Amanda Anderson, Leo DiPierro, Blanca Luevanos, Maya Makino, Michael McDermott, and Gary Semper
For millennia, the indigenous peoples that have lived along the Klamath River have utilized it to sustain their communities. The river, which runs for over 250 miles through southern Oregon and northern California, has sustained multiple indigenous tribes such as the Yurok and Klamath for generations. However, the introduction of European settlers into this region and the following effects this has had on the land itself have devastated its capacity to carry life and to sustain the indigenous groups in the area. The modern movement for the revitalization of the Klamath river focuses on restoration of the region’s ecology, ability to sustain populations of fish, and general welfare. This is all connected to the peoples who live in the region, as their livelihood and survival depends on the health of the Klamath and the surrounding ecosystem.
Additionally, the idea of vision in these struggles within indigenous tribes is key. In the colonialist society of the United States, native tribes must battle both issues derived from colonialism of their lands, as well as legal systems that have been established with regulations that are fundamentally against native sovereignty. Thus, the issues of both tribal sovereignty as well as decolonization are both heavily present in these types of indigenous struggles, most importantly when discussing wildlife and ecology in historically indigenous lands.
For thousands of years, the Klamath River Basin has provided valuable resources that are critical to the culture, religion, and livelihoods of Klamath River tribes. Historically, indigenous tribes like the Karuk, Hoopa, Klamath, and the Yurok Tribes, have used Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to sustainably manage the region's resources. The management of the fisheries were regulated through cultural ceremonies and management of the forest with fire. The way of life of the Klamath River Tribes has always been deeply tied to the river and preserving its resources means feeding their families. “The native groups who lived along the river had practiced sustainable fisheries and proper management practices were built into their culture”, historically, tribal groups would wait to harvest fish until a ten day ceremony was performed. Although this was simply part of their tradition, it ensured the salmon would return year after year (Clarke, 2016). Traditional ecological knowledge has been passed down in the Tribe from generation to generation, and has been used for centuries to sustain tribal life. Tribal land management practices prior to European arrival helped to create the exceptional biodiversity the Klamath River Basin has to offer (Norgaard, 2014). Research shows that, what early settlers took for “untouched” and natural wilderness, was actually carefully tended by the natives for optimal biodiversity (Norgaard, 2014). Before the 1900’s, salmon runs were said to exceed several millions of fish annually (Addley & Hardy, 2001), the Klamath was once the third most productive river in America (Tucker, 2006). There used to be so many fish in the region, that early settlers wrote of being able to walk across the “River using spawning chinook as stepping stones. Some wrote of harvesting a years’ supply of meat in a few hours by standing in a stream with a pitchfork and shoveling salmon onto the bank.” (Clarke, 2016). European settlers came to the area with a capitalistic view, looking to make a profit exploiting the regions newly discovered gold, and they soon found many other exploitative opportunities from which they could accumulate capital from in this ‘new frontier’. Using capitalisms strategy of “cheapening” (Patel & Moore, 2017), settlers quickly put a price on all aspects of the landscape. “Land along the Klamath River was of value, salmon or no salmon, and would be settlers lost no time in trying to reap its rewards.” (Most, 2007).
The new rules that came with the settlers, and the poor, unregulated land-use practices brought environmental destruction that has seriously threatened the Klamath River Tribes way of life. “Certainly, previous human civilizations altered their environments. But none were guided and governed by the strategy of cheap nature” (Patel & Moore, 62). The arrival of the settlers, with their cheapening strategies, initiated a change in land use and management of the Klamath River Basin. With the capitalistic view of society above nature, the tribal way of life and their traditional management was considered unimportant and categorized as part of nature, separate from the society of the new ‘civilized’ arrivals. Many of the tribes traditional management practices became “illegal” under the new society’s rules (Most, 2007). Tribes can no longer tend the landscape, as they had for hundreds of years before the settlers arrived. They no longer have a say when the first fish can be caught, and they can no longer manage the forest with fire. This is what Patel and Moore might call the “enclosure of the commons”, and an “attack on their customary rights” (Patel & Moore, 2017). Unable to maintain their resources in a sustainable way, the resources the tribes worked so hard to protect, became threatened and diminished. “It seems like everything has changed in the years after the non-Indians came. We don’t live like we used to… We followed the rules of our people-- when not to bother the fish. And we all had plenty.” (Most, 2007) The new settlers quickly extracted anything in the region that could generate a profit. Settlers did so without any consideration of environmental or tribal impacts. Soon after their arrival, settlers set up commercial fisheries in the basin, which lasted until its collapse in the mid 1990’s (Doremus & Tarlock, 2003), early unregulated and poor timber harvesting led to about 95 percent of the regions old growth, and much of the mature second growth forests being completely logged by the 1970’s (Spain & Helliwell, 2016), and combined with the environmental degrading practices of early ranchers and farmers, and with the eventual installation of dams, the resources the tribes worked so hard to protect are now extremely degraded. Tribal sovereignty is under threat, and Tribes must now fight for their livelihoods and for limited resources that were once widely available just to continue their way of life that had, until the arrival of settlers, sustainably persisted for thousands of years.
The Klamath River tribes have relied on the river to substantially support their families for millennia. Fighting for the protection and conservation of the Klamath River is more than a movement, it is a lifestyle, stated Hoopa member Vivienne Orcutt; “we have a responsibility to protect the resources, culture and land for the manu generation that will follow.” The Hoopa, Yakama, Karuk, Klamath, and the Yurok tribes’ determined effort to protect their right to the river is what operating the “movement.” The lifestyle-focused nature of the fight for the Klamath is one aspect of it that works. It is essential for these types of movements to be framed in a larger context than a simple protest, in order for them to both receive legitimacy from other groups, and to attract significant attention to themselves.
