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For the
Klamath River
and its people,
teachings
for justice
can be found in the corner,
charting
a new
course
for the future
steered
by the
wisdom
of the past.

COURSE CORRECTION

Words LYNDA V. MAPES  Photographs PHILIP-DANIEL DUCASSE

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Once a system of lakes and marches of continental importance to migratory birds, the wetlands in and around Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Klamath Project remain important for wildlife.

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The dreaming baby garter snake swam through the marsh, a yellow-striped ribbon winding through yellow flowers. The glossy, green leaves of the water lilies were spread flat as plates, forming islands onto which the baby garter snake slid in a languid excursion from one lily pad to the next. The snake held its tiny head upright and out of the water as it eased along, creating momentum with a shimmy of its slender body. It left a glistening wake.

Yellow pond lily once covered this water, near where the Klamath River rises in lakes and marshes at the foot of the Cascades on the California-Oregon border. The river runs for some 260 miles, mostly south and west, through desert-dry sagebrush country in its upper basin, Ponderosa pine forests in the middle, and finally, foggy redwoods on the coast of Northern California, where the Klamath meets the Pacific.

In summer, marshes at the upper basin shine with the cupped, waxy, butter-yellow flowers

of Nuphar polysepalum, called wokas by the Native people here. The most open blooms allow a look inside at stamens heavy with pollen. But it was always the seeds within the wokas pods that were the prize. This crucial food sustained people here for generations uncounted.

Gathering wokas pods was women’s work for the first peoples of this place. Paddling carved wooden dugout canoes, the ancestors of the Klamath people traveled marshes and wetlands, filling their dugouts with pods. The flour they ground from the seeds was nutritious and second as a food source only to fish. In the 1800s, it was estimated that what today is called Klamath Marsh alone contained thousands of acres of wokas. The same can be said of what have since been named Upper Klamath Lake, Lower Klamath Lake, and Tule Lake. What was once the beating heart pulsing

Wokas lilies have been a source of nutritious food for the Klamath people for thousands of years. Gathering the seed pods from the yellow flowers is a seasonal rite. The flowers are sunny yellow, beautiful even after they have passed.

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with life-giving water in this dry upper basin is today mostly drained, diked, ditched, and dismembered. So diminished is the blue-green kingdom of wokas, it is difficult for Klamath people to sustain a reliable harvest. Yet wokas remain an integral part of Klamath culture, traditional diet, and collective memory.

What is the persistence of memory in the land? Does it hold recollection beyond the petroglyphs carved in soft volcanic tuff at the base of a cliff, not far from what used to be abundant wokas-gathering places? Incised at what used to be the edge of Tule Lake, there are what look like suns, geometric forms, people, animals. Thousands of figures, cut deeply in the rock—and today fenced behind chain link for protection from vandals. Is memory held in water, seeking wokas stems but now diverted to grow crops including sugar beets, potatoes, onions, and hay? Is memory held in the wokas that abide? Do they miss the hands of the gatherers, the slip of dugouts as lithe as the garter snakes through these lily pads?

The Bureau of Reclamation launched a relentless campaign to drain and replumb the marshes and lakes of the upper basin for farming beginning in 1906. The result was an 80% reduction of

what had been 350,000 shimmering acres that once drew possibly the greatest concentration of waterfowl in the world. Then came eight dams on the Klamath River, beginning in the early 1900s, blocking the passage of salmon, steelhead, and lamprey eel.

Yet life persists. Not far from the petroglyphs, a white-faced ibis stood in the mud of an irrigation ditch. It was an otherworldly vision, an outlandishly beautiful bird in purple, green, and bronze plumage, standing on long, pink legs. It held its elegant head erect, its curved bill poised to probe the wet mud. Blackbirds sang and swung in bullrushes. Clouds of moths caught the low summer evening light. Butterflies, large as the back of a hand, hovered and sipped at sweetness in flowers at the water’s edge, opening and closing wings of red velvet.

Returning here in their seasonal gyre, this remains a place for waterfowl of continental significance despite the water now being owned, allotted, and moved from engineered sump to sump. In the record drought of 2021, one lake was a dried, cracked expanse. Tiny shells of stranded freshwater mollusks, paper-thin and shattering, and a desiccated bird wing amid roadside trash testified to a lost

world. The drought had provided an opportunity to more cheaply perform routine maintenance on the lake, called Sump 1 A, draining it to combat bird-killing botulism and to mimic a natural cycle of wet and dry conditions long lost in so heavily altered a system.

