Before the people there was only water.
—MIWOK CREATION TALE
The Miwoks had it right. Before California there was the miles-deep ocean. The geological assembling of California would take uncounted millennia of tectonic plates surfing the liquid magma of the planet’s heart and riding up on one another. These collisions, marked by tens of thousands of massive earthquakes, moved rocks and minerals around the planetary orb like sand grains in a breaking wave.
Of course the very concept of plate tectonics, the idea that coastal California, with its diversity of steep mountains, terraced marine bluffs, and wide, flat, sandy beaches, is a product of millions of years of collision and grinding between the North American and Pacific plates, was considered scientific heresy until relatively recent times. In the 1950s and ’60s, work on Atlantic seafloor spreading, and the mapping of midoceanic ridges and magnetic fields by Walter Pittman, Bruce Heezen, cartographer Marie Tharp, and others, confirmed the theory of plate tectonics or continental drift. This theory made sense and also explained what most curious schoolchildren had already figured out: That Africa, South America, and the other continents seemed to fit together like so many jigsaw pieces because they did. Over millions of years, they’d all drifted apart from a single supercontinent, Pangaea.
The Atlantic’s volcanic ridges and ranges and the Pacific’s still highly active volcanic ring of fire, along with earthquakes, climate and temperature variations, ice ages and carbon-linked warmings, have also had huge impacts on the rise and fall of sea levels in different ocean basins, particularly in recent millennia.
Some twelve thousand years ago during the early Holocene, a Paleo-Indian hunting party might have set off through a grassy river valley passing between a pair of high bluffs topped by live oak, Pacific madrone, and bay laurel. Those bluffs marked an opening between the wide valley and an otherwise contiguous range of low green mountains adorned with majestic pines and three hundred-foot-tall arrow-straight redwood trees. They’d hike another twenty-seven miles across golden meadows of rye grass, and white, yellow, and pink trillium, tree tobacco and fireweed, and through pine, sycamore, and cypress groves past grazing herds of mule deer and big elk too skittish to approach and then, near a coastal swale, give wide berth to a wary grizzly and her two young cubs feeding on the carcass of a dead fur seal. Overhead in cerulean blue skies California condors with ten-foot wingspans circled, waiting for their chance to feed.
Soon the hunting party reached a rocky headland with several craggy granite peaks where thousands of cormorants, puffins, and gulls roosted, whitening the rocky pinnacles with their guano. A few miles beyond, on a wide beach, they cautiously snuck up on a mob of Steller sea lions and elephant seals much larger than themselves. Then, in a quick rush of adrenaline and bravado, they targeted a single large animal, administering a lethal clubbing to the beast, marine mammals being one of their key sources of protein. Next, using sharp stones and obsidian blades they would have begun the slow process of butchering their kill.
During this last major ice age, with the sea level more than three hundred feet lower than it is today, it was possible for hunters to travel by foot through what is now not a river valley but the waters of San Francisco Bay and on through the naturally formed Golden Gate bluffs across what is today open Pacific waters to California’s own Galapagos, the craggy Farallon Islands twenty-seven miles off San Francisco. These islands are famous not only for their still abundant bird life but also for the visiting white sharks that cross a nearby marine abyss to feed on young elephant seals and other marine mammals that continue to congregate there.
Farther south, the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara were at the time one large near-shore island called Santarosae, which was settled by California’s earliest native people using tule canoes constructed of bundled tule reeds common along the marshy coast. Even farther south, the grass and brush-covered islands of Cortes off San Diego would later sink beneath the waves to become the Cortes Bank submarine mountaintops.
Archaeological digs on what are now the Channel Islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel have found ancient Indian artifacts and food middens that indicate they feasted well off marine mammals, waterfowl, urchins, mussels, and abalone, later using the abalone’s mollusk shell for fishhooks that made shiny lures. The ability to fish expanded their diet to include finfish, lobster, shark, and moray eel. At night and during foggy days they could warm themselves with mesquite, cypress, and pine fires and wrap themselves for comfort in thick otter fur robes.
The Chumash tribe’s origin tale may reflect an original settlement on the island of Santarosae that became less tenable as the sea channel to the mainland expanded with glacial meltwater toward the end of the ice age. With sea levels rising at more than a meter a century, foraging trips to the mainland would have become more difficult over time.