Additionally, the successes of the movement for dam removal and habitat restoration should not be ignored. While these are only part of the ultimate goals of indigenous tribes in the region, federally-backed dam removal of aging infrastructure along the Klamath is a significant step forward, especially due to the Department of the Interior’s support of the process. These developments are relatively recent, however, and have come after multiple years of failed agreements between private enterprises, the federal government, and local tribes; “A new version of the agreement was signed by top state, federal and tribal government officials in April 2016 along with a new agreement — the Klamath Power Facilities Agreement — that sets a goal for bringing back the failed water sharing pacts.”(Times Standard, 2017).
The significance of this movement and the lifestyle of protecting indigenous ways of life lies in how it is perceived and handled by both indigenous peoples and those outside tribal groups. Indigenous resource sovereignty is one of the most debated issues in the United States, and has been under a national scale spotlight in recent years, particularly in regards to Standing Rock and the movement for water rights with the Sioux. The movement for salmon restoration and environmental restoration along the Klamath, however, is not as concentrated as the Standing Rock movement. The legitimacy and practices of the Karuk people, among others, have been contested since settlers began making movements along the Klamath and into native peoples’ lands, and summarily altering the ecology (Norgaard, 2014). This removal of agency and sovereignty for indigenous land and resource management is one of the most significant areas of this study. It is incredibly important that the indigenous groups who have managed resources and land long before the introduction of settlers maintain agency over the resources that remain within their control. The significance of the movements for dam removal, salmon restoration, and other aspects of the Klamath’s health therefore rely on the sovereignty and decolonization mindsets of all groups involved.
There are many different groups fighting for water protection and rights on the Klamath river and it may seem like an obvious critique that the groups are so scattered. However there are actually logical arguments for the scattered nature of these groups. While all groups may share one common goal their ideas for implementing it may be different. Vivienna Orcutt has experienced many setbacks in her fight for Hoopa water rights and one things she has learned is that it is very easy to get distracted from her goal by other people and groups who may have their own ideas about how best to care for the river.
The native tribes around the Klamath rely heavily on the salmon supply as not only a food source but also as part of their religion. That is why the fish kill in 2002 was such a tragedy to them not only biologically, but spiritually as well. This is very important because the fish kill did not just affect the native people that rely on the fish, but it also affected the local klamath citizens as well as the ecosystems surrounding the klamath river basin. Also, The disaster could potentially alter tourism to the beautiful klamath river basin, and is a factor that should be considered along with the rest of the views.
We can not forget that the lack of education regarding Native American political issues is what leads to social injustice. In Walter R. Echo-Hawk’s, “A Context For Understanding Native American Issues” his main point that he is trying to establish is that most Native American affairs that regard the United States government, are often swept under the rug. He talks about the lack of education in our school systems about the true history of the foundation of the United States. Walter then goes on to say, “ignorance in human relations can spawn prejudice and other forms of discrimination and lead to human rights violations when it becomes embodied in the machinery of government.”(Pg 12). A powerful nation is an educated nation, which is shown in our social system. Walter believes that a Colonialism is often glorified when it is mentioned in our history books, and does not discuss most of the major atrocities that the European colonists inflicted towards the Native American people residing in North and South America. European colonists, as explained by Walter were in no way friendly and were devastating to the natives from the start, “More than twelve million Indians died during the first forty years after Columbus landed as Spaniards infected, killed, tortured, terrorized, and destroyed each Native civilization they encountered”(Pg. 3).
Water rights in the Klamath River are a contentious issue because so many groups have stakes in the area. Despite this, the pro-salmon groups could probably more, particularly in terms of public relations. A middle ground could be reached where more media involvement and campaigns to inform the public and gain support and funding could be helpful. In order to do this, different groups could pool their resources to atl least bring more public attention to the issue.
Addley, R. C. & Hardy, T. B. (2001). Evaluation of interim instream flow needs in the Klamath
River: Phase II final report. Logan, UT: Utah State University
Clarke, C. (2016, October 25). A History of Salmon in California. Retrieved from https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/it-ties-the-ocean-to-the-mountains-a-history-of-salmon-in-california
Doremus, H., & Tarlock, A. (2003). Fish, Farms, and the Clash of Cultures in the Klamath Basin. Ecology Law Quarterly, 30(2), 279-350. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24114216
Echo-Hawk, Walter R. In the Courts of the Conqueror: the Ten Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided. Fulcrum Pub., 2012.
Interview with Vivienna Orcutt, 4/25/18. Email.
Most, S. (2007). Salmon People: Crisis and Continuity at the Mouth of the Klamath. California History, 84(3), 5-22. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161890
Norgaard, K. (2014). Karuk Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Need for Knowledge Sovereignty: Social, Cultural and Economic Impacts of Denied Access to Traditional Management. Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved from
Patel, R., & Moore, J. (2017). Cheap Nature. In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A
guide to capitalism, nature, and the future of the planet(pp.44-63). Oakland, CA:
University of California Press.
Spain, G. & Vivian H. (2016). Forests and Fisheries: Why Logging Reforms Matter to
Fishermen. Fishermen’s News. PCFFA Northwest Regional Office. Eugene, OR.
Houston, W. (2017, September 30). Feds won't oppose Klamath River dam removal, official says. Retrieved from http://www.times-standard.com/article/NJ/20170929/NEWS/170929773
Tucker, S. (2006) Bring the Salmon Home: The Karuk Tribe’s effort to remove Klamath Dams(Rep.). Karuk Tribe of California Natural Resources. Retrieved from