How much violence can one landscape suffer? It was not far from these marshes that some 150 Modoc men, women, and children holed up during a five-month siege by the U.S. Army over the winter of 1872-3 in a natural lava bed fortress of caves and walls. It ultimately took an army of some 1,000 to defeat the Modoc. Their leaders were hung, and the survivors were forcibly removed to Oklahoma, where many died of tuberculosis. The rout by the Army, launched at the request of farmers and settlers who demanded removal of the Modoc, was the end for the unbounded wetlands and the laughter and work songs of subsistence wokas-gathering that was abundance itself.

Now, nearly 150 years later, drought, sickness, and strife stalk this land and water. In 2020, tens of thousands of birds died of botulism caused by low water levels in Tule Lake and the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. During the summer of 2021, pyrocumulonimbus clouds boiled and seethed

in the distance over the Bootleg fire, the third largest wildfire in Oregon’s history, as it burned timber dried by drought as if in a kiln. Toxic blue-green algae proliferated in dammed reservoirs. Some farmers watched their crops wither. The government that had lured their predecessors here with promises of abundance had provided no water at all for some farms.

But as decisions of the past bore bitter fruit, a new future also was taking hold here.

Beginning in 2023, four dams in all are set to come out of the Klamath River.

Built to generate power by PacifiCorp, today these dams—J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate—back up the Klamath into fetid, stinking reservoirs so foul that in summer, health officials post no-contact warnings for water made toxic by blue-green algae. This river, once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, has become unsafe for humans to touch.

For PacifiCorp, Klamath dam removal is about economics. To bring these dams up to modern environmental standards, as required in a federal relicensing process, would be punishingly expensive for customers. Taking down the dams will save ratepayers money and open 400 miles of salmon habitat. It’s also a triumph for the Klamath, Karuk, and Yurok tribes. The Salmon People are leading the way to a new future here by looking to their past, reviving their teachings, and reconnecting to the river.

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In the homeland of the Yurok Tribe, the Klamath finishes its run and crashes into the Pacific’s salt waters. Seals lounge on sandbars and sea lions surf surging waves, hunting fat-rich lamprey eels migrating from the sea to the river where they spawn. The eels lash the sea’s surface in a desperate flight for their lives. Whipping and writhing in the mouth of a sea lion, the circle of nutrition where salt water meets fresh continues. Seabirds, seals, sea lions, and salmon unseen in the depths still abide here, a source of hope the people here instill in each generation. For in this community, there never were throwaway people or throwaway places—only gifts that need to be reawakened.

In the Yurok Tribe, the largest tribe in California with more than 5,000 members, a return to the river is already healing their people. It comes out in ways both subtle and wholly deliberate.

Chief Judge Abby Abinanti—Judge Abby, as she is known to everyone here—opened the door to the Yurok Tribal Court and displayed the rocks, taken from the bottom of the

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Petroglyph Point at the Lava Beds National Monument is a reminder of the ancestors of the Klamath people. Their society thrived on a vast system of lakes and marshes, which has now been mostly drained and replumbed for agriculture.

Klamath River, set in curves like the river’s flow in the judicial bench, the counsel tables, and throughout the courtroom. “They are every place,” Abinanti said of the river rocks. “It is to remind you of the river and for the river to help us. You can turn to it and remember who we are and how to be in the world.” In 1974, Abinanti became the first Native woman admitted to practice law before the California bar. For many years, she served as a court commissioner for the superior court of San Francisco County. In addition, she began serving as a judge in Yurok Tribal Court beginning in 1997. In 2007, she became Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribal Court, where she is working with her community to build a court system grounded in the traditional values of her people.

The court does not hear felony cases, but much else that a community needs set right gets managed here, in a justice system that emphasizes not rights—the right to remain silent and so on—but responsibilities embedded in the culture: to the community, to family, to self, and to the natural world. These are all inseparable. An example of this concept of justice is Wellness Court, where people in trouble are helped to work through conflicts themselves by

acknowledging their problem and resolving it by meeting their responsibility to themselves and to their community.

