle laughs, and heads nod in agreement.
This is a conversation that has been going on for a long time - eight to
ten thousand years, give or take a millennium. That's how long the
Yurok, California's largest tribe, have occupied this reach of the
The three main tribes inhabiting the Lower Klamath - the Yurok, Hupa and
Karuk - all have maintained strong cultural identities, but the Yurok
are perhaps most closely identified with the river. This is because of
the location of the ancestral Yurok lands: From the Klamath's mouth and
surrounding littoral territories to more than 50 miles upstream. All the
Klamath tribes depended on the fish runs, but the river and its coastal
nexus assumed particular significance for the Yurok.
The Yurok had access to the migrating fish as soon as they left the sea,
when they were at their fattest and brightest. Along with the river -
and its salmon, steelhead, lampreys and candlefish - they also had the
open ocean to exploit. Their food sources included Dungeness crabs,
seaweed, mussels, abalone and periwinkles from the intertidal zone. They
carved - still carve - elegant boats from redwood logs, and were
redoubtable mariners, hunting marine birds, seals and sea lions and
fishing for ling cod and rockfish in the rough inter-coastal waters.
They had first rights to the dentalium and abalone shells that were the
primary medium of exchange for the Klamath River tribes.
The river was their source of food and wealth, and it was their highway,
their means of establishing commerce with other tribes. They were a
water people, and still are. The photos on Oliver's walls are religious
icons - graphic representations of all that is sacred to the tribe: the
fish. Fishing nets and implements. Boats. The River. Because in any
conversation with a Yurok, it always comes back to the river. To a very
significant degree, the river is the reservation: Tribal holdings extend
1 mile inland along each bank from the mouth of the Klamath more than 40
miles upstream. Most of the land is exceedingly steep, of little utility
for anything except conservative and limited forestry. What the tribe
has always had, and still has to a significant degree, is the Klamath.
"The river gave us everything we needed to thrive," said Troy Fletcher,
a tribal member and resource policy analyst. "It gave us food, wealth,
beauty. This was paradise, and we knew it."
But like most rivers in North America, the Klamath has suffered.
Agricultural water diversions have depleted the river's once mighty
flows; four moderately sized hydroelectric dams along the Klamath's main
stem - plus a huge dam on its major tributary, the Trinity - have
greatly reduced the spawning grounds for anadromous fish. Too, the main
stem Klamath dams warm the river's water, encouraging destructive
parasites and blooms of toxic blue-green algae. Increasingly, it is
clear the Klamath can have the dams or it can have fish, but not both.
For years, the Yurok have been at the vanguard in a battle to remove the
dams. Allied with them are the other Klamath tribes, commercial
fishermen and sport anglers. Opposing them are the dams' operators -
which have shifted over the years, as the facilities have changed
ownership - and farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin, who divert the
river's water for potatoes, grain, alfalfa, horseradish and other crops.
The Klamath always has been a major front in California's water wars,
one that has waxed especially hot throughout the Bush administration. In
2001, increased downriver flows by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to
sustain salmon were resisted by Basin farmers, who seized irrigation
canal head gates in protest. Water availability already was a flashpoint
issue on the Klamath because much of the Trinity's flow is diverted
south for the state's cities and agricultural lands. The Upper Basin
skirmishes heightened the sense among the tribes and their allies that
the entire system was being drained, with no regard for the fisheries
and the people who depended on them.
In 2002, the Bush administration sided with the farmers and slashed the
releases to the river, delivering the water up to the irrigation
districts. A massive fish kill on the Klamath followed; the salmon never
really recovered from the blow. The incident scarred the collective
sensibility of the Yuroks, and it is a subject that still engenders deep
anger on the reservation.
The situation on the Klamath has far-reaching consequences - all the way
down to Monterey. The scarcity of Klamath fish has resulted in multiple
truncated commercial salmon seasons for California and Oregon, because
the Klamath fish mingle with the nominally more plentiful Sacramento
River salmon in the open ocean. As the Klamath goes, then, so go the
fortunes of the West Coast's commercial fishing fleet - and the Bay Area
availability of fresh wild local salmon.
[Some fisheries biologists say it's already too late for salmon in the
Lower 48 states. Development, logging, water diversions and dams, they
claim, have compromised the spawning streams to an irreparable degree.
Oceans warming due to climate change - and perhaps overfishing - are
just additional nails in the coffin.
As of this writing, the Pacific Fishery Management Council - the
regulatory body that governs West Coast marine fisheries - is poised to
proscribe all salmon fishing for the 2008 season. The reason: An
unexpected collapse in Sacramento River salmon stocks, which up to now
have been relatively robust. If the ban is enacted as expected, it will
be the first complete salmon closure for the California coast since
commercial fishing began more than 150 years ago.
