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Suckerfish and the Klamath Tribe

We start a fire in the morning. We take two fish and kill one, and burn him in the ceremonial fire. The other one we lower into the water and take its gall—the beis—and put it back in the water. All of this is a ceremony to call the fish back to where they originated. To where they were harvested, to our village sites…

That is how Perry Chocktoot Jr. described the Return of C’waam Ceremony held each year in southern Oregon after the first snowflakes fall and the evening sky reveals the fish constellation (three stars in line making Orion’s Belt) on the southwestern horizon. With traditional dancing, drumming and a feast, the ceremony honors both the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckerfish—fish that are central to the lives and heritage of the Klamath Tribes, but dismissed by many as “trash fish.”

While American Indians revel in being stewards of these fish (and all creation), others living in the Klamath Basin have spent years trying to diminish the suckerfish so they can exploit the waterways that support them. A New York Times article on June 20, 2001 said, “The all-but-inedible, bottom-feeding suckerfish, which makes its home in a lake that feeds this normally fertile agricultural valley, has become the latest rallying cry in the battle to rewrite the Endangered Species Act.” When drought ravaged the Klamath Basin in 2001, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times began with these words: “When there’s a drought along the Klamath River in northern California and Oregon, who’s going to get the water—the farmers who have worked the land for generations or two trash fish…?” In 2001, more than 12,000 angry people gathered in Klamath Falls to support the farmers in their fight for more water, while condemning the tribes and the fish. In October 2009 an article in Open Spaces Quarterly by Daniel Jack Chasan reminded readers that water issues in the basin continue to be depicted by the press and protesters as, “a stark choice between saving farmers and saving two obscure, demeaningly named species of fish.”

As Native Americans continued to be flayed for protecting the Lost River and shortnose suckers, I embarked on a quest to learn about the fish, their place in tribal culture and why some people hate them so passionately. At the time I had no way of knowing that 2010 would be another drought year and that the fish would once again be thrust into the national spotlight.

I began my quest by studying the objects of such scorn.

Know Your Fish!

A University of California, Davis website on California fish tells me that the two kinds of suckerfish have distinctive markings: Lost River suckers (Deltistes luxatus) are brown to black on the back, have brassy sides, and are white to yellow ventrally. They have long narrow heads, small eyes, and fleshy lips. Shortnose suckers (Chasmistes brevirostris) have long, cylinder-like bodies with dark dorsal coloration and a white to yellow underside. Breeding adults may have reddish scales along the lateral line. Their heads are large, with short noses and thin lips; some have a small hump on their snout.
Biologists say the Lost River suckers can live 40 years, grow to be more than three feet long and weigh 10 pounds. They feed primarily on detritus on the lake bottom, but also eat chironomid midge larvae, amphipods and zooplankton. Shortnose suckers may live 33 years and grow to be 1.5 feet long. Juveniles feed on insects while adults feed mostly on zooplankton. At 5 years of age, around May, both species begin migrating upstream to spawn. Lost River suckers release 102,000 to 236,000 eggs, while shortnose suckers produce about 38,000 eggs. Females of both species are often attended to by several males waiting to fertilize their eggs.

But neither looking at the fish nor reviewing scientific reports on them explains the importance of the C’waam to the local

tribes, so I traveled from Eugene, Oregon to Klamath Falls, Oregon to meet with Chocktoot and seek further insight.

The Creator Provides for His People

Friday evening. Chocktoot and I went to dinner at one of his favorite Mexican restaurants in Klamath Falls. The place is bustling, so we sat at a small table in the middle of the lounge, where loud conversations and sports programs blaring from flat-screen televisions filled the air. I study him as he ordered. Chocktoot, director of culture and heritage and former tribal council member for the Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Band of Snake) and president of the Inter-Tribal Fish & Water Commission, is in his mid-40s. He is not tall, has a round face with a neat mustache and a sleek black braid that reaches to his waist. That night he wore jeans, an open burgundy flannel shirt over a gray tee, and a forest-green baseball cap emblazoned with cabales in gold.

As he spoke, my blue eyes and his sable-brown eyes locked. After a few minutes, I no longer heard the buzz in the room as he took me on a journey through history with the tribes and their suckerfish.

Several million years ago Gmok’am’c, the Creator, “moved across underneath the crust of the Earth and created the mountains and the rivers and the valleys,” Chocktoot said. “Then He pulled from His side a bag of magic bones, threw them south, north, east, and west, creating the people who lived for thousands and thousands of years.”