In the Chumash story the island population became too crowded and so the creator gave the people a rainbow bridge to cross to the mainland but warned them not to look down. Those who did fell from the rainbow into the ocean, but taking pity on the drowning people, the creator turned them into dolphins. Anytime I sail through the Santa Barbara Channel or head out to Catalina from Long Beach, spotting hundreds of white-sided and common dolphins leaping in great schools through the sea, I can’t help wondering who they are.
It was the late glaciated ice age some fifteen thousand years ago that brought the first small bands of humans to California’s shores from Siberia across the Bering land bridge and adjacent rocky ice fields but also, according to newer research, along the Aleutian Islands and West Coast in skin boats and other small watercraft.
They initially settled in the warmer south until, over several thousand years, from about 10,000 to 6,000 B.C., temperatures rose, and sea levels with them, creating more coastal estuaries, wetlands, lagoons, and tidal pools in Northern California that proved excellent habitat for hunting and foraging. Bands and clans of people migrated back north from Baja and Malibu to Elkhorn Slough by the Salinas River, to Half Moon, San Francisco, Bodega and Humboldt bays, as well as to the banks of the Carmel, Russian, Noyo, Mattole, Klamath, and Smith rivers just south of Oregon, where people are still somewhat hostile to bands of Californians moving north.
By 9,000 B.C. sea level rise had severed the Bering land bridge, separating Russia from Alaska and effectively stranding the native populations of California and the Americas. The Californians might have numbered in the high hundreds by then. By the time European explorers first caught sight of California around A.D. 1500, the natural wealth of the region had seen the native population expand to some three hundred thousand people living in culturally distinct tribal societies including the Tongva, Chumash, Esselen, Miwok, Pomo, Sinkyone, Yurok, Tolowa, and Shasta.
Native peoples’ lives and livelihoods depended on California’s bountiful shore and coastal range, as well as on the acorn flour–, duck-, salmon-, and venison-rich territories that extended inland to the great estuarine wetlands of the delta and central valley. Tribes also settled the region’s northern temperate rainforest, southern high desert, and even the foothills of the Sierra with its stark granite mountains’ range of light.
The biological abundance of the coast, however, allowed for cultural diversity unseen in the interior regions to the east and south. More than sixty languages based on twenty distinct linguistic groupings were spoken in California. Villages and towns of upward of one thousand people appeared in coastal regions rich in salmon, shellfish, acorns, rabbit, deer, and marine mammals, including seals and dolphins that could be trapped on or near the shore.
In the northern spruce and redwood forest between what’s now Humboldt Bay and the Oregon border, the Tolowa, Yurok, Chilula, Bear River, Wiyot, Mattole and other tribes occupied coastal lagoons, bays, and riverbanks. Here they built wooden plank houses with round doors and sweat lodges for spiritual purposes and to help take the chill off. They built with redwood and cedar, including dugout canoes made from redwood logs worked with fire, adze, and elk horn wedges till they were as smooth, symmetrical, and polished as any Royal British launch. Some were two-person transports; some were seagoing trade and hunting craft more than forty feet long by eight feet wide that could hold crews of a dozen or more men. While runs of chinook and coho salmon, steelhead trout, smelt, and other fish were abundant almost year-round on the Klamath and other rivers, the big redwood dugouts were essential for launching the big-game sea lion hunts of late summer.
Before dawn on the day of a hunt, one of the canoe skippers would go down to the beach and listen to the sound of the waves to determine the size of the groundswell and conditions offshore. If he was satisfied and got the headman’s agreement, his crew would then launch through the surf, paddling with all their strength. Once outside the break, they might travel twenty miles or more to the islands, promontories, and rock outcrops where Steller sea lion colonies had their rookeries. There they would drop off two-man hunter-killer teams.
With the close approach of these two-legged predators, a fifteen-hundred-pound male might rise up on its front flippers and draw back its head just before lunging at its attacker. Before it could, the point man would suddenly thrust a sharpened stick into its mouth to keep its head back and the second man would come up behind the animal and club it to death, trying to crack its skull with the first blow.
Having had similar-sized elephant seals rear up at me, I can imagine the desperate hunger that would compel a man to keep advancing in this situation. On slippery rocks and sea-flushed mats of giant kelp or pickleweed, amid mobs of large panicked, barking animals stampeding for the refuge of the sea, I’m sure more than just the pinnipeds met death and injury in these encounters.
