An interview with Stephen Most, writer and co-producer of River of Renewal and author of the book River of Renewal, and Myoki Stewart, resident ecosattva and monk
San Francisco Zen Center is honored to screen River of Renewal on September 14 at 7:30pm at City Center. The film won best documentary at the American Indian Film Festival in 2008; is associated with Native American Public Telecommunications; and is co-produced with Steve Michelson and Jack Kohler.
Kohler, who is Yurok and Karuk (two of the nations represented in the film), also narrates and stars in the film. Stephen Most’s relationship with the Klamath Region and its people spans four decades. He will be present on September 14 to answer questions regarding the film and his work in the region.
Myoki Stewart: River of Renewal makes clear that the construction of dams throughout the Klamath Basin has had a tremendous impact on the salmon population, beginning with the first two, Copco 1 in 1918 and Copco 2 in 1925. What would you like to say about the sociological impact on the Klamath Region?
Stephen Most: When we talk about the sociology of the Klamath Region, we’re talking not only about the relationships between people and between groups of people, but also between people and fish. That’s a different frame of reference than sociology usually has. There had been canneries on the estuary of the Klamath River that employed the Yuroks. The canneries closed shortly after the first of the dams went up, decreasing employment and ending an economic activity that had enabled the Natives and non-Natives to work together and benefit mutually.
Also, during the 1920’s, fly fishing became a popular sport. Partially due to the influence of Zane Grey, the Western writer, who came to Klamath and was amazed by the natural beauty and the vitality of the salmon runs. A whole industry of sports fishing grew up on the estuary, but that conflicted with the Indian economic practice of gillnetting.
Sports fisherman will spend a day [laughs] casting flies into the river, and they’ll be lucky to catch a fish or two, while gillnetters pull up quite a number of fish! The result is resentment. In California, as the runs declined in the 1920’s, there was political pressure to blame the indigenous people for “over fishing”. The sports fishers were politically powerful, as was the hydroelectric company (the antecedent of what is now PacifiCorp). As a result, in 1933, the California legislature banned gillnetting. Native ceremonies, which revolved around the salmon runs, had already been banned, and then so was their livelihood. Thus, native people became outlaws. Dams on the Klamath were a major factor in worsening cultural relations between white people and native people and worsening the economic conditions for the Klamath River tribes.
Myoki: Clearly, the native people were made scapegoats, blamed for the decline of the salmon populations in the region. It was notable to me when watching the film, that there is no mention of institutional or economic racism. But those are terms some people would use to describe the forty year ban on gillnetting rights. I’m curious why you chose not to speak these words in your film?
Stephen: Well, as you can tell, I’m very cognizant of economic racism and also the injustice toward the Indians. This discrimination not only occurred during the forty year ban from 1933, but again during the Salmon Wars in 1978. After the Supreme Court had removed the ban on gillnetting, the federal government physically tried to prevent Indians from fishing. So, yes, this is definitely economic racism; but one of the objectives of my film was to promote mutual understanding between the different populations within the Klamath Basin. I wanted the agricultural communities along the headwaters and the sports fishing business people to understand the Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa without feeling defensive—without their being blamed. Both have been extremely racist toward the tribes of the Klamath basin. I thought that by presenting the history and the points of view of the various groups, the film would promote understanding without putting people on the defensive.
Myoki: Near the beginning of River of Renewal, your play Watershed is mentioned. Is this play about Raymond Mattz, the Yurok Tribal Council Member who is also in the film? Will you tell us about the play and your relationship with Raymond Mattz?
Stephen: In 1978, I was on the Klamath River reporting on the Salmon Wars, and I was quite inspired by Raymond’s family. He’d been the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case resulting from his refusal to accept a one-dollar fine! For catching fish!
I wanted to meet Raymond, so I went to his mother’s house. Geneva Mattz invited me in at a time when there were all sorts of federal agents in her area. Even though I was a white man, she trusted me from the beginning, which is a remarkable ability. In her living room there were many artifacts and regalia: a dance outfit, jewelry, and baskets. Among these objects was a night stick. So I asked her about it.