The tribes lived in harmony with nature for millennia, he explained, moving about on 22 million acres of what is now southern Oregon and northern California, harvesting the Earth’s bounty. Men headed the households, defending their families, doing the “heavy work,” such as building lodges, as well as hunting and fishing. Women spent their days with the children—gathering berries, eggs and other edibles; collecting the tule, cattail, reeds, hazel and willow they would make into clothing, harvesting baskets, utensils and recreational gaming trays (they held the items being bet when players tossed notched beaver teeth like dice); cleaning and cooking the game and fish their men brought home. Life had a comforting rhythm, but was not without hardship.

“In the old days there was a village, a Klamath village on the east bank of the Klamath Lake. And in this village people thrived. They ate wocus [yellow pond lily] and hunted deer. One year there was a great famine. The deer didn’t come back. And the wocus didn’t grow good. And what made it worse was that a giant serpent lived up in the rocks and came down, preying on the people, eating the men and eating the women. So they prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed, and they asked for their Creator, Gmok’am’c, to have pity on them and to stop this giant serpent. And so they got together, and they had a small contingent of warriors say, ‘We’re going to go take care of this sucker!’ And so they went up into the rocks, but the serpent was just too large and too powerful. It was killing all the warriors and eating them whole. And our Creator was watching this, and he said to himself, ‘You’ve been good people, and you don’t deserve to come to this bitter end. So I’m going to draw my obsidian knife.’ And he went down and grabbed this serpent and cut him into pieces. And he told the people, ‘Behold my love for you,’ and he threw the chunks of serpent onto the water. And pretty soon the pieces started moving. And the chunks of serpent turned into our C’waam fish—the sucker. And from that time forward, they were created for us to eat. And to thrive on. And to live on. They were a gift from the Creator. That’s how the C’waam were created for us.
“The C’waam multiplied until they were so plentiful they would swim into a wagon backed into the water. Pull the tailgate shut, whip the horses, and the wagon-bed was full of fish.”

Mesmerized by Chocktoot’s soft voice and expert storytelling—our eyes rarely disengaged—I hardly touched my chicken fajitas.

Settlers and Other Kinds of Suckers

Chocktoot said life in the Klamath Basin began to change in the 1850s, when the first settlers claimed land the tribes lived on and cared for. While the tribes thrived there, moving with the seasons (preserving food for the winter months), the settlers experienced extreme hardship on what the Bureau of Reclamation said was a “sun-baked prairie and worthless swamps” until irrigation began in mid-1907.

“When the European came here they literally were starving…. Food sprang from the earth but they starved,” Chocktoot said. “So we brought them sucker. And they survived. And then their memories fade. And they forget. And when the water crisis of 2001 occurred, they called it ‘trash fish’—not good for anything,” he said with a sarcastic lilt. “But our memories are intact. And we remember how they survived on the sucker. And we remember how we continually survived on this sucker. And they are not trash fish. They are light and flakey, and some of the best white meat you’ll eat in your entire life.”

This helped me understand the current animosity in Klamath Falls between the indigenous people and the descendants of the immigrants. The indigenous people in the Basin measure time in thousands of years, while the history of the European settlers and their descendants extends back little more than 150 years. Preparing and giving the settlers suckerfish to keep them alive was a short time ago to the tribes; it was eons ago to the farmers and community folk in the Klamath Basin who now condemn the fish and put their agricultural interests first.

“The reason they call it trash fish is because we took the sucker to them already processed,” he said. “And when they tried to process them on their own, they tried to clean them just like a rainbow trout, gut them from their rear end to their throat. And there is gall right in the middle of them, and if you break this gall—we call it a beis—it taints the meat. Spews out on the meat and it’s not any good to eat any more. We lay them down and cut the meat out through their back. They never consulted with the tribes. And it wasn’t good. They didn’t like it.”

But suckerfish are delicious, Chocktoot assured me. “Some of the last ones I ate with my dad were four feet long, laying out on the table with their heads and bodies hanging off. We’d smoke them. I’ve eaten them baked. I’ve eaten them fried. I’ve eaten them canned. And I’ve eaten them any way you can eat them. Put a light smoking on them, with a little Tabasco on them. Dy-na-mite!”

