We Return for the Klamath Salmon Festival
PHOTOS BY MARK LARSON
The Yurok people are throwing a party, the fifty-seventh annual Klamath Salmon Festival, and the salmon are having a good year. My husband and I grew up together in Hoopa, and these days, we will both happily hop out of bed and drive for seven hours from our Bay Area home for the promise of some traditional stick-roasted salmon, blackberry cobbler, and a swimming hole. It is a sunny day in Klamath, a place with weather that is probably best described as iffy—you just never know. Foggy, sunny, misty, rainy, partly cloudy, it’s iffy. But on this day, the weather is perfect and warm, not a cloud in the sky, with that cooling coastal breeze blowing from the mouth of the Klamath right across the back of your neck. In mid-August, the blackberries are so ripe and prolific, you can smell them in the air of this riparian settlement, as old as creation itself. We pass two golden grizzlies sitting like sentinels at each end of the bridge into town, a reminder of all that California has lost since the dawn of colonization. Not that California Indians need a reminder; we have been picking up the pieces, adapting, and fighting ever since.
In the pre-contact days, salmon were abundant—the keystone species in a healthy ecosystem. Salmon fed everything and everyone. Ospreys and eagles would snatch them up and take them to the treetops, dropping bits and bones on the forest floor for mice and other small mammals to feast upon, spreading calcium and minerals into the soil, feeding the roots of dramatic, skyscraping redwoods. Families of colossal Grizzlies would sit in the riffle waiting for Chinook to jump right into their open mouths. These bountiful shoals fed the whole Klamath River watershed, in perfect cyclical balance.
AT THE FESTIVAL
We walk up the dusty road to the festival from the parking lot, picking berries along the way. The gauntlet to get to the salmon plate starts with a Classic Car Show organized by Yurok elder George Smoker and his wife Marla. We can see the colorful chalky blasts from the morning’s Ney-Puey Color Run, and off to the left is the long pitch for the stick games, surrounded by coolers and families waiting for the games to start. We make our way past booths selling handmade jewelry, clothing, art, and craftwork. My husband reminds me to keep my eyes on the prize, and we hurry along, until we spot the long line into the salmon plate tent. It’s no worry. We live in the Bay Area now, and we are champion line waiters.
All around are booths selling delicious foods. Blackberry cobbler, salmonberry jam, Indian tacos, kettle corn . . . the Potawot Community Food Garden even has a fresh fruit and vegetable stand. You can get a salmon plate on one side, an Indian taco on the other, and depending on where your loyalties lie, there’s a blackberry cobbler booth on both sides. But my husband doesn’t play cobbler politics, so he eats one from each—he did not drive seven hours to mess around.
The salmon plates were piled high with salmon cooked in two teams led by Sam Gensaw, Sr., and his son, Sam Gensaw, Jr. Lucinda Meyers orchestrated the side dish operation, coordinating a large team to bring it all together. It is a plate that makes you miss your auntie, and there’s quite a turnout compared to previous years. Most importantly, there is salmon, and plenty of it. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In the 1930s the State of California closed the Klamath to the Native people; they were no longer allowed to bring their nets to the waters they’d been tasked with tending since time immemorial. But the Yurok people would not be starved, and they continued fishing under cover of night to feed their families. Every kid that grew up along the Klamath and the Trinity knows about Raymond Mattz, who, on one such night, took the fall for five gill nets, which resulted in a 1976 Supreme Court case that reaffirmed Native fishing rights. By 1978-79 the Salmon Wars were being fought in earnest. Despite the Supreme Court decision, the Yuroks were harassed and violently threatened by white fisherman.
The Yuroks often feared for their lives, but they stayed the course. The white fishermen would gather in numbers to intimidate them, but the fishermen and the police were afraid of Yurok spirituality, frightened off by drumming, singing, and praying. Each conflict took a toll on the community; it was war. And the beginning of a decades’ long fight, inside the United States’ judicial system, to maintain stewardship of their traditional lands along the Klamath, including where the salmon swim.
