The Klamath River Salmon War

Traditionally fish were an important food resource to most of the northern California tribes. Indian nations such as the Hupa, Karuk, Achomawi, and Yurok relied heavily on the salmon.  Also important to some of the tribes were steelhead, sturgeon, trout, and lamprey eels.

Yurok Plankhouse

A Yurok plankhouse is shown above.  

Hupa by Curtis

A photograph of a Hupa woman and child by Edward H. Curtis is shown above.

Traditional Fishing:

Fishing was often done by building a fishing platform on the end of a stream and then catching the salmon with a lifting net which was lowered and raised with an A-frame. The sites for these fishing platforms were privately owned. Salmon was sliced thin and then smoked-dried which preserved it for winter use. In this form, salmon was preserved for a long time.

Using weirs, nets, and traps, the Karuk were able to catch the whole winter’s fish supply in just a few days. The tail of the salmon was cut off to drain the blood. Then the head and backbone were removed, leaving two large slabs of salmon flesh which were placed on scaffolds above a small fire to be dried and smoked.

The First Salmon Ceremony:

Since the salmon were an important part of Indian subsistence, they were also important to Indian ceremonies. Many of the tribes held, and still hold, a First Salmon Ceremony to honor the Salmon-people.

Among the Karuk, the First Salmon Ceremony was a ten-day ceremony held in late March or early April at the village of Amaikiaram on the west bank of the Klamath River several miles below its confluence with the Salmon River. It celebrated the beginning of the fishing season. One of the elements of the ceremony was the “crooked immortals” – ten sacred stones which were set on top of the sweat house. During the ceremony, unburned tobacco was given to the stones as an offering.

Among the Hupa, the First Salmon Ceremony included the narration of the mythical creation and journey down the river and back. At the end of the ten-day ceremony, there would be a community feast and public fishing for the salmon would be opened.  

Among the Yurok, the First Salmon Ceremony was held in April at Welkwau, a village at the mouth of the Klamath River. Prior to this ceremony no salmon caught at the mouth of the river could be eaten.

Yurok Festival 2

Yurok Festival 1

The Yurok Salmon Festival is shown above. The photos are from the tribe’s website.

The Salmon War:

In 1978, the State of California imposed a ban on sports and Indian fishing in the Klamath River estuary. The reason given for the ban was the decline in the salmon run even though the findings of the fishery biologists pointed to habitat degradation from logging and offshore commercial fishing as the cause of the decline. The result of this ban was a short-lived (as far as the media was concerned) Salmon War which pitted the tribes of northern California against both the State of California and the Department of the Interior, the federal agency which is supposed to be the guardian of the tribes.

Klamath River

Klamath Map

The Klamath River and a map of the river are shown above.

Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.

In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.

The Yurok called for a temporary truce while the Secretary of the Interior visited the area. The Secretary had an Indian salmon barbeque without realizing that the fish for the barbeque had been illegally caught.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a part of the Department of the Interior, placed a moratorium on all per capita payments to the Yurok and Hupa. The per capita payments, which included timber revenues, were the sole income for many Indians.

As the salmon run tailed off in the fall, the conflicts over the Salmon War dissipated and disappeared from the media. The war was over as far as the media was concerned and they moved on to other stories. There was no real ending to this Salmon War and the Indians and their concerns for the salmon once again became invisible. An agreement reached in 2009 calls for the removal of four dams along the river which should help restore the salmon run.

Dam Indians: The Background

In Oregon and California, an agreement has been reached for the removal of four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River. The tribes in the area have fought for decades for the removal of these dams because they block salmon from their spawning grounds.

The struggle for the removal of the Klamath River dams is only one small part of the story of Dam Indians-the fight between the United States and the Indians over dams. In this diary, I would like to look at some of the background of this struggle.  

When the Europeans first came to this continent, they found it filled with free-flowing, unpolluted rivers which were filled with fish. For the Indians – and subsequently for the European explorers, trappers, and traders – the rivers served as highways. For Indian people the rivers were also a source of their livelihood as fish was an important part of the diet throughout the country. In addition, Indian people saw the rivers as living spiritual entities and an important part of their own spiritual existence.

It wasn’t long before there were clashes between the Indians and Europeans over the rivers. In the name of “development” the Europeans blocked the flow of the water in the rivers to provide power to their mills. The Indians soon found that there were fewer fish in the river.

The real conflict between European and Indian cultures over rivers, however, happened during the twentieth century and continues today. The United States in the name of “progress”, “development,” and “civilization,” sought to dam the rivers for flood control, for hydroelectric power, and for irrigation. Often led by the Army Corps of Engineers – a military body not particularly friendly to Indians – the government constructed dams that often ignored treaty rights, Supreme Court decisions, and human decency.

The assault on Indian people through the construction of dams during the twentieth century is not a pleasant story. It is, at times, an account of disgraceful and dishonorable actions sometimes motivated by greed and racism. The need to build dams is more important to the United States than honoring the solemn pledge of President George Washington.

Dams have caused a number of problems for Native Americans. First, they often destroy spawning runs for fish. Not only are fish a traditional food source, but they are often an integral part of tribal spirituality.

In many instances, the dams have flooded the best farm lands on the reservations. This seems to contradict the history of federal government efforts to turn Indians into self-sufficient farmers.

The dams have also destroyed many Native American spiritual areas. This has included ceremonial areas as well as grave sites.

In the west, water rights are a major concern. Water law in the west grants the right to use water, both from streams and from groundwater, on the date of first use of this water. According to the Winters Doctrine, a legal concept which has been upheld by the Supreme Court, Indian reservations have first priority for water. Many dams, and particularly those which provide irrigation to non-Indians, have been constructed which ignore Indian water rights and have caused water shortages on the reservation.  

For those who view dams as evidence of progress and civilization, it should be pointed out that Indian people were building dams long before European people were aware of the existence of this continent. In the Southwest, the Anasazi people in New Mexico and the Hohokam in Arizona were building dams more than a thousand years ago.