And she told me the story of going onto the river with her daughter Lavina after her husband had been arrested. She stood in a boat and prayed as federal agents tried to arrest them for fishing. The prayer song in the film is Geneva’s voice. She sang it on her death bed; her family recorded it and gave it to me. I saved it all those years and put it in the film.
Myoki: The federal agents did not arrest the women because they were frightened by their prayers?
Stephen: Yes! Geneva and Lavina were wearing their full ceremonial regalia. Geneva was afraid, so she started praying (singing the song that’s in the film). Witnesses who were standing on the shore say that birds started circling over their heads! This freaked out the federal agents. One of them said, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” At that moment another agent dropped the nightstick in the river. Geneva picked it up—like a trophy—and put it on her wall.
I wanted to tell the story. As it happened, a friend of mine—Helene Oppenheimer—had recently completed a course on oral history. I suggested she meet the Mattz family. Helene interviewed Geneva, Raymond and others from the Mattz family; Watershed came out of that oral history project. There were productions in Berkeley in ’92 and ’93. At that time, I was writing a film called Wonders of Nature. While meeting with the executive producer, I told him we were casting this play about a salmon war involving the Yuroks. He told me that his son-in-law was a Yurok and an actor!
Myoki: Was that Jack Kohler?
Stephen: Yes! That’s how I met Jack. Also, I want to mention that the oral histories of the Mattz family are in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
Myoki: Let’s discuss pikiawish. This concept of “fixing the world” involves a ceremony that includes all of the Klamath River tribes?
Stephen: That’s right. The Yurok, Karuk and Hupa Tribes all participate. The Shasta participate as individuals in the pikiawish ceremonies, and some are mixed Karuk, Yurok, white, etc. There used to be a Shasta Tribe, which was decimated by vigilante operations.
Myoki: Was the decimation of the Shasta Tribe related to water?
Stephen: Not to my knowledge. There were vigilantes in California who were actually paid money by the State of California for scalps, and they had an operation out of Yreka called the War of Extermination. I write about it in my book, River of Renewal. I won’t go into detail now, but there was some controversy over the facts of the massacre against the Shasta. There is no written record of it, but there is oral history. Some historians claim that without a written record, there is no proof that this genocide occurred. I wrote that based on many oral history sources, it is clear that this did happen.
Myoki: Thank you for recording the Shasta history. Today the remaining Klamath River tribes continue pikiawish which seems quite similar to the Buddhist idea of interconnectedness. Their prayers are for all of the beings that live there, as well as the overall ecology of the place. Is that your impression?
Stephen: Very much so. This is a philosophy of many other tribes too: the idea is that we are related not only to each other but to fish, birds, mammals, worms, the soil, the stars … and that because we are related, we are responsible for each other. Human beings bear a special responsibility. Pikiawish also has a practical side. Every winter there is considerable flooding. The turmoil of the storms will move rocks into the mouths of tributaries and streams and trees will fall, blocking animals’ passage through the forest. In order for the ecology to thrive, native people clear the streams and forests. They understand that this is a reciprocal relationship: they are taken care of by their natural world, but they also have to take care of it.
Myoki: The tribes are stewards of the Klamath Bioregion.
Stephen: That’s right. And this religion is an expression of a kind of ecological awareness that is only in recent decades come into our (Western) civilization.
Myoki: Regarding fish weirs, the film tells a story about youth from the Hupa Tribe reinstating this tradition. No living person had actually built a weir. Their construction was based on a model made by Jimmy Jackson who—as a child—had witnessed one of the last weirs built before the ban.
Stephen: It’s really remarkable and wonderful that Hupa teenagers built a weir based on the childhood memory of Jimmy Jackson! This is an expression of a phenomenon that I have witnessed over the years: the revival of indigenous culture. There was a period when Indian culture was under attack. They were the vanishing Americans. But in the beginning of the 1960s this revival of indigenous cultures began with conflict over fish: in Washington State, the Puget Sound Tribes insisted on their treaty rights to fish, and that led to a court case which recognized that the tribes had rights to fifty per cent of the catch. That decision then influenced the Supreme Court case for the Yurok Tribe.