In September of 2002, though the Yurok tribe had warned about the river’s abnormally low-water due to diversions and drought, the worst fish kill in human memory happened, and the Klamath became choked with 70-80,000 fish dead from gill rot disease—dead before they were able to reproduce. The Yuroks, horrified by this carnage and fearful of the implications, would not fish that year. White fisherman, however, sitting among the dead, continued fishing for whatever might be left.
The effects of losing an entire generation of Chinook are still being felt today. In the years following, the salmon runs were again plagued by disease and parasitic outbreaks due to drought and low flow in the Klamath as water was over-diverted for farms in the upper Klamath Basin, and the Yuroks pursued legal challenges. In 2005, the fish populations were suffering dramatically due to that missing generation of fish from 2002. By 2006, commercial fishing was essentially halted and the Yurok tribe could not provide salmon for the Salmon Festival. The loss of this generation of salmon, combined with increasing drought and lower, hotter water levels in the Klamath, which multiplies the deadly parasites, meant even fewer healthy salmon, such that in 2015, deadly parasites were found in 91% of them.
This year, thanks to heavy rains and well-targeted water releases, the fish could be far less susceptible to the parasite that decimates their populations when the river is low. However, the Bureau of Reclamation’s April 1 water management plan does not provide nearly enough water to help the fragile populations of Chinook on the Klamath. The Yurok tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association have again filed suit—this time to remedy the scarcity of water in the river resulting from the Bureau’s plan.
The suit contests the method behind how the Bureau and the National Marine Fisheries Service regulate Klamath River water, which fails to protect the river, as required by law. The lawsuit asks the court to order an alternative method, for example, with contingencies to allow for release of water from Upper Klamath Lake if salmon populations below the dam show a high rate of parasitic infection, as they do this summer. The Klamath needs water if the salmon population is ever going to recover in any significant way.
This year’s Salmon Festival theme, Skue’n ‘Owook (Can’t Wait for Tomorrow), heralds a plan to remove the lower four dams on the Klamath, as well as the reintroduction of the California Condor to these traditional coastal climes. The dams are set to come down in 2022, and the Yurok people are already collecting forty-three different types of native plant seeds, including shrubs, perennial grasses, wetland plants, and flowering plants, to use in the restoration of the river.
The Condor, a deeply sacred relative to the Yuroks, is finally returning home after 100 years of absence. They estimate the reintroduced California Condors will range all over Northern California and Southern Oregon. Skue’n ‘Owook might also express eagerness about the tribe’s reacquisition of 50,000 acres of ancestral forestlands, which fell into private hands after the government confiscated it. These lands include the vitally important Blue Creek drainage, which was owned by Green Diamond Resource Company. The reacquisition of these forestlands was aided by Western Rivers Conservancy, which raised millions of dollars to pay Green Diamond for the land. Big restoration projects are on tap for the drainage too.
AFTER THE SALMON FEED
When we’d finally finished lunch, we wandered back down past the booths of handmade goods, admiring jewelry made of beautiful beads, dentalium, pine nuts, porcupine quills, buckskin, and abalone. At the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association’s popular demonstration, nimble hands and laughter showed their commitment to cultural preservation, which includes tending to the weaving plants they depend on. Nothing happens in a silo on the Klamath, everything is interconnected. After watching stick games for a bit, doing some shopping, chatting with old friends, and hitting the blackberry patch again, we had a swimming hole to get to. But the trauma of the Fish Wars is always in the back of our minds, and we still straighten our backs when we see the words FISH ON made out of stones on the riverbank, reminding us not to let our guard down.
The Yurok tribe puts on the Klamath Salmon Festival every year on the third Saturday in August. For more information please check their website, yuroktribe.org. Lodging at the Native-owned Recqua Inn goes fast, but it’s truly a world class B&B experience, and this writer cannot recommend it highly enough.
Mark Larson is a photographer from Arcata, California, who specializes in finding stories and places around the West Coast. He’s a retired photojournalism professor at Humboldt State University.
Sara is a locavoracious reader and writer, fascinated by California’s food stories. Sara has never met a food she doesn’t like, although she considers brussels sprouts a frenemy.