North Coast Series: Ancestral Home of the Yurok Nation

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

The Yuroks and other tribes on the North Coast used dugout canoes hewn from redwood logs for transport, fishing, and perhaps even whaling.
The Yuroks and other tribes on the North Coast used dugout canoes hewn from redwood logs for transport, fishing, and perhaps even whaling.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 11, 2005 — When we came in from the sea Saturday afternoon, after a seven-hour paddle from Crescent City, we aimed for a beach by a tall rock near the Klamath River bar.

Oregos: She whom the Yuroks say has stood sentinel since the beginning of time.

Ten foot, fat ocean swells crashing onto a steep beach. Our landing was harsh. Bo Barnes and John Weed, my companions on this 400 mile-long sea kayak voyage from the Oregon border to San Francisco Bay, did well. I got spun and landed with less style, sporting a flooded cockpit and a busted paddle shaft.

But we had arrived in Yurok country.

Oregos (pronounced as "Or-RAY-gahs") was a spirit who liked people. So, Wahpecwahmow the Creator let her choose this shape, as a woman with a baby-carrying basket on her back and a basket cap atop her head. Each year, Oregos swings her leg — a sandbar — to let salmon, eels, sturgeon ascend, bringing nourishment and happiness to the Yurok tribe.

Yurok fishermen were flinging small drift nets into "the chute," where the Klamath rushes into the sea. Only a few nets held fish. Just 100 years ago, hundreds of thousands of salmon in six different runs clogged this river. Now those runs have shriveled, mainly due to catastrophic shifts in the upstream environment. Salmon have lost spawning habitat due to six upstream dams, and mining, logging and farming in the Klamath's 11,000 square-mile watershed.

Worse, they've lost water. A century ago, the Bureau of Reclamation (part of DOI) turned arid plains high in the watershed into farm country. Plots of land and promises of water were awarded to war veterans. But in 2001, there was a drought. Farmers complained. DOI rushed to the rescue, twisting open the tap for the farmers in 2002.

But that de-watered the Klamath. Returning chinook salmon encountered low, slow, hot flows that encouraged parasites and disease. More than 68,000 adult salmon died. Perhaps as many as 200,000 young juveniles, descending to make their way out to sea perished, as well. Had they lived, those young adults would be returning to the river now. Their absence is keenly felt.

If your ancestors haven't lived on the natural bounty of one place for a long time, it may be hard to grasp how the Yuroks feel. Or, why they use a phrase, "salmon holocaust," to describe what happened.

Yet the Yurok men still cast their nets. Even should they manage only to catch a few, they still will have something to pray over, something to dry and smoke in a traditional way, a gift of meat to bring a smile to the face of a tribal elder.

We made camp at Requa RV Park on tribal land, near the site of Requa, once a principal village. I walked uphill to a place where an old traditional redwood plank house sinks into a welter of brush and vines.

Nearby is a modern-looking structure. Here, Geneva Wiki awaits birth of her first child with her husband, a Maori named Renwiti Wiki. She's due in less than a month. Until recently the tribe's executive director, Wiki, 28, is a vibrant presence with striking, emerald eyes. She's got a lot on her mind; much of it is tribal business.

Yurok Regalia-Holders

It's a task she was born to. Yuroks affairs have long been guided by regalia-holders — keepers of ceremonial outfits of carved shell, bead, buckskin and feathers. These are used in dances and other rituals of the tribe's religious year. Regalia is also wealth that must be surrendered to compensate for any offense. Only the righteous can retain it. Her family has done so.

"I come from a long line of people active in our tribe," Wiki told me. "My mom had a plan. I was sent off the reservation to get an education. But I always had to be home for the ceremonies."

Wiki won a degree in Planning and Public Policy from the University of Oregon while also serving as student body president and an environmental activist.

"I returned to the tribe because my phone started ringing. I had made a good tool box of skills. I had to see what I could contribute, to unravel knots of dysfunction and despair here," She says.

Loss of salmon isn't the only problem. At 5,000 registered members, the Yuroks are California's largest tribe, also one of its poorest. Seventy percent of the tribe has no access to telephones or electric service. Reasons wind into history. Ancestral ground of the Yurok people, "We-roy," sprawled for some 518,000 acres. Present reservation boundaries include just 56,000 acres, a strip lining the Klamath from Requa to Weitchpec. However, less than 20 of that is now held by Yuroks and tribal trusts. The rest is owned by Simpson/Green Diamond timber company, Redwood State and National Parks and various private parties. The U.S. Government opened this reservation for homesteading for decades, allowing extensive acquisition by non-Yuroks.

There's an ongoing dispute with the Hupa tribe upstream. Hupas were once lumped together with the Yuroks in the eyes of the government. When the tribes were divided again in 1988, the Hupas scored many of the best resources.

Recently, the Yuroks have fought to create local economic development. They've gone through three economic development directors in as many years. Now, the tribal council seeks to manage it by consensus. "Pey-mey," their gas station on highway 101, does well. But the Requa RV Campground where our tents are pitched, though modern and well-equipped, had only two other campers. It would be jammed if Klamath salmon were numerous enough that sportsmen could angle for them.

Yurok basketry is renowned worldwide. This basket-cap would have been worn by a tribal woman in historic times.
Yurok basketry is renowned worldwide. This basket-cap would have been worn by a tribal woman in historic times.

