Faculty, students spread awareness of dam’s effects

Hanna Ory

Over the past year, a group of Whitman students and faculty have been conducting research surrounding the Karuk people, an American Indian tribe located in northern California. The group has examined different influences of modern infrastructure on the tribe’s traditional ways of life. Of particular importance are the Klamath dams, which pose detrimental social, economic, spiritual and health concerns to the Karuk people.  

On Thursday, Nov. 13, the Bush administration joined Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, a major power-generating company, to endorse the removal of the four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River by 2020.

This year, six Whitman students spent their summers researching at the Klamath Field Institute, a collaborative effort resulting from the work of sociology and environmental studies Professor Kari Norgaard and cultural biologist and tribal fisherman Ron Reed.   The institute aims to get students involved in different aspects of the issues the tribe is facing. One of the six students, senior Carolina Van Horn, researched the effects of federal and state policies and practices on the ability of Karuk people to meet their nutritional needs in a way that is culturally appropriate, healthy and conducive to community self-reliance.

“This project is important to me because it gives a voice to a group of people who have been systematically disadvantaged since white people arrived on their land.   The Karuk were among the wealthiest people in California when they were first contacted.   Now they are amongst the poorest in the state.   This is not by change; this is because of the systematic destruction of their culture and way of life.   We have an obligation to change this, and my project is just a small part of that,” said Van Horn.

Once the second largest acclaimed salmon producing ever in the United States, the Klamath River has seen a drastic decline in salmon stock in the last decade, due to the emergence of hydroelectric dams.

“The Klamath dams have prevented salmon and other riverine species from accessing important habitat.   The dams keep water from flowing naturally and prevent natural flood events, which help maintain the river structure for the benefit of various plants and animals,” said Van Horn.

Consequentially, fishing has been banned in the Klamath, except for a small ceremonial site called Ishi Pishi Falls. This has proved to have detrimental effects on the Karuk tribe, since their heavy reliance on salmon as a source of nutrition has been forced to end. Now, the tribe has no other choice but to rely on the Federal Commodity Program for food.

“Commodity foods are often high in fat, starch and sugar, which has lead to serious health problems in the tribe, such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension,” said senior Julia Nelson, another of the six Whitman researchers, who did her study on how local foods may benefit the tribe.

Not only does the loss of salmon pose serious health problems to the Karuk, but it also implements spiritual and cultural concerns for their tribe.

“The Karuk people view the salmon as ‘relations’ to which they have an obligation and who have a place in their heart like a child or a close relative. Because Karuk culture and spirituality are intimately related and center around managing and using resources, not having salmon and other species is detrimental to the traditional Karuk way of life,” said Van Horn.

Since Bush signed an agreement Thursday,   Nov. 13, proposing the removal of the dams by 2020, it looks as though all the hard work performed at the Klamath Field Institute will pay off. According to the New York Times, the provisional agreement will open more than 300 miles of the Klamath.

Furthermore, “if the dams are removed it will set a huge precedent and bring a sense of empowerment to the Karuk people. It’s not simply an environmental issue, it’s a issue compounded by racism, inequality, bureaucracy and corporate greed,” said Nelson.