But many fisheries experts maintain Pacific salmon and steelhead can be
revived in the continental United States. Further, they say, salmonid
restoration will have ancillary benefits.
Bill Kier is a Humboldt County consulting biologist who has designed
computer programs to track fishery restoration efforts on the Klamath;
they are so accurate they have been applied by scientists across the
country. Kier acknowledges that the data on southern range Pacific
salmon is a mixed bag.
"But I still believe they have a very real fighting chance," he said.
"The fact is that caring for salmon results in stabilized watersheds,
better water quality, more wildlife - and in general terms, a cleaner
environment. If you manage water and land for salmon, it doesn't matter
if you're talking about the Klamath or the creek that flows through Mill
Valley - life will be better not just for the salmon, but for the people
who live in those watersheds, whether they're Native Americans, farmers
Dams are not the only thing winnowing the Klamath's salmon. A couple of
years ago, fluctuating ocean conditions off western North America
reduced the production of plankton, the basic building block for all
marine food webs. Pacific salmon typically run in two-to-four year
cycles, so many biologists think the plankton paucity had a deep and
negative effect on the fish populations that are now returning - or
rather, not returning - to the rivers.
Oliver, who has been watching the fish runs all his long life, is
convinced pollution also is a major factor in the decline.
"Everywhere in the world, people are using these harmful chemicals to do
everything, right down to cleaning their toilets and dishes," he said.
"The timber companies are spraying their lands with herbicides, and it
runs into our rivers. The farmers are using too many pesticides. The
whole system is poisoned, and the fish can't take it."
But for the Klamath, most biologists agree, the biggest problem is the
dams. The battle over their disposition has raged in the courts,
Congress and the media for two decades. Last year, the Yuroks and their
allies caravanned to Omaha in an attempt to meet with Warren Buffett;
his firm, Berkshire Hathaway, had recently purchased PacifiCorp Power,
the company that owns the Klamath hydroelectric dams. Buffett declined
to meet with tribal leaders to discuss possible dam removal, claiming he
never interfered in the management of subsidiary companies.
He may have been unnerved by a similar trip the Yuroks, Hupas and Karuks
took to Scotland in 2004 to engage representatives of Scottish Power,
the company that owned PacificCorp at the time. The Scots, who consider
themselves a tribal and salmon-loving people, hailed the Indians as
kindred souls and heroes, and reviled Scottish Power. Chagrined,
Scottish Power executives promised to negotiate a solution with the
Klamath tribes. Instead, they sold PacificCorp to Berkshire Hathaway.
After getting stonewalled by Buffett, a certain level of depression
settled in along the river. But it now appears that serious negotiations
about dam removal and increased flows were not wholly undermined by
Buffett's rebuff. Indeed, talks have continued - both with Upper Basin
irrigators and PacificCorp. The negotiations, Fletcher said, are at a
sensitive stage, and he won't discuss details. But other stakeholders
who weighed in on the Klamath for this article indicated a deal is very
close. Not everyone is completely thrilled by the prospect. Both
commercial fishermen and the Hupa tribe - who live just upriver from the
Yurok - have expressed concerns that the settlement now under
consideration may not guarantee sufficient flows for the Klamath.
"That worries us," said Zeke Grader, the executive director of the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "On the other
hand, we're not going to actively oppose a settlement. We have to have
good cops and bad cops on this thing, and the Yuroks are the good cops.
We understand that."
Fletcher did say any settlement must be predicated on the removal of the
main stem's four dams and adequate downstream flows for the fish. He
also noted the tribe never really felt like its fight was with the
"After (the) 2002 (fish kill), we reached out to them," Fletcher said.
"They share a lot of our values. They're rural people, people who are
tied to the land, who are spiritual and hard-working. And like us, they
face an unstable future. When we started talking to them, we realized,
hey - we have a lot in common with these guys."
But there is still PacificCorp. The farmers aside, Fletcher acknowledges
it is naive to think any corporation would sign an agreement that
results in a significant financial loss simply because other parties
consider it the right thing to do.
"We understand this has to make sense for PacificCorp," he said.
Fletcher is built like a logger: big shoulders and arms, and a torso
like a keg. Arriving at tribal headquarters near the Klamath's mouth for
a recent interview, he walks into the building with his hands blackened
from grease and soot. He had just driven over a snowy mountain road from
the hamlet of Weitchpec, about 40 miles upriver. En route, he had come
across a car engulfed by fire, and had stopped to help its owner put it
out. That kind of instinctive willingness to aid a neighbor in trouble
is embedded in most rural cultures, but in Yurok society it extends to
the landscape itself.
"We believe we were given an obligation by the creator to restore and
protect our land and our fisheries," Fletcher said. "It's spelled out in
the preamble to the tribal constitution. For us, this goes back to the
beginning of time. The challenge right now is extreme. But the
obligation has always been there, and it will never change."