The revival spread across Native America and became a Pan-Indian movement, best known as the American Indian Movement. It included the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and, in 1992, an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, and the symbolic reoccupation of Wounded Knee (which was met by a federal siege) where the massacre of the Lakota had occurred in 1890. Throughout this time, receiving less attention, young people were learning their languages and tribal crafts from their Elders. So the Hupa building the weir is a recreation–a reaffirmation—of indigenous ways of life that occurred over decades.
The weirs were the technology that the Klamath River tribes used through the nineteenth century. During the pikiawish ceremonies, many hundreds of people would gather to dance, and they had to be fed! Pikiawish coincided with the salmon run; the fish would be caught for a ten day period (ten is a sacred number); then the weirs would be taken down allowing the salmon to run upstream to the other tribes. The weirs were a way of ritualizing the sacred relationship with the salmon and with the rest of life.
Myoki: Let’s turn our attention to the farmers in the region. The decrease in salmon populations seems to be the main focus of the struggle between fishers—tribal, commercial and sports—until 2001 when the drought occurred. Was that the tipping point of the Klamath Basin water conflict?
Stephen: Yes, I’ll give you the back story on that. The Yurok refusal to let the federal government control their fisheries gave them a kind of independence. People who control their own food source won’t be subject to a tribal government manipulated by Washington, DC. As a result, they eventually got the bill through Congress that would give them their own tribal government and the reinstatement of the Yurok Reservation. One of the first things that the Yurok tribal government did was to hire fishery scientists. One of their first executive directors was a Yurok fishery biologist, Troy Fletcher. So the Yuroks started researching the Coho runs, and that science contributed to the listing of Coho salmon under the Endangered Species Act.
During the drought in 2000-2001, the Bureau of Reclamation should have accounted for the Coho listing when allocating water to farmers in the Klamath Project at the headwaters of the Klamath River. They did not. A court injunction forced the Bureau of Reclamation to drastically curtail the water supplies for the farmers a month before they were supposed to receive irrigation. The farmers—who had felt they had a god-given right to water and who were removed geographically and certainly culturally from the Indian fisheries—were suddenly victimized by a water cut off in order to protect the salmon. To them, it was outrageous. It was economically ruinous, and it made the conflict over salmon a basin-wide issue for the first time.
Myoki: The farmers appear in River of Renewal to be politically conservative, especially in the early 2000’s. I was struck, personally, by the protest footage filmed just after their irrigation water was cut off. At a rally for the Bucket Brigade, one of the signs in the crowd read: “Depend on Farmers, not fuzzy liberal ideas”. This notion that ecological and indigenous considerations are “fuzzy liberal ideas” is one that keeps arising throughout the U.S and globally, especially where people are competing over increasingly scarce resources. And one of the inspiring messages of River of Renewal is that such conflicts can be resolved. What happened to unite these politically polarized groups?
Stephen: Well, that’s a great question. I should say that not only were the farmers politically conservative, as farmers tend to be, but also that their protest against the federal government was increased and provoked by militias—radical right wing militias. People would come from Idaho, Montana, Washington State, making these incendiary speeches and they led the farmers not only to protest and engage in symbolic civil disobedience, but to commit illegal acts: physically diverting water from the Klamath River system. So this was at the extreme, and people were talking about killing the environmentalists. The polarization—the hostility—was very intense in 2001-2002.
Then a series of events occurred: the die off of tens of thousands of fish in the estuary was certainly an event that impacted not only the Indians, but sports fishing, and also a few years later, the entire commercial fishing industry. At this point, everybody, except for the utility people running the dams had suffered. Every community had suffered now. And there was a basin-wide awareness—a tragic awareness—that some people had. Many began to realize that people throughout the region were suffering over the problem of water and salmon.
Another factor was that the dams on the Klamath were due to be relicensed for another fifty years. This was not in the interest of the farmers because they had received very low electricity rates under the old license. They would not have those rates anymore, and the cost of electricity was to go up tenfold, potentially putting a number of them out of business. They formed an alliance with the people who depend on fish, who recognized that if the dams were removed, there would be hundreds more miles of spawning streams for the salmon, restoring the salmon runs and the economy of tribes and fishing industries. There was an economic basis for all of this, but even then, it’s hard for people who’ve been at odds with each other and from very different cultural communities to reconcile.