Even after a successful kill, it was still a huge challenge to drag the animal’s body into the surf and then tip the big canoe over into the water until the carcass could be rolled or pushed inside it. Then the crews, often with two or more dead animals aboard their vessels, certainly cold and wet to their skins, with the salty smell of blood and sea foam in their nostrils, perhaps seasick or carrying injured or dead hunters, would have to paddle hours back to the mainland through sea states that even today can make mariners nervous whenever they venture onto the North Pacific off of California.
About eight hundred miles to the south a different kind of maritime culture was evolving among California’s first settlers, including the Chumash and dolphin-hunting Tongva (or Gabrielino), peoples living near or on the Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente). Along the Southern California coast these people lived in conical homes made of tule grass, sometimes with whalebone rafters scavenged from beached whales.
With rising sea levels forcing them to navigate more open waters, the Chumash and their neighbors developed a new kind of boat, replacing or supplementing tule reed boats with more elegant, rugged, and seaworthy plank timber canoes known as tomols or in the case of the Tongvas, te’aat (tiat). These were ten to thirty feet in length and three to four feet wide. The Chumash called the tomol the “House of the Sea,” for its reliability, and their crews used double-bladed kayaklike paddles to propel these lightweight seagoing canoes through the ocean.
California archaeologist Brian Fagan suggests the first plank boats might have appeared thousands of years ago on Catalina Island, where the Tongva quarried soapstone that could be worked into cooking pots, slabs, and other tools for trade with other tribes. This would have given them commercial incentive to build faster, more seaworthy boats that could haul hundreds and later thousands of pounds of cargo between the islands and the mainland and along the coast. He calls whoever developed these earliest plank boats that didn’t get waterlogged like tule or tip over like redwood “the rocket scientists of their time.”
By around A.D. 650 the tomol had become the centerpiece of Chumash culture, similar to the role the automobile now plays in Southern California. A secretive guild known as the Brotherhood of the Canoe was responsible for the construction of each new tomol, its boat-building knowledge handed down through the generations from senior craftsman to apprentice.
Redwood logs that drifted down the coast and washed ashore made the best construction material since old-growth redwood swells when it gets wet, making better seals. Uprooted pine trees that washed down area rivers during winter storms were also widely used. After splitting the logs with whalebone or antler wedges workers selected only straight-grained planks without any knots to guarantee no cracking or leaks over time. Planks were then trimmed and finished using various adzes including pismo clamshell. The brotherhood then sanded the hull boards with sharkskin before fitting them together. Small holes were bored in the planks with stone or bone awls, and the planks were laid edge to edge and fastened with milkweed fiber cords passed through the drill holes. Tule plant was then stuffed into the cracks as caulking. Additional caulking was done with yop, a mix of natural asphalt from local tar pits and pine pitch melted and boiled together in stone bowls, which was then poured along the edges of the planks and into the drill holes. A crossplank at midship both reinforced the boat and acted as a seat. Another coat of yop was used to waterproof the boat, which was then painted with red ochre, a fourth and final coat of sealant before the finished tomol was decorated with geometric shell designs.
Only male members of leading families were allowed to own tomols. Grizzly or black bearskin capes identified the owners and masters of these boats that, carefully maintained, could last for decades to be passed down from one generation to the next.
Tomols allowed for a widespread trading network among various tribes who lived on Point Conception, Santa Monica Bay, and the Channel Islands. There were designated shipping routes, and signal fires on the islands were used as early aides to navigation. Interestingly, all this maritime trade took place within a day’s paddle of what are now America’s two largest trading ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explored the California coast in 1542 he saw so many tomols hauled up at one obviously wealthy village he named it Pueblo de las Canoas, or “town of canoes.” It was later renamed Malibu. Another explorer spotted the brotherhood doing their boat carpentry in another village and gave it a name that’s stuck, Carpinteria. Today you can see the Helek, a replica tomol built by modern-day Chumash, at the Museum of Natural History located on a scenic hillside above the old mission town of Santa Barbara.
Partially intact tomols have also been found in ancient Channel Island middens along with dolphin bones; seal and fish bones; and abalone, clam, and limpet shells. Carefully studied by archaeologists and marine ecologists, these leftovers tell a tale of the ocean’s abundance, overexploitation, and prey population crashes and rebounds over centuries as native people overfished what was locally available. When one food species disappeared the Indians either targeted new food species or moved their villages to locations where there was yet untapped abundance.
