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River of a Thousand Promises
Page 4

Joe Hobbs knows about life in a threatened subculture. A Modoc Indian, Hobbs is vice-chairman of the Klamath Confederated Tribes. His office in the tribal headquarters in Chiloquin is cramped, and he sits solemnly behind his desk answering questions from visitors. A large man with a round face, Hobbs has a voice that leaks sadness when he recounts the troubled history of his people.

Before the Klamath Project arrived, the Indians built their culture around the fish and the marshes of the upper Klamath basin. They had a steady run of spring chinook. More important, however, were several species of sucker fish, the tribes' major food source. Every spring the fish left the lake to spawn in the upper tributaries, and every spring the Indians held a ceremony celebrating their return. "The waterways here were teeming with them," said Hobbs. "We used to say that we could walk across the river on their backs."

Thanks to an 1864 treaty, the Klamath Tribes (the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Paiute) saw their lands shrink from 22 million acres to 880,000 acres. Then, in 1954, the tribes were "terminated" by federal law. They ceased to exist as a recognized governmental entity. Tribe members were paid cash settlements, and their reservation lands were condemned. (Most of the land, covered in ponderosa pine, became national forests open to commercial logging.) "Termination was a terrible time," said Hobbs. "The government thought only in cash and did not recognize the currency and importance of the land to my people."

The tribes were reinstated in 1986, but that recognition did not bring with it the return of the traditional lands. They have petitioned the U.S. government for the return of 690,000 acres of their original reservation, most of it in the Winema and Fremont national forests in the Klamath Project region. Today, though the tribes now have a casino, Chiloquin is consistently ranked as one of Oregon's poorest towns.

By the time the tribes were reinstated, the sucker fishery had collapsed -- destroyed, the tribes are convinced, by water diversions and habitat loss. One of the first decisions of the newly formed tribal council was to stop fishing for the suckers. "It was very hard for our elders, who had been fishing for them their entire lives," said Hobbs, "but we knew if we didn't stop fishing they would all disappear." Today, the tribes take only one fish every spring, for ceremonial purposes.

The Klamath and the downriver tribes of the Yurok and Hupa, for whom the salmon is a sacred animal, support the Endangered Species Act. In Hobbs's view, however, the act is not enough. Framed on the wall of his office is the Adair Decision, a ruling the Klamath Tribes won in a lawsuit in 1981. But Hobbs doesn't need to check the document. He knows the words by heart: "The Klamath Tribes of Indians have a water right with a priority date of time immemorial to as much water on the reservation lands as they need to protect their hunting and fishing rights."

The tribes don't just want to keep the suckers from further decline. They want a sustainable harvest. To get that, Hobbs said, would require reducing demand on the Klamath Project by something like 50 percent, restoring the marshlands and the waterways, and removing some of the dams. "We don't want anyone to lose their jobs," he said. "We know what it is like to lose everything. We are not against the farmers. At the same time, our livelihoods were completely lost by 1986."

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

State of Oregon Klamath website

EcoNorthwest report

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OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council