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Self-Determination is a Pathway for Healing & Reclaiming, Say the Yurok

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

The Yurok Tribe is revitalizing its culture amid threats from Trump to their sacred salmon and river

Note: This photo essay was originally published in the Winter 2019-20 issue of News from Native California magazine, Volume 33, Issue 2.

The Klamath Salmon Festival is hosted by California’s largest tribe, the Yurok, every year to celebrate their traditional culture and two critical lifeways of their people--the salmon and the Klamath River.

“When I was a kid, we could look down and see the bottom of the river and see the fish. The water was deep and clean, and we could swim across. Today the water is slowly killing our fish. Our dogs can’t swim because of the blue-green algae,” said Sam Gensaw Jr.

“Our goal is to have a harvestable amount of salmon and clean water for everyone who depends on it. Our plan is to get many people involved in water policy issues so that we can restore our salmon and make sure our water is clean in the future,” said Regina Chichizola, Co-Director of Save California Salmon.

Tribal members believe that their self-determination is critical to sure the wellbeing of their future generations and remove colonial structural barriers that continue to harm California Natives. In the face of a new reality of wildfires in California, the tribe is also revitalizing its ancient practices of small, controlled burns to renew food sources and mitigate the risk of larger catastrophic fires.

The Yurok people are known for their canoe building skills. The canoes are built from Redwood trees, sacred to the tribe. This year, the tribe is poised to launch their very own Redwood Canoe Tours on the Klamath River as a way to educate the public on their efforts to protect the salmon and their waterways.

A recent 5-year collaborative study revealed extremely high levels of food insecurity among tribe members in the Klamath River Basin. Issues of access to Native foods was named as a significant reason for food insecurity because of settler colonialism and habitat degradation.

Madonna, a Native artist, shares how she makes baskets and necklaces from pine needles and pine nuts. Traditional baskets are ceremonial and are used for carrying babies, to gather food and trap fish.

The salmon is revered by the Yurok and is critical for the cultural survival of the tribe. The Yurok people held ceremonies at the mouth of the Klamath River every year to celebrate the return of the salmon. Today the salmon is deeply beleaguered thanks to generational threats from dams on the Klamath and Trinity rivers that destroyed many of their spawning grounds.

Men play the traditional stick game, a full contact sport that regaled the salmon festival audience.  The Yurok tribe is also revitalizing their language so that all generations of the tribe can speak again in their Native mother tongue. This language revitalization effort was led by Yurok elders in the 1970s.

“Trump has emboldened people that have historically targeted the Trinity and Klamath Rivers. We have threats of dams and new projects like the Pacific Connector Pipeline. We are ready for action and are waiting for public comments,” said Kinney. According to Save the California Salmon, President Trump’s water plan would  “maximize water deliveries and power generation to the federal Central Valley Project” to divert more water and power to farmers and power companies.

“We have had threats of aquacide, terracide and genocide,” said Isaac Kinney, tribe member and an advcoate with the Save the California Salmon. “This [salmon festival] is necessary for the healing of the indigenous peoples of this land.”

“Weaving is important to keep our culture going. I teach so that we have weavers who will carry on,” said Wilverna Reece of the Karuk Tribe. The revival of basketry has been a critical part of the cultural revitalization piece of tribes in Northern California. The skill of basketry has been mastered over centuries by the relationship the tribes have nurtured with their surrounding environment.

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