California’s biological richness and diversity, a hallmark of its coast and climate, also meant that while its native peoples became accomplished boat builders and basket weavers, they didn’t face the geographically and ecologically based food scarcity that drove other peoples to develop fixed agricultural systems and the social stratification and specialization needed to expand the crops, irrigation systems, roads, and granaries that go along with settled agriculture. California’s coastal tribes didn’t have the incentive to construct hierarchical corn- and potato-based city-states like the Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, or Tiwanakans to their south. In those societies the emergence of surplus wealth generated priestly classes and god-kings who required tribute, both human and material, and the mining of gold and silver for urban centers of commerce and temple-based worship and sacrifice. These “cities of gold,” in turn, inspired their own destruction as the conquistadores of Spain led by Hernán Cortés laid waste to whole civilizations using armor, swords, lances, horses, and later priests to subdue the defeated survivors who would then become the Indian vassals, slaves, silver miners, and neophytes of “New Spain.”
For California’s native people, the lack of gold- and silver-rich cities, and their distance from the new colonial power center of Mexico City, established in 1521, delayed but failed to prevent the devastation to come.
California’s pre-Columbian population of some three hundred thousand people would, by 1900, plunge to some twenty thousand as a result of the guns, germs, and steel of European settlers and conquerors Spanish, Mexican, and Yankee. Most of this destruction occurred within a two-hundred-year period between the establishment of the California mission system and the gold rush era, a period that exemplifies the United Nations’ definition of genocide, which addresses actions intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This period included the deaths of more than 20,000 native people during a single malaria epidemic in 1833, as well as the death of some 100,000 Spanish mission Indian slaves and neophytes through starvation, disease, and suicide. In addition there were some 100,000 additional murders, rapes, starvations, and suicides linked to the gold rush miners and death-squad militias such as the Humboldt Volunteers, Eel River Minutemen, Coast and Klamath Rangers, and Placer Blades.
In a not untypical incident in February 1860, the Humboldt Volunteers massacred as many as 250 elderly Wiyot men along with women and children on Tuluwat Island in Humboldt Bay and at several other locales while the tribe’s able-bodied men were away gathering supplies for a celebration. Until that time there’d never been any conflict between the tribe and white settlers in the area, although a few members of a different tribe were suspected of stealing some dairy cows. The attackers used mostly hatchets, clubs, and knives so that people in the nearby town of Eureka a few hundred yards away wouldn’t hear the sound of gunfire. Afterward the slaughter became known as the Indian Island or bloody island massacre, though the island itself officially became known as Gunther Island when Robert Gunther, a dairyman, acquired ownership that same year. Still, while several suspects were identified, no one was ever prosecuted for the killings. When writer Bret Harte, then working in the coastal town of Union (later Arcata) wrote an editorial in the Northern Californian condemning the killings shortly after they took place, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee to San Francisco.
Today the Wiyots lead an annual commemoration for the victims close to Indian Island that now holds some of the footings for the Route 255 bridge between Eureka and the Samoa peninsula. Driving over the bridge on a wet, foggy day, I can see Eureka’s downtown waterfront just beyond the island’s marshy landscape with its hammocks of trees where dozens of white egrets and herons flap and circle about their rookeries like ghostly apparitions.
Of course it’s always been easier to colonize, massacre, and displace a people if you can first establish them as outside the realm of full personhood, as being other than human, an exclusionary role colonial racism and religion helped facilitate. Around 1825, Franciscan missionary Father Geronimo Boscana wrote:
The Indians of California may be compared to a species of monkey, for naught do they express interest, except in imitating the actions of others, and particularly in copying the ways of the “razon” or white men, whom they respect as being much superior to themselves: but in so doing, they are careful to select vice, in preference to virtue. This is the result, undoubtedly, of their corrupt, and natural disposition.
Similar sentiments would later be expressed against California’s Mexican land-grant holders, immigrant Chinese and Latin American miners, Japanese fishermen and farmers, African American sailors, or anyone else it might prove profitable to displace or oppress for their land, timber, labor, or gold.