Through consultation with relations and tribal elders, suitable actions are determined that must be performed on behalf of the community to be able to return to society once more, with head held high. “You are setting up actions as opposed to words,” Abinanti said. “It’s different from saying, I’m sorry. That gets you nothing. You need to do something. You need action.”

Reconciliation isn’t always possible, but healing can be, especially if people involved in the offense work that out for themselves, Abinanti believes. She will step in to settle matters as a judge, but only if nothing else works. Either way, she and the staff at the Wellness Court still stay involved, circling back, providing support for everyone involved to work together to heal.

This is far from the “stranger justice” system, as Abinanti calls it, that includes rules such as the voir dire process used in vetting prospective jurors, designed to root out any relationship between the accused and those that would be selected to hear their case. The Yurok community has always been knit together by kinship, intermarriage, trade, and relationships with the natural world. So a way forward after the community’s values have been wronged could never be devised and meted out by a stranger.

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What is underway here is a recovery process. Abinanti believes that problem behavior in the community is the result of what she calls “the Invasion.” It started with the Spanish in the 1500s. By the 1820s, American, English, and Russian fur hunters were slaughtering the native beaver and sea otters. Then came the Gold Rush in 1849.

The Invasion left a legacy of violence and cultural vivisection. Massacres, indentured servitude, and the abuse of children taken from their families and put in boarding schools in a deliberate effort to extinguish their culture took the lives of many. Those who survived returned to their community from an entirely different growing up experience. Even as their culture was attacked, the living ecology that supports the Yurok people was destroyed. The result was destruction of villages, devastating loss of life, and a culture severely fragmented.

“We have taken on some bad behaviors, and the problem with the bad behavior is the impact on the rest of the community and the impact on the environment,” Abinanti said. “Those behaviors came with the Invasion and the post-Invasion. It is incumbent on us to recover our balance.”

BELOW Rocks from the Klamath riverbed are embedded in the woodwork at the Yurok Tribal Court, serving as a reminder of the teachings of the tribe’s ancestors, including a reciprocal relationship with nature.

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Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribe, is a strong voice for her people. In tribal court, the tribe is centering their ancestral community teachings and a revival of the Klamath River.

Abinanti encourages tribal members who come to Wellness Court to talk to the old ones still in their families to learn where behaviors that have no place in Yurok culture came from, so they may be cut out from the unwritten laws, health, and spirituality of the people like the foreign bodies they are. Often, healing and resolution involve the river. Providing fish for a traditional brush dance that weekend is one way to make amends. Fishing for the elders might be another. This is justice done by and for Salmon People, healing families that regard salmon as kin and all responsibilities and relationships as reciprocal.

“The river teaches so much about giving and receiving and concurrent and interfacing, interlocking responsibilities,” Abinanti said. “It all comes back to the river. It helps you focus on the rhythm of life. It brings us much, and we have not met our responsibilities to the river and the beings in the river as we could or should have. And so it is in trouble. And because it is in trouble, we are in trouble. That is what everyone needs to understand. You can’t just harm some place and think it is separate from you. It is not. The river is there to bring peace and comfort, to sustain you, all of these things. And in return, you have to give also.”

It doesn’t always work. In the local bookstore at the heart of the tiny community of Klamath that is part-coffee stand, part-cultural center, and part-hang out, Abinanti recounted the story of a woman she worked so hard to help through the ravages of alcoholism. “I love you,” Abinanti told her. Yet, not long after, the woman she wanted to help lay down in traffic to die, Abinanti said. And so the work continues, just like the caretakers’ responsibility for the wokas marshes, tended with community management. As with the controlled burning that restrains invasive plants at the edges of the wokas marsh, community justice here relies on cleansing and renewal, effort and investment.

Redemption is underway: a sick river is reawakening and reviving, and a future is being imagined in which there are no throwaway places or people. It’s a teaching Abinanti hopes others will notice. “We have things that can help the rest of the world,” Abinanti said of the Yurok people. “We have been here for thousands of years. These other people have come here, and in 100 years, wrecked the place. That is not good either for them or the place. We have ways of doing things, and we need to step up and show them how to do things. Before they sink us all.”

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For the Klamath River and its people, teachings for justice can be found in the corner, charting a new course for the future steered by the wisdom of the past.

Shop Atmos Volume 06: Beyond

Shop Atmos Volume 06: Beyond

After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?

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