Yurok Tribal Council

On an earlier visit, I chatted with Howard McConnell, the Yurok Tribal Council chairman, at the tribal headquarters building. McConnell says his tribe has a vision that includes regaining tribal land when possible. A new casino may be part of the finance plan, but it won't be large or centrally located. Instead, the tribe wants to restore environment and wildlife in the region, built parks, campgrounds and trails, and finance a future through eco-tourism along the Klamath River.

"We could build a river trail from the river mouth up Blue Creek. Hook up with Karuk land, also enter wilderness areas and network with the Pacific Coast trail," McConnell says. "We could make money with a guide service, and lodges. We could take visitors on boats and out to fish. Sell the products of traditional crafts. Hold salmon dinners. A huge sum of dollars may not be made that way, but everyone will get to survive."

Laying groundwork for that requires battles by whole new type of warrior. One who can reach deep into the past for inspiration and identity, but into the future for strategy. A clue as to the type may be Wiki's incoming replacement as tribal director: Dennis Puzz, a Yurok lawyer with long experience in tribal rights litigation.

Then there's Wiki's latest project. To fight the 68 percent high school dropout rate of Yurok youth, she's launching a new charter school in spare rooms behind a little store near the tribal headquarters. Called the "Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods," financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it already has 48 students enrolled for 9th and 10th grades.

On Sunday, Wiki gave us the grand tour. "You have to use your imagination," she said.

Carpets were coated with sheetrock dust, doorways were still being framed. Opening day was a week away, but a cadre of volunteers, and the Yurok family that own the building, were laboring long shifts to get it ready.

"We're working off a Chugash (Alaskan tribe) model for our school," Wiki said. "Students must demonstrate proficiency to advance, not only in reading, writing, math and technology, but also personal and social health, cultural values and career development.

"They need to show they can work in both worlds, and be ready to be leaders in our community. At the end, they'll have both a high school diploma and an AA degree."

A buzz of tools came from the next room. In it was Allen Bate, 40, a member of the family that owned the building.

Broad-shouldered, covered with tattoos celebrating his tribal identity, Bate seemed cheerful and upbeat.

"This isn't how I usually spend a Sunday afternoon," he said. "But, it's cool. You've got to be in it for the future. That's what it's all about."

I asked if he had been fishing. His family had, but he would not go.

"Personally, I will not remove any salmon this year from the ones that need to go up to spawn," Bate said.

Tale of a Yurok Warrior

High above the entrance to the Klamath, on an overlook managed by the National Park Service, I find an interpretive display holding sepia-tinged photos. One is a historic portrait of a Yurok woman with a direct gaze, who stands fully garbed in ceremonial regalia. This is Luana Brantner, a tribal crusader who helped fight the GO Road (a U.S. Forest Service project that would have bisected ancestral lands).

Down in a trailer park north of the river, during earlier research, I met Jim Proctor, Sr., 78, who is Brantner's son. Proctor himself has never held any formal position of authority. But he's a tribal elder, he's seen and been through a lot, and must be listened to.

Born in Requa, Proctor holds memories of a turbulent tribal and personal past.

"My grandmom barely escaped a massacre," he said. "The women were lured into a post with promises of blankets and food. Then soldiers attacked them. She got away by diving in the river, but she looked back and saw a baby being twirled on a bayonet. After the Yurok men found out what happened, they discovered where those soldiers were camped. They attacked by night. Killed them all."

Proctor himself, with just one year of high school education, left the reservation at age 16. He had a few reasons. One was that his mother didn't have enough food to feed two kids. Another was that Proctor was in big trouble; he'd busted a chair over another boy's head, and so had to get out of town. After rattling around through blue collar jobs in L.A., he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, just in time to fight World War II. He still has a dent in his skull caused by a piece of shrapnel from an exploding Japanese plane he shot down with a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun while aboard the destroyer Bagley.

He came back home for long spells to work as a logger and heavy equipment operator for Simpson, then went away again for equally long periods whenever he got into trouble. The most serious problem occurred when he killed a man who had threatened him, by landing two strong punches during a bar fight. Because of the self-defense aspect, his sentence was a few years of probation.

"As soon as that time was up, I threw my sleeping bag, rifle and pistol into a pickup, and took off for Arizona," Proctor said.

Speaking with Proctor leaves no doubt that he's a warrior of some sort. And he certainly is tough. The fact he can chain-smoke with nary a cough, at his age, says that. His long life of hard work has left him lean and feisty; the big question is what his next battle should be. At this point in his life, he's thinking more about the big issues facing his people, and his own legacy.

"I told our tribal council, I could dynamite the gates on Irongate dam, get us more water for the salmon," Proctor said with a wolfish grin. He caresses a cigarette with nicotine-tanned fingers. "But they didn't like that idea so well."

Finally, he realized that silt and "trash fish" held behind the dam would only harm this river if released downstream. Now, he's unsure what to do. Sometimes Proctor just wants to be left alone to fish in the old way without restriction. Sometimes he feels like selling everything, trailer, truck, boat and gear, and running off again, maybe this time to Costa Rica.

"Tribe's got to wake up. We're at the end of our string," Proctor said. "We're in a fight with real big outfits.

Government's not really there to help anymore. If they want to look like they're trying, they just hand us a little stick of gum. We need to toughen up. We need a lot less alcohol around this place, a lot more discipline. There's not much logging left to do on tribal land. When we lose the last of our salmon, we've lost everything."

— See all previous posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.