* * *
We go through a cattle gate on a wet, cloudy day and walk down a long partially flooded path past cattail ponds and creeklike back eddies of the Yontocket Slough. Just beyond the hillock of trees in front of us is Lake Earl, the largest coastal lagoon south of Alaska. Behind us are the mountains of far Northern California between the Klamath and Smith rivers and the Oregon border, also farm fields full of cows, some imported buffalo, and thousands of Aleutian geese spread across a floodplain that was once a redwood forest now reduced to several huge stumps too big to dynamite, scattered about farmhouse yards and pastureland. I look across the flooded green slough under a chalk-colored sky where several white egrets are standing staring back at me, one with a pair of frog legs hanging from its beak.
We climb the low hill to what was once a tree-sheltered village and is now the wooden fenced Yontocket Indian Village Memorial Cemetery, the site of a massacre of 450 Tolowa people in 1853. In the last few years the tribe and Tolowa Dunes State Park rangers have been concerned about grave robbers stealing and selling artifacts online and so are considering shutting down the trail. A marsh wren trills a reedy poignant birdsong.
“We’re victims of massacres and genocide, and people as a group who suffer oppression that horrible will live with the effects for generations,” says Sheryl Steinruck, a tribal member and a teacher at the Smith River Rancheria. Rancherias are small parcels of land given to California tribes in the twentieth century in lieu of eight million acres of reservation land they were supposed to get from treaties never ratified in the nineteenth century.
“I grew up in [the small Del Norte town of] Fort Dick by Military Road where they used to shoot any Indian who approached the fort and you didn’t walk alone at night or you might not ever return,” Sheryl tells me at the brown shingle tribal offices near where the cold clear waters of the Smith, the last major undammed river in the state, rush by. While white settlers didn’t penetrate the “Redwood Curtain” of far Northern California until the 1820s, the aggressive frontier mentality they brought with them (“No law north of the Klamath”) lasted longer than on other parts of the coast. The Tolowa called the whites Natlh-mii–t’i, which means “Knife Brandisher,” and as late as 1895 there were government-sanctioned bounties for Indian scalps in Del Norte County.
“I’m an elder now.” The middle-aged educator smiles. “When I was a kid we’d sit on the beach and no one was there. Now there’s constant traffic and people on the beach. Still with all the new housing and stuff that the prison brought [the massive Pelican Bay Prison, which opened in 1989], we still need more jobs. We have 14 percent unemployment in the county.” Sheryl has black hair, broad cheeks, lively brown eyes behind thin designer glasses, and a “111” Tolowa chin tattoo—three vertical black lines dropping from her lower lip to below her chin that traditionally signified a young girl’s entry into womanhood. Banned by the government in the 1920s, Indian tattoos (her nephew Guylish Bommelyn brandishes an armful) are now part of a cultural reawakening that’s taken place in Indian Country since the 1969 American Indian Movement seizure of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The siege lasted eighteen months and involved more than five thousand native people. In California the revival takes different forms in different parts of the state and also reflects different levels of economic development between gaming and nongaming tribes since the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 and state ballot initiatives in 1998 and 2000 that gave California’s tribes wide latitude to run their own casinos. In Del Norte County on the Oregon border, the Tolowa and Elk Valley tribes have small reservation casinos whose income they’ve used to help buy back their lands. The Tolowa have expanded from 160 to 580 of their original seventeen-thousand-acre homeland. The Elk Valley Rancheria in Crescent City, with 94 members, a mix of both Tolowa and Yurok, has expanded their land base from one hundred acres to just over six hundred. The Yuroks, the largest tribe in the state with more than five thousand members but only a single gas-station casino, have still managed to expand their landholdings and sustain a resource-based economy built around salmon, timber, and tourism. More than ten thousand people visit their annual salmon festival each August.
In more urbanized Southern California, where tribes were driven to the brink of extinction, small bands like the Santa Ynez Chumash in Santa Barbara County have regained significant wealth running one of the largest casinos in the state. Along with individual payments to tribal members of more than $100,000 a year, part of their income has gone to restoring traditional practices including the construction of thirty-foot tomol canoes for tribal paddles from the mainland to the Channel Islands that can take up to ten hours. A few years ago tribal members completed a paddle in six hours accompanied by a pod of dolphins much of the way. Unfortunately, with gaming money has also come factionalism and fights over who is and is not an “enrolled” (federally recognized) member of the tribe. One of the Chumash spiritual leaders and “dolphin dancers” not from the Santa Ynez band is Mati Waiya, also the Ventura Waterkeeper, a member of the boat-based environmental group led by Robert Kennedy Jr. that targets polluters of all waters. Mati helped establish the Chumash Discovery Village at Nicholas Canyon Beach in Malibu that’s described as “a living history museum.”