Turn On the Water Wars

In 1905, settlers in the Klamath Basin started taking the water away from the tribes. Chocktoot explained that in 1905 the Bureau of Reclamation took possession of all unclaimed waters and initiated the project—building 701 miles of canals, 728 miles of drains, and a series of dams that made it possible to farm on previously infertile soil. Farmers began signing contracts with homesteaders and irrigation districts guaranteeing them water in perpetuity, ignoring treaties signed with the tribes in 1864 that gave them water rights.

As more people moved into the Klamath Basin, water levels fell, lakes stagnated, and water temperatures rose. The canals, drains and dams, combined with the sediment from forest clear-cutting, runoff from farming operations and cattle excrement, destroyed the balance in the ecosystem. The water was polluted, algae proliferated, and suckerfish started dying off. Salmon, trout, birds and other wildlife also suffered.

In 1988, the Lost River and shortnose suckerfish were added to the Endangered Species List. Agricultural interests in Oregon have battled to get that designation changed because they want to draw more water from the rivers for their cattle and their farms. The tribes, however, steadfastly maintain their commitment to being stewards of the fish and all creation for Gmok’am’c. In an effort to revitalize the environment and foster economic prosperity in the Klamath Basin, the Klamath Tribes have been working with many groups and organizations, including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Klamath Water Users Association, Citizens Utility Board, utilities company PacifiCorp, government agencies, farmers, community members and others. In February 2009, this work led to approval of a bill in the Oregon Senate to direct funds from PacifiCorp power bills to remove Klamath River dams. Their removal will improve water quality by allowing free flow of water to support increases in fish and wildlife; this will foster economic prosperity by enhancing the opportunity for fishing and recreational use of waterways without impeding irrigation of agricultural lands.
On February 18, 2010, then–Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed two agreements—one to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California, another to prescribe how water will be shared between fish and farms, and how ecological balance in the Klamath Basin will be restored. In March, foreseeing another drought, the governor declared an emergency in Klamath County and five surrounding counties and beseeched the federal government to provide disaster relief for farmers and ranchers. On November 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard arguments about whether Klamath Basin waters belong to the public or to private irrigation interests—a lawsuit filed by irrigation interests before drafting the Restoration Agreement. On December 21, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality unveiled its plan to lower pollution limits on the upper Klamath River.

The tribes to the south are ahead of the Klamath in gaining federal support to enhance conditions in the Klamath River. On January 4, 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved California’s water-quality-improvement plan calling for massive pollution reduction in the lower Klamath River. On January 27, four environmental groups—Oregon Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Larch Company—filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to add Klamath River chinook salmon to the Endangered Species List.

The U.S. Court of Appeals has yet to rule on ownership of Klamath Basin waters and the EPA’s approval of Oregon’s plan to lower pollution limits remains pending. Also pending is proposed legislation for $3.4 million in Oregon Lottery revenue bonds “to offset economic losses resulting from the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, including: lost property tax payments upon retirement of four hydroelectric dams and reductions in property values, business opportunities, and agricultural water rights and water deliveries.” Supporters of the legislation include the Klamath tribes and the groups they have been working with.

Agreements dating back to 2009 to improve water flows and quality in the Klamath Basin still require federal approval, California voters’ acceptance of a $250 million bond measure to help with dam removal, and additional funding. So, it is unlikely the agreements will have a major impact on helping farmers or fish survive drought conditions for years to come. However, the cooperation that has been required for the agreements may help avert the vitriolic farmers-vs.-fish water wars of 2001 and 2002. Now all parties understand that tribal interests in preserving the environment, fish, and other wildlife is real and mutually beneficial, Chocktoot said. In addition, some tribal and nontribal members have had the opportunity to get to know one another and forge personal relationships and friendships.

Resurrecting the C’waam

On March 12, 2011, I intend to be in the Klamath Basin for the annual Return of C’waam Ceremony that will once again call the fish back to where they originated. After years of no ritual greeting for the suckerfish, the traditional ceremony was reinstituted after passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. I attended a similar ceremony on a Saturday morning last March, when about 100 members of the Klamath Tribes gathered around a blazing campfire on the snow-dusted bank of the Sprague River, just below where the Chiloquin Dam once stood. Betty Blackwolf, a tribal elder wrapped in a red and black blanket, holding feathers, stepped forward to offer an invocation. As eagles circled in the blue sky overhead Elder Blackwolf said, “Great Creator, we thank you for this paradise you gave us to live in. All our needs are met by you. We pray for the C’waam today as survivors that came to nourish us, to give their meat that our lives can go on. We pray for our leaders who work hard, who take care of all of us. We are all related somehow. Bless the C’waam. Bless all of our tribes. …”