The Salmon and Klamath rivers are the cores of Karuk geography; our most sacred site is near the confluence of the two rivers at the village of Katiimeen. Our name is actually Karuk Vaaraar, meaning “upriver people.” The natural environment, the rivers, mountains, forests and oceans forged the cultural backbone of our people.
The importance of rivers and streams remains the single most significant geological, cultural, geographical and environmental determinant among the American Indian people of NW California. The cardinal directions for the Karuk people are karuk (upriver), yurok (downriver), maruk (uphill away from the river) and saruk (up and over the hill away from the river). Our entire orientation revolves around a relationship to the river. Our peoples were centered around small villages that were able to survive on the flats and wide spots along the rivers.
The health of the river is severely compromised by the six damns that block the flow of water. This causes toxic algae blooms that prevent people from swimming in the river, higher temperatures that leads to fish kills. In 2002 over 70,000 Chinook salmon died due to a higher water temperatures that led to a disease called gill rot. The combination of the damns and the California drought are already causing a larger than normal die off of salmon this summer.
The deaths of these salmon are not just an environmental tragedy but it is a profound spiritual wound to the Native peoples of this region. We are salmon people. Not only do we rely on them as an important food source, they play a significant role in many ceremonies.
The entire watershed plays a major role in the lives of our Native people. We rely on the flow of our rivers and creeks to ensure we have the items we gather for food and basket materials. We are people who supplement meager incomes by subsistence living and relying on gathering of food resources of the environment. With water being diverted for agricultural purposes, even in draught times the impact will be severe for the people who rely on the health of the watershed.
The abundance found in the upper reaches of the watershed allowed us to survive here. We walked the high country to travel and trade with others, we prayed in the mountains, we ate the foods collected on the slopes of the hills, and we made the items of household use from materials gathered along the banks of the extensive creek systems and in the drainages of our homeland.
Today, although subsistence is difficult while competing for resources, we continue to rely on the salmon, trout and eels from the rivers. We harvest mushrooms, acorns, deer, elk, berries and other vegetation that used to grow in abundance in the pristine bioregion surrounding the clear uncontaminated water systems of this area. Karuk basket weavers are highly regarded and continue the traditions of gathering materials and weaving excellent baskets of many varieties: baby baskets, basket caps, burden baskets, food bowls, cooking items, storage baskets, eel baskets and ceremonial baskets.
Native lives have been strongly impacted by dams, lack of access to areas and resources, water diversions, roads, and changes in the natural landscape vegetation. The ability to gather the materials needed for basketry has been drastically reduced by federal government regulation, contamination of resources through the use of pesticides, and the purchase of family gather spots by logging companies.
The damns have to come down. Billionaire Warren Buffet is the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and its subsidiary PacificCorp that control the damns. They have been slow to work with Tribes and commercial fisherman to remove the damns citing the power generation benefits and agricultural needs of keeping them. The life of the river depends on the removal of those damns.
Our heritage is being lost piece by piece as the impacts of overuse, clear cutting, water flow reductions, road construction and limited access reduces the role that Native people play as stewards, a role that was granted them by creation. It is important to realize that the fragility of an environmental landscape is directly related to the ability of Native peoples to practice what is a sacred role in maintaining the environment through appropriate harvesting, collecting, fishing and hunting that is not only protected by Treaty, Trust and moral requirements, but is part of a symbiotic relationship with nature itself.
Andre Cramblit is an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe. His family is from the center of The Karuk World, the village of Katiimeen.