In recent years, I witnessed the battle over re-licensing of four dams on the Klamath River, which runs from Oregon's high desert country to the redwood and Doug fir forests of the California coast. This watershed is my home, and it filled me with hope that dam removal could bring salmon to reaches of river that had not seen a spawning salmon in nearly a century.
My relatives and their neighbors were against dam removal. Their arguments had a lot to do with settler pride of place, how we took this wild river and made it useful -- building cheap hydropower, irrigating onions, growing potatoes for Frito-Lay, watering livestock. My family's arrival in California in 1870 was an oft-told tale that gave us our rightful place in the West. But the land had changed since then. In summer, the river was too warm, its color a neon yellow-green. In some years, stretches of the Shasta and Scott tributaries dried up.
It was at a California Water Board meeting in October 2008 that I got a good look at settler pride in action. At the highway turnoff into Yreka in Siskiyou County, the moon cast long shadows from the statue of a bearded miner panning for gold beside his mule. Inside the meeting room, fluorescent tubes lit the stained walls of the conference room and its restless inhabitants. "Coho, chinook, steelhead, Pacific lamprey and green sturgeon could disappear from the watershed forever," a voice lamented through the microphone. Collapse of First Nations fisheries had brought deepening poverty and with it soaring rates of diabetes among the tribes. For farmers and ranchers, higher water releases from reservoirs for fish brought nightmare images of empty fields and abandoned ranches. There were angry voices on all sides. But the speakers I found most difficult to hear were those with settler backgrounds like my own, proud of their place in the West and sadly ignorant of the plight of the tribes on the river.
Diabetes began ravaging the First People of the Klamath well after the Gold Rush ended. But the 19th century laid the foundation for the fisheries collapse -- and that in turn caused the most important shift in the Native diet. There were, and are, many causes of the collapse: stream-bank degradation from mining and livestock, deforestation and erosion, commercial overfishing, dams blocking river flow and access to spawning habitat, heavy water withdrawals and diversions, pollutants from agricultural runoff, drought and now global climate change.
But there's a larger story behind it all, involving Native displacement from ancestral lands and the breaks in cultural knowledge created when generations were forcibly removed to Indian boarding schools. Most important of all is the loss of salmon. In pre-contact times, the Salmon Nation diet consisted of an estimated 450 pounds of salmon per person per year. Today, it's less than five pounds per person per year.
Ron Reed of the mid-Klamath Karuk Tribe remembers that his family could still fish and feed everyone as recently as the 1960s, when Iron Gate, the last dam, was completed. By the mid-1980s, Karuk families found it difficult to catch enough salmon, lamprey, steelhead, freshwater mussels and sturgeon to sustain themselves. Acorns, game and dozens of other foods were also scarce in the logged-out lands. By the 1990s, Klamath coho were listed as threatened and spring chinook runs were dangerously small. As fisheries declined, Native families increasingly filled their bellies with store-bought and government commodity foods -- cheap starches, fats and sugar. Chronic unemployment, despair and addictions rose in the gap left by the vanishing life in the river.
By the 1870s, when my great-grandmother came to California, the indigenous population on the Klamath had already declined by 75 percent. A century later, diabetes, once virtually unknown in the tribes, stalked the descendants of the survivors.