For most of the tribes in Northern California, history is what one does every day since their livelihoods still depend on their ability to hunt, fish, harvest, and adapt to ongoing climatic and biological changes taking place in the state’s coastal and marine ecosystem.
“When I was a kid there was a lot more rain. The rainforests held the moisture more—it rained more in the trees,” Sheryl claims, despite a heavy winter of rains during my visit that has taken Del Norte’s usual seventy-five inches annual rainfall to more than one hundred. “Also, since I was a child the smelt run has gone crazy,” she says. “Those [1960s childhood years] were bumper years. You’d take these scoop nets down in the ocean gravel, this peasized gravel you look for where they go to spawn, and scoop up the fish and you’d need real muscles scooping all those fish and gravel. There’d be so many we’d have to say stop—enough—but no more. Plus, the razor clams we collected are all gone. Only the seaweed we harvest is still there.”
She sounds like a lot of commercial fishermen I’ve talked to. Rich Young, the harbormaster in nearby Crescent City, fished commercially for more than twenty years before being forced out by newer boats and fewer fish. His dad and uncles were fishermen, and he lost a brother to a fishing accident in Eureka. He recalls the 1980s when federal subsidies helped overcapitalize the fishing fleet and everyone bought bigger boats with bigger engines and nets and fish-finding sonar. “It was a fisheries nightmare,” he says. “We’d have one-hundred-thousand-pound trips of rockfish and we fished out the near shore and we’d go to two hundred fathoms and think that was deep, which it was at the time. When my dad and uncle fished they’d use lead line to find the bottom. Today with the electronics you can see the bottom and the fish. Fishermen up here went the way of the loggers [who clear-cut the forests]. Then it was like the stages of grief. First there’s denial. ‘There’s as much fish as there ever was.’ Then there’s, ‘A smart fisherman can still find fish,’ which is true if you put bigger nets on the boats and bigger engines and rollers [that keep trawl nets from getting snagged] to go into rockier grounds because there are no fish left on the flats where we used to find them. And with the frustration you’d have fishermen attacking other fishermen saying the other guy was doing dirty fishing and I should have those fish. But in the end if there’s no fish there’s no fishermen.”
Eventually the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal waters off California, created an industry-funded buy-back program downsizing the groundfish fleet from 270 to 180 boats to help reduce the pressure on the resource. Today Crescent City is the largest fishing port in Northern California, thanks mainly to Dungeness crab. Crabs, squid, lobster, and sea urchin are now California’s top-earning fisheries. In the past it was tuna, salmon, black cod, and other finfish, including sardine, which collapsed at the end of the 1940s. Scientists call this “fishing down the trophic levels” (down the food chain), although with sardines they were also targeting the forage fish, the small fish that the big fish feed on.
Almost all the coastal tribes used to camp out on the beaches during the summer to catch smelt and dry them for winter use. Now only the Tolowa have a regular camp on the Smith River in late summer where they wait for the smelt to return. “The Yuroks don’t dry the fish anymore,” Sheryl tells me.
“Some traditional fish for drying were the eulachon that came upriver [from the sea] but they have disappeared from the Klamath,” Dave Hillemeier, program manager for the Yurok’s fisheries, confirms. Eulachon is a kind of smelt also known as candlefish because it’s so rich in fat that a spawning fish can be dried, strung on a wick, and burned for light. “In the 1970s they were caught with dip nets and they could fill up pickup trucks with them,” Hillemeier says. “They were probably in decline even then but since have just disappeared. Last year we counted six in the river.”
“Six individual fish?” I ask.
At the Tolowa fish camp they collected thousands of fish for food and barter with other tribes. “Our camp has thirty to forty people at most, so it’s not our population that’s destroying the fishes’ ecosystem,” Sheryl insists. “If it is diminishing it’s because of changes in the ocean. I think it’s weather and pollution, and the decline of the smelt is really bad because they feed the whole food chain.”
“We’ve been doing this for thousands of years,” her nephew Guylish points out. “Now the Hmong [Laotian tribal refugees who forage along the state’s beaches] leave nothing.” It’s true some Southeast Asian immigrants carry out systemic hunting and foraging along the coast. This has led both to confrontations with California Fish and Game wardens as well as to self-directed community education efforts.