I was really privileged to witness this process. Every two years there’s been a conference, largely of scientists, discussing the issues of the Klamath Basin. At a meeting in 2004, some members of the farming community said, “We need to start talking to each other in a different way.” They brought in a person specializing in conflict resolution and consensus building, and he began a series of meetings that took place throughout the Klamath Basin, bringing together people from these different communities: fisherman, federal agency representatives, tribal members, environmentalists, and farmers. In small discussion groups as well as larger meetings, they would face each other and talk about their fears and their hopes. It was very emotional, and sometimes these meetings would last two or three days.
This laid the groundwork for what became four to five years of negotiations. Eventually in 2008, they had established two agreements. The first, The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, is a re-negotiation of water supplies and a commitment to take actions that will revive the Klamath Basin ecologically and economically, including the removal of the dams. Then there is The Klamath Hydropower Settlement, in which PacifiCorp (which was by then owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkeshire Hathaway) agreed to remove the dams. That document was signed by the head of PacifiCorp, the governors of California and Oregon, and the Secretary of the Interior. The change from extreme polarization to basin wide agreements to restore the economy and ecology of this 10.5 million acre region was really, really, a remarkable development.
Myoki: Has PacifiCorp since removed any of the dams?
Stephen: No. That will not begin until 2020. There is still a lot of work to be done. In fact, there was supposed to be a bill in this first Congress that, once signed by the President, would have set the dam removal process in motion. The Secretary of Interior was ready to implement these next steps (engineering and biological studies), but the Tea Party in Congress blocked that bill. It didn’t even get past committee. At this point, it will take another Congress … perhaps a Congress with a different composition than this … to get the bill through.
Myoki: In the meantime, are the Klamath River tribes able to fish economically?
Stephen: This year, an extraordinary run of salmon is expected. However, because we are in a drought, many fear that there won’t be enough water in the Klamath River to support the run. There could be another die off of tens of thousands of salmon. So this fall—in fact this month—will be a very important one for the prosperity and health of the people of the Klamath.
Myoki: There has to be a certain amount of water in order for the river temperature to be cool enough to support the salmon, and also cooler temperatures ensure oxygen levels the salmon need to survive.
Stephen: Yes, also a sheer amount of water is needed. In drought years, the tributary streams sometimes don’t even make it to the main stem of the river. When there’s gravel and sand between the river and the tributaries, the salmon physically cannot get to their spawning streams.
Myoki: River of Renewal shares many voices and points of view. In one interview, Craig Tucker, the Klamath Campaign Coordinator for the Karuk, makes the following statement: “In America, corporations run our country. If you want to change something, you have to go to them.” He goes on to say “People who have never seen the Klamath River (Berkshire Hathaway stockholders) are destroying it, and they don’t even know it. It’s hard for people to accept that their investments that are putting on a return … are killing fish, causing toxic pollution, causing poverty for Indian people and putting commercial fisherman out of jobs.”
Thank you for including this, Stephen. It’s crucial for people to consider their investments. It feels like a huge piece to this puzzle of interconnectivity. Have you seen any improvement in the relations between the people who live in the Klamath Bioregion and the people running the PacifiCorp hydroelectric dams?
Stephen: PacifiCorp does continue to hold to their agreement to remove the dams. At the same time, they are getting a license renewal on a year-to-year basis. The nice thing about this agreement from PacifiCorp’s perspective is that they do not pay for the dam removal.
If the water quality laws were enforced, Berkeshire Hathaway would have to remove the dams themselves and pay for it. So there are some who recommended an alternative course of action (the Hupa Tribe, some farmers, and some environmental organizations). However, that would cost many more years, and a lot more litigation, and would certainly undermine the consensus building that has occurred in the Klamath Basin. A lot of the initiatives for restoration have been carried out through the budgets of the federal agencies that work in the Klamath Basin. There has been considerable cooperation.
Myoki: It sounds like it’s essential for voters to understand—especially Californians—the Klamath Basin and what is happening there both ecologically and politically. Thank you again, Stephen, for your time and for your film. We are looking forward to screening the River of Renewal here on September 14.