“For thousands of years, the Klamath River has been a source of nourishment for the Northern California tribes that live on its banks. Its fish fed dozens of Indian villages along its winding path, and its waters cleansed their spirits, as promised in their creation stories. But now a crisis of opioid addiction is gripping this remote region. At the same time, the Klamath’s once-abundant salmon runs have declined to historic lows…many members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes see a connection between the river’s struggle and their own.” J. Del Rea, The New York Times
“It’s no coincidence to me that this opioid problem and the river crisis are happening at the same time; when that resource is gone, it leads to a sense of despair,” said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok tribe’s general counsel. Nationally, Native Americans are the hardest-hit demographic in an overdose death epidemic that has affected every corner of the country. Between 1999 and 2015, there was a 519 percent increase in the number of overdose deaths among rural Native Americans, according to a 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to an increase of 325 percent in rural areas overall. Abuse of painkillers and heroin have played significantly into those trends.
In Yurok country, tribal leaders have pursued an aggressive agenda of cultural revival since the early 1990s in an effort to keep traditions alive. The process has not always been smooth. A decade ago, there was friction when tribal leaders were deciding how to manage $92 million in back payments from the federal government for logging on Yurok land. Ultimately, 90 percent of the money was disbursed to members in a lump sum. Some questioned the wisdom of that decision by the tribal leadership, suggesting the money would be quickly spent, rather than saved.
Since then, the river’s intensifying troubles have caused spiritual pain, in addition to exacerbating economic anguish.
‘In part, there’s a tremendous feeling of guilt, I think. The economics of it matter, yes, but it’s so much more than that for us,’ said Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti. ‘Our worldview is that we’re here in partnership with these other beings, the river and the fish. We have obligations to them.’ ‘Now it feels like the river is as sick as it has ever been. I think last year was the first time in history that the Yurok people did not fish on the Klamath,’ Ms. Cordalis said. ‘When you start separating those ties, it really affects people.’
The effects of heroin — and meth before it — have seeped into every aspect of life. Outside the Yurok tribe’s bureau, a mural created by the Yurok children shows the river flowing through lush forests and curving past villagers performing traditional prayer-dances. In one panel, a Native American woman wanders the forest collecting wood and acorns, while kayakers splash in the river’s waters.
But unwinding across the painting are darker scenes too: broken bottles, needles, depictions of suicides, and dead fish…Four out-of-date dams upstream, built in the early- to mid-20th century, have sparked residual ecological strain downstream. Now the solution that tribal members hoped for — their removal — awaits approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Before the dams went up, the river was the third-largest producer of salmon in the United States. Last year, the Yurok tribe had to cancel commercial and subsistence fishing altogether because of the lack of fish. During some parts of the year, the waters become so toxic that people are advised not to swim or make contact with the river…As they wait anxiously for the dam removal to be approved, tribal leaders are also looking for inclusive ways to bring drug treatment to the region, where abuse is often stigmatized.
One solution proposed by Ms. Abinanti and others are Yurok ‘wellness villages,’ planned living sites along the river where the tribe can help reintegrate people who have struggled with addiction.
Ms. Cordalis, the general counsel to the Yurok tribe, has been using the law to protect the Yurok way of life for its roughly 6,000 members. In March, the Yurok joined other communities nationally and filed a lawsuit against several opioid companies with the Northern California Federal District Court. The suit claims that opioid addiction has increased crime, led to economic losses and increased hospital and administrative costs…For many, the idea of culturally relevant addiction treatment brings hope. Codie Donahue, 38, lost his children and wound up homeless after he and his girlfriend became addicted to methamphetamine and heroin. Mr. Donahue, who has Yurok and Karuk lineage, recently checked into a drug rehab program in Eureka, a few hours from his hometown, Orleans, Calif.
He recalled the holy ceremony he once performed as a high priest for the Karuk Indians. In the ritual, he and others would pray in hopes that the river would wash away the sins of his tribe.”
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