“We try and watch the coastline and protect it,” Sheryl says. “We have a renewal ceremony for the earth that we hold.”
I suggest they consider holding it more often.
At their last fish camp tribal attendance was way down, along with the number of fish. There were just enough to eat but none left over for drying.
Along with the smelt, other threatened and endangered fish in far Northern California include two species of suckerfish or c’waam, also coho salmon, spring-run chinook salmon, and green sturgeon.
* * *
I visit the Yurok tribal headquarters off Highway 101 the day after they’ve acquired twenty-two thousand acres of land from Green Diamond Resource Company, a spin-off of Simpson Lumber. The more than thirty-four square miles of forest acquisition, a deal put together using almost $19 million from state clean-water funds, more than doubles the tribe’s land base.
“I’m very happy with this. We need our land base for wildlife and culture and as a working forest and also for preservation,” Tribal Chairman Tommy O’Rourke tells me, sipping from a big mug of coffee in his office. He’s a short man with a neatly trimmed gray beard and mustache and big black cowboy (or in this case Indian) hat that is one of his sartorial trademarks whether on the reservation or lobbying to protect tribal fishing rights in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. “We still gather, harvest, and hunt in traditional ways and we’ve been at it for years,” he says. “We want to return the land to a natural state and continue to claim more of our [estimated five-hundred-ninety-thousand-acre] homeland. It’s hard to acquire this kind of land for a nongaming tribe [they actually run one small casino], even if you’re the largest in California.”
Before heading into a tribal council meeting, Tommy introduces me to Troy Fletcher, the tribe’s policy analyst, who tells me the tribe had only six thousand acres in 1988 at the time of the federal Hoopa–Yurok Settlement Act that partitioned the two adjacent tribes’ lands along the coastal river and set up a fund based on government timber sales that eventually brought the Yurok $90 million but only after twenty years of legal wrangling. This latest land purchase is a huge addition and benefit for the tribe, Troy explains. He notes that fish, particularly salmon, are central to their culture and identity. The tribe has seventeen fish biologists and thirty to forty technicians working for it, depending on the season. This fall’s chinook salmon run is their healthiest, with about sixty-five thousand wild adult fish having returned from the ocean. The coho are the least healthy and are listed under the Endangered Species Act. They tend to hang out in the slack water around beaver-dammed ponds near the mouth of the Klamath. In the summer of 2011, a forty-five-foot mother grey whale and her calf also decided to spend several months cruising the Lower Klamath River until she accidentally beached herself and died. With the fall run of chinook, the tribe leaves the first thirty-five thousand fish alone to spawn and divides the rest up with 50 percent going to nontribal fishermen and 50 percent to the tribes for their own use. Of these, 80 percent go to the Yurok and 20 percent to the (upriver) Hoopa.
I ask Troy about the water fight over the river that took place in the early part of this century and resulted in the die-off of more than seventy thousand fish back in 2002. He says the conflict on the river that traumatized many tribal members also “helped galvanize our people.”
In the spring of 2001 thousands of alfalfa, hay, and potato farmers marched through the streets of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and illegally opened canal headgates to protest a federal decision cutting their irrigation water in order to guarantee enough water remain in the river to protect endangered suckerfish and coho salmon.
Like the snail darter and spotted owl before it, the suckerfish quickly became the poster animal for right-wing critics of the Endangered Species Act, including Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal who tried to frame the issue as “suckerfish versus farmers.” What few of those promoting “suckerfish sandwiches” were willing to acknowledge was that the water crisis was precipitated by the worst drought to hit the Northwest in more than a century, a drought that, like the region’s forty-six shrinking glaciers, is likely linked to climate change.
“Nineteen ninety-four was the last substantial rain we had,” Ryan Kliewer, a young fourth-generation farmer who marched in the 2001 protests, told me. Winter rains in 2002 and 2003 finally relieved the “drought of the century” that then returned eight years later.
