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Karuk: Dance house fire may have been a hate crime

SOMES BAR, Calif. – Suspicions of arson arose after the Karuk Tribe’s sacred Kaatimiin dance house was completely destroyed by fire on July 2 – the second time in less than 10 years in which this particular structure has been leveled. The FBI has begun an investigation into what many believe could have been a hate crime.

At approximately 1:20 a.m. that morning, fire crews from Orleans and Somes Bar (two small towns in the county) were dispatched to the fire, which was brought under control by sunrise even though the building – worth $50,000 – was beyond saving. After federal Forest Service investigators interviewed firefighters, about 25 American Indian individuals, including ceremonial leaders, adults and young children, held an impromptu vigil.

Julian Lang, a spiritual leader with the Karuk Tribe, said he received a call from a friend early that morning about the fire. “It’s a house [with a] kind of semi-subterranean, sunken living room,” Lang said. “[It has] a dance area – that’s where we have our healing ceremony for children. The spiritual value is kind of what it’s all about because it represents the culture of all the local tribes – it’s kind of invaluable.” The community where the Karuk reside is small, and Lang said many think they believe they know who is responsible for the likely arson that was committed.

Other local tribes, including the Yurok and Hoopa, who are also involved in a healing ceremony for children (the Brush Dance ceremony), have already offered their support in raising funds for a reward and for the rebuilding. “There [have] already been offers from all the other tribes and local organizations to put the reward together,” Lang said, adding that “other tribes offering to help rebuild. All of the tribes have responded.”

Lang said he is hopeful that if the fire was intentionally set, those responsible will be arrested and convicted. He hopes that a message will be sent that this type of destructive behavior will not be tolerated. “It’s like a church-burning,” Lang said. “That’s basically what it is.”

Naturally, anger and confusion ran high at the vigil. “It’s impossible to believe that anyone could stoop so low as this,” said an elder. Another man several decades his junior said, “This is a crime against the spiritual.”

Karuk Vice Chairman Leif Hillman said, “The physical investigation of the site itself has been completed. However, the incident is still being investigated as a hate crime. Over the next few weeks, we anticipate some pretty intense inquiries into the crime.”

Hillman noted that there will be updates to the situation surrounding the crime listed on the Karuk Web site, www.karuk.us. Information will be posted to help people determine how to contribute funds and resources to help rebuild the dance house. Hillman is working with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department to post a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. The reward was announced through the We Tip program, a national anonymous hotline for communicating voluntary information about potential arsonists who commit crimes on federal lands. Hillman hopes to eventually increase the amount of the reward.

Hillman can be reached at (530) 493-1600, ext. 2040.