As part of meeting that obligation, the tribe imposes fisheries closures
and season quotas on its members, even though the Yuroks have the
sovereign right to catch as many fish as they want. Not all members are
happy with the strictures, though they comply.
One tribal member who feels the regulations should loosen up a little is
Tommy Wilson. Orphaned at 13, Wilson went to Atlanta to live with a
"That big city," he said. "I couldn't hack it. After a couple of months,
I came back here, lived on my own, and did what I had to do to stay
That included selling salmon, sturgeon, black bear parts and home-grown
marijuana to a friendly man who later turned out to be an undercover
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent. In court, Wilson argued that his
sovereign rights allowed him to make a living from tribal lands through
any reasonable means.
"I said that we should be able to thrive, not just survive," he said.
"That means when I catch a fish or kill a bear, or plant a seed and
harvest the plant, I should be able to do with it what I want. We were
once a wealthy people - and it was this river that made us rich. I
didn't feel the federal government had the right to force bare
subsistence on us."
The judge agreed, and threw the case out of court. But despite his
entrepreneurial views - by no means unusual among the Yurok - Wilson
obeys the tribal fishery regulations without rancor. That, of course, is
integral to being a Yurok tribe member in good standing.
"Individually, we don't define ourselves first and foremost by our
professions," said Maria Tripp, the tribal chairwoman. "To us, the most
important thing is to be Yurok. Work is what you do - Yurok is what you
Courtesy among tribal members and hospitality to visitors is written
into the Yurok constitution. There isn't any emotive breast-beating or
preaching, but everyone is expected to strive for right thinking and
right acting. You see this manifest, especially, when it comes to boat
The Yuroks have been carving redwood log boats for thousands of years;
the craft are exquisite artifacts by any measure, and sacred to the
tribe. All the boats are carved by hand without jigs or other mechanical
aids, and a long apprenticeship is required before an artisan is allowed
to create one without direct supervision. More than a steady hand is
demanded of the carver: A clear mind and quiet heart also are requisite.
"No one is allowed to approach a boat if he is angry or upset," said
Fletcher. "We believe the boats are living things - we carve then with
hearts, lungs and noses. They can be affected by bad thoughts and
On a large, grassy lot in front of tribal headquarters, tribal member
Dave Eric Severns has been carving a boat every day, up to 12 hours a
day, since Thanksgiving.
"It's not something you just - do," Severns said, slowly peeling away
long strips of straight-grained wood with a gouge. He moves slowly and
talks softly, seemingly out of deference to the boat. "You live it. I
work on this boat all day, way into the night. And when I go to bed, I
still see it in my thoughts. It stays with me in my dreams, and then I
wake up early in the morning and come back out here."
This is the first boat Severns has carved on his own, after working for
six years under his mentor, George Wilson. It's about 20 feet long. The
log it is carved from was more than 5 feet in diameter, and weighed
about 1,600 pounds. When the boat is finished, Severns said, four men
will be able to lift it and move it with ease.
"This is a river boat," Severns said, moving his hand along the smooth,
brick-red gunwales. "The ocean boats were up to 60 feet long and 12 feet
wide. Eighty years ago, Yuroks used the ocean boats to deliver milk from
Klamath dairies up to Crescent City (about 20 miles). They were
incredibly seaworthy craft."
There is a knob in the bow section of the boat that is meant to
represent its heart; a small black stone rests on it. The stone, says,
Severns, is a lock that keeps the boat secure.
"Boats had primary owners, but anyone could use one if they needed it -
unless there was a rock on the heart," Severns said. "Someone from the
tribe comes by here and sees the rock on this boat's heart, they know it
isn't supposed to be moved."
Up at Oliver's house, the lampreys have finished cooking on the charcoal
grill. Nearby, a couple of young men check conditions in a large
smokehouse. It is full of lampreys; they hang like golden stalactites
from racks near the rafters. One of the Yuroks cuts off a slab of
grilled eel, rolls it in a slice of white bread and hands it to a
visitor. The meat is dense, rich, oily and incredibly sweet. Oliver
walks among the youths, evaluating the cooking techniques, sampling eel,
essaying humorous comments. Sometimes he simply looks at the river for
extended periods of time.
Tripp says Oliver and other elders are the tribe's bedrock assets,
keeping the people anchored to their place in the world.
"When my friends and I were going to college (at nearby College of the
Redwoods and Humboldt State University), Merk was always coming around
to feed us with traditional foods," she said. "He was out of time -
connected to the old, old ways. He kept us grounded, made us understand
who we are and where we came from."
SEE MORE PHOTOS of the Yurkok tribe and Klamath region at
Glen Martin, a former environment reporter for The Chronicle, works out
of Santa Rosa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.