After the street protests, President George W. Bush’s secretary of the interior Gale Norton, a veteran of the antienvironmental “Wise Use” movement of the 1990s, reversed course, slashing the river flow and returning much of the water to the irrigators. She did this despite federal scientists’ reports that this would put the coho in serious jeopardy and a U.S. Geological Survey report that showed keeping the water in the river would generate thirty times more economic benefit for downstream users in California. Six months after a ceremony at which Norton and Bush’s secretary of agriculture Ann Veneman helped reopen the headgates, tens of thousands of salmon and suckerfish washed up dead along the banks of the now partially drained river. Only later did it come out that Vice President Dick Cheney and White House strategist Karl Rove had exerted personal behind-the-scenes pressure on agency scientists and managers to make sure the water went to the farmers in eastern Oregon rather than to where it was legally required to go. As Rove explained in a PowerPoint presentation to fifty top officials of the Department of Interior, they believed they still had a chance of winning Oregon for Bush in the 2004 presidential elections by “supporting our base,” but had written off California.
“The administration needs to understand that federal agencies like the Interior Department are not a division of the Republican National Committee and at their disposal to give out political favors,” complained Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who ran against Bush in 2004. Though Kerry lost the presidency, he won both Oregon and California.
Meanwhile Yuroks, Hoopas, commercial fishermen, and other angry downstream protestors dumped five hundred pounds of dead, rotting, Klamath salmon that had been FedExed from California onto the front steps of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. The sudden decline of the Klamath salmon also led to wide-ranging restrictions on salmon fishing off California in 2007 out of fear that the last Klamath coho might be caught and killed.
Shortly thereafter, California’s entire fall chinook salmon run collapsed: An estimated 1.5 million fish in 2005 dwindled to an estimated sixty thousand in 2008 before slowly bouncing back to a few hundred thousand in 2010 followed by more than one million the following year. This was due in part to seesawing oceanographic conditions tied to deepwater upwellings that saw the crash and recovery of krill and anchovy that salmon feed on. These changing offshore conditions, combined with agricultural water diversions in the Sacramento Delta that kill young fish, were the primary culprits responsible for the 2008 collapse, according to scientists and fishermen.
Recognizing how dependent we’ve all become on intact rivers, watersheds, and healthy ocean waters, the tribes, farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, government officials including the governors of California and Oregon, and the private power company PacifiCorp, reached an agreement in 2010 to take a more precautionary approach on the Klamath. It will see the removal of four marginally productive dams in order to restore historic water flows and fish runs along more than three hundred miles of the river that have been blocked off for sixty to one hundred years. Similar dam removals have had notable success in reviving coastal rivers in Washington State, Maine, and North Carolina.
I ask Troy Fletcher if the tribe is satisfied with the tentative 2020 date set for the dams’ removals under the $1.4 billion project.
“With NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] and CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] and the other laws that have to be complied with, that’s really not so long a time to wait,” he claims. “All those analysis and permits, and working with the county and state and feds and everyone wanting their say—it’s still years down the road, but we know this river can heal itself and we know it will.”
At that point the Klamath will join the Smith twenty miles to its north as the second of California’s great undammed coastal rivers, hopefully with restored and invigorated populations of California’s iconic salmon. The Klamath was once the state’s second most productive salmon river after the Sacramento with more than eight hundred thousand salmon coming home to its waters every year, along with steelhead trout, big seagoing sturgeon, and suckerfish that kept white settlers in Eastern Oregon alive during a nineteenth-century drought thanks to the c’waam being cooked and delivered to the starving farmers by their Indian neighbors.
* * *
I’m standing at an overlook above the mouth of the Klamath. I’m alone since I snuck by the road closure sign and drove around the landslide that’s blocked most of Requa Road after a week of heavy rains. A sheriff’s truck is the only other vehicle I’ve seen on the twisting cliff-side drive up here.
The big river’s outlet to the sea runs far and fast below me, pushing a gravel-gray plume of riffling water one hundred feet wide a quarter mile out into the ocean on this side of a large boot-shaped sandbar that’s formed below a forested hill, half of which looks to have been timbered sometime in the last forty or fifty years.
The view south from where I stand, with its gray sand beaches and granite bird rocks reminds me of the overview of the Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii, only much colder and on an even grander scale. I can’t see any sign of people or their works for thirty or forty miles to where the low coastal mountain range is lost in blue haze somewhere shy of Trinidad Head, beyond which is Humboldt Bay and another fifty-six miles of largely inaccessible wilderness known as the Lost Coast, the longest stretch of unroaded oceanfront land in the United States outside Alaska. The funny thing is that this remote temperate rainforest is located on the northern edge of the most populous state in the nation. It makes me wonder how different what I’m seeing now is from what the first European explorers might have seen along this wild and dangerous stretch of the North Pacific.
Copyright © 2013 by David Helvarg