Water Is Life…for the Salmon and for the Karuk

Water Is Life—for the Salmon and for the People.

Here in Northwest California (the true north, as we are seven hours north of San Francisco and two hours south of the Oregon border), the seasonal Humboldt County haze has dropped a blanket of fog around us and the cloudy skies are full of rain. Rain is a valuable commodity. California has had a long stretch of drought and each drop is beyond precious. The Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL) is teaching the rest of our country, in bold headlines and nightly news reports, that “Water Is Life.” That is true, and better understood this year more than others.

Global climate change is no longer a mere scientific debate between right and left politicos. It is here and it is impacting us all. For the first time in the 54-year history of the event called the Yurok Tribe’s Salmon festival had NO salmon, (NDN Taco Festival just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Similarly, the 35thannual Intertribal Gathering and Elder’s Dinner was not able to serve their traditional meal of alder smoked salmon due to the degradation of the entire Klamath River watershed.

Poor management of the Klamath River by the U.S. Government has decimated this mainstay of nourishment for the tribal nations in this region. The reduced water flows of the past few summers in combination with the run-off of agricultural pesticides and algae-producing fertilizers have led to a rise in the death rate of juvenile Coho salmon, which in turn decreases the return of adult salmon to their home streams. Truly, all things are connected.

The Yurok Tribe had to make a hard decision to eliminate a commercial fishing season this year in response to the aquatic crisis. In an area that is severely economically depressed, this was a bold political decision indeed. The government limited the non-commercial catch to one fish per person in each household. It was a heavy blow, compounded by the close of the only regional supermarket on one section of the Yurok reservation. In a short time, the term “food sovereignty” becomes a much more salient term.

This type of change in diet has serious health impacts on the people who have relied on the river as a main source of sustenance since coyote stole the salmon back from the stingy bee sisters who were keeping it for themselves, as our stories tell us. In an important study published in 2005 entitled The Effects of Altered Diets on the Health of the Karuk People, author Keri Norgaard finds, “The loss of traditional food sources is now recognized as being directly responsible for a host of diet related illnesses among Native Americans including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, tuberculosis, hypertension, kidney troubles and strokes. Around the world when Native people move to a ‘Western’ diet, rates of these diseases skyrocket.”

The dynamic galvanization of Native people and our allies around the DAPL issue have brought the issue of water to the forefront of the national spotlight for the moment. We cannot let our visibility in the Dakotas be the end of our efforts. We need to remain diligent and continue to fight for environmental justice. The world is out of balance and as Native people it is our responsibility to be committed to our stewardship responsibilities in maintaining a healthy eco-system for all life to flourish. We need to continue to sing the songs, perform the ceremonies, say the prayers and dance the dances that help restore that balance. Creator is watching and waiting to see what we do.

Hey, I just remembered a 1st grade lesson. The human body is made up of up to 75 percent water: Go figure.

Just my two dentalias’ worth.