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Klamath Tribes Rally To Defend Their Water And Fish

Holly Dillemuth / JPR News
Supporters of the Klamath Tribes wave signs as the "Caravan for the Klamath" rolled through downtown Klamath Falls on Saturday, May 15.

The mood was jubilant yet sober on Saturday as members of the Klamath Tribes and their supporters drove the “Caravan for the Klamath” through the city of Klamath Falls, culminating in a rally at a downtown park to advocate for tribal land and water rights.

About 25 vehicles rolled into downtown Klamath Falls to eventually gather at the waterfront at Veterans Memorial Park, after starting at the Klamath Tribes Administration building in Chiloquin earlier that morning.

Tribe members recalled their history and the disappointment of having their cultural and resource needs marginalized and devalued in the homeland where they have lived for thousands of years. While the tribes have held other public demonstrations, the caravan was the first of its kind in recent memory, according to the tribe.

Tribal members emphasized the event was not a celebration, but a call to action for many who feel they have been pushed into silence out of fear of retaliation.

“Breaking the silence, this was our opportunity to come together as a tribe, unite, and tell our community we want to unite with you to restore, regenerate, conserve, preserve,” said tribal member Joey Gentry, one of the event organizers.

Many of the vehicles displayed signs such as “Water is sacred” and “Save the C’waam.” C’waam and Koptu are the names in the Klamath Tribes’ language for the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker fish, traditional staples of the tribal diet whose decline in Upper Klamath Lake has led to them being federally listed as endangered species.

Gentry said the C’waam and Koptu fed her people for thousands of years, and she hopes they can again in the future.

“I look forward to the day that our people, our younger generations can fish and harvest these fish that are so critical to our survival and that our own ancestors were sustained by,” Gentry said. “If the fish die, the people die.”

This season’s deepening drought has set off a new round of belt-tightening that has tribes, irrigators and fishermen scrambling for a share of increasingly scarce water. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates the Klamath water project, said last week that, for the first time in the project’s 114-year history, no water from Upper Klamath Lake would be diverted through the main canal to the 150,000 acres of agricultural land irrigated by the Project. Managers say pretty much all the water that remains in the lake needs to stay there to protect the endangered sucker fish.

Irrigators say the curtailment will be devastating to the farmers and ranchers who rely on the Project’s water.

The downstream tribes - Karuk, Hoopa, and Yurok - are also suffering from lack of water. A planned pulse of water from the lake that was going to be sent downriver to help flush out parasites that are infecting young salmon was cancelled, due to low lake levels. The Klamath's coho salmon, federally listed as a threatened species, have been hit by a parasitic outbreak that fisheries officials say has led to nearly all the baby salmon in the river being infected in the past few weeks. Most are expected to die.

Charlie Wright, lead organizer of the caravan and rally, said that tribal chairmen from Klamath and downstream tribes are working towards uniting on the preservation of both the coho salmon and endangered sucker species.

Holly Dillemuth / JPR News
Charlie Wright, organizer of “Caravan for the Klamath,” waves the Klamath Tribes flag while riding in the caravan down Main Street in Klamath Falls on Saturday.

The sentiment among Wright and many tribal members present was that it was time to speak up after years of feeling targeted in their own communities, sometimes on social media, where their people and fish have been devalued.

“Our people aren’t heard very much … The ag community is heard a lot,” Wright said. “We’ve been conditioned to be silent. We’ve been conditioned not to speak out. We’ve been conditioned not to feel, so I think we need to bring that out of each other.”

Klamath Tribes member and landowner Emmitt Hicks and his partner Ann Wilson, also a tribe member, were among the demonstrators who gathered downtown. They both said they’ve witnessed firsthand the hostility that had previously made them less likely to speak their minds.

“It’s the slurs, it’s the jokes, it’s the Facebook comments,” Wilson said. “It’s so divisive.”

Holly Dillemuth/JPR News
Ann Wilson (L) and Emmitt Hicks (R) hold up signs along with several other demonstrators on Saturday in support of land and water rights for the Klamath Tribes.

Wilson and others at the event expressed empathy for the farmers who will go without water this year.

“Yet at the same time, the water continues to be a dwindling resource here, so how do we handle that?” Wilson said. “I would hope that we can come together and find ways where the community as a whole can look for solutions without the divisive, hostile atmosphere. It’s not an ‘Us vs. Them' to me,” Wilson said.

The vehicles decked out in signs rolling down Main Street in Klamath Falls was a faint echo of the scene that played out downtown last May. Thousands of tractors rolled through town advocating for farming and water, passing through Main Street after traveling in a convoy from Merrill, and ending in a field in Midland.

This time, it was the tribes’ turn to speak their truth.

At the rally at Veteran’s Memorial Park, attendees looked out towards the land where their ancestors made their home.

Tribal Council member Clayton DuMont, a seventh-generation tribal member, shared his thoughts on all that has occurred since the signing of the Treaty of 1864 between the tribes and U.S. Government.

DuMont’s ancestor was involved in formalizing the treaty, which promised hunting, fishing, and gathering rights for the Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin and Paiute people.

“Your ancestors put his mark on that treaty, and they were doing the same thing that we’re doing,” DuMont said. “They were trying to protect our home and they were making a decision, reluctantly, to cede most of Oregon, huge part of northern California, so that we could live well in a small area, so that we could hunt and fish and gather and live in peace.”

“It’s certainly disappointing that we’re so marginalized in our own homeland,” Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry told those gathered at the rally.

Holly Dillemuth / JPR
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry speaks at a rally in Klamath Falls, Saturday, May 15.

Don Gentry is Joey Gentry’s brother

“We’re calling for healing of our land and healing of the land is healing of the people, ‘cause we’re so connected,” he said. “We’re praying for a time of justice and rightness that people would rally behind us and protect the resources that are important to us, and important to our region.”

Holly Dillemuth was JPR's Klamath Basin regional correspondent. She was a staff reporter for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls for over 7 years covering a diverse range of topics, including city government, higher education and business.