Alex Schwartz
Herald and News

A group of protesters gathered at Sugarman’s Corner in downtown Klamath Falls last Saturday, preparing to welcome a 25-car caravan of mostly Klamath Tribal members calling for solutions to the Klamath Basin’s water crisis.

A man walked by the demonstrators, eyeing their signs with statements like “Peace and Healing in the Klamath Basin,” “Water Justice is Social Justice” and “Undam the Klamath.”

“What are you holding those signs for?” he asked.

No one responded — it’s hard to answer any question about water in the Klamath Basin in a five-second sidewalk exchange.

Especially in recent years, as extended droughts have heated up local conflicts over water — both figuratively and literally — Klamath Tribal members have tried to stay out of the debate as much as they could. Beyond tribal council issuing an occasional press release and entering into litigation to protect endangered C’waam and Koptu (Lost River and shortnose suckers) in Upper Klamath Lake, they felt the environment in the Basin was unwelcoming to Native people and their voices.

For Joey Gentry, a member of the Klamath Tribes who helped organized Saturday’s “Caravan for the Klamath,” the demonstration was about the area’s original people breaking that silence.

“Our members have been silent over the years out of respect for ag and to keep the peace. Today is just a time for us to unite together with our community,” she said. “Our people need to speak.”

The caravan from Chiloquin was about 25 cars strong, a far cry from the “Shut Down, Fed Up” rally a year ago that saw hundreds of tractors and trucks travel through Klamath Falls to protest irrigation curtailments. But tribal members said they felt empowered to drive through the city, which sits on their ancestral homelands. May 2021 (Photo by Herald and News)

Based on the lowest inflows to Upper Klamath Lake in recent memory, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that no water would be available to the Klamath Project from the lake this summer. Normally, that water satisfies more than 150,000 acres of farm and ranchland, along with wetland habitat at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for millions of migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. This is the first year in the Project’s 100-plus-year history that a majority of its farmers will receive no irrigated water.

Reclamation said the water needed to remain in the lake to ensure C’waam and Koptu have adequate access to water quality refuge areas during algae blooms expected later in the summer. Flows to the lake were so low this spring that it never reached an elevation required under the Endangered Species Act to allow lake-spawning suckers to reach prime shoreline spawning habitat.

The lake is nearly two feet lower than what it’s supposed to be this time of year.

Flows released from Link River Dam and into the Klamath River are operating at a drought-year baseline, and the agency has said no flushing flow will occur to mitigate a salmon disease outbreak and fish kill currently unfolding downriver. Salmon are culturally and economically important to the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes in Northern California.

A judge recently denied the Klamath Tribes’ injunction request to reduce flows out of Link River Dam as part of an ESA-related lawsuit against Reclamation.

(Related: Judge rules against Klamath Tribes)

Though the caravan had been in the works for more than a week, some tribal members became concerned about the optics of the demonstration following Wednesday’s announcement. Though they were happy that Reclamation would intend to maintain minimum habitat requirements for C’waam and Koptu, they didn’t want to gloat at irrigators’ or downriver tribes’ struggles.

“This is not a celebration of the BOR decision that there’s no irrigation allocation this season,” Gentry said. “We want the community to know and understand that.”

Gentry, sister of tribal chairman Don Gentry, takes no comfort in the agricultural community’s suffering. As a hemp farmer herself who works 12 acres in Klamath Irrigation District, she hasn’t grown a crop for the past two years largely because of irrigation curtailments. She believes there has to be a future for ag, but that the Basin needs to take better care of its endemic species.

“This has never been about ag versus tribe,” Gentry said. “This is about preservation of species, preservation of culture ... there’s no greater feeling in the world than standing in a field amongst the crop you’ve grown. I get it. We get it.”

(Related: 'Reality of climate change')

The Klamath Tribes depended on C’waam and Koptu — which exist in no other watershed on earth — as traditional foods for millennia. Colonization brought massive alterations to their environment too quickly for them to adapt to, and their numbers have been on the decline since the mid-20th Century.

Along with government policies that mismanaged the old Klamath Reservation, shipped a generation of children off to abusive boarding schools to eradicate tribal culture and the termination of the Tribes’ federal status, tribal members say the decline in first foods has decimated their community and culture.

“We empathize more than anyone could possibly understand with what (irrigators) are going through,” Gentry said. “We want to work together, we mourn for you and we understand.”

The caravan arrived from Chiloquin and did a loop along South 6th Street and Main Street, concluding at Veterans Memorial Park. Whooping and honking their horns, drivers proudly waved flags containing the Klamath Tribes’ insignia and displayed signs that said “One River, One Life,” “Save the C’waam” and “Honor the Treaty,” among others.

Charlie Wright, a Klamath Tribal member and organizer of the caravan, said she thinks it's time for tribal members to speak up more often on water issues in the Klamath Basin. May, 2021 (Photo by Herald and News)

Given how contentious the water situation is locally, tribal members were concerned about how they’d be received in Klamath Falls. Gentry said public forums and Facebook comments are full of degrading, dehumanizing language directed at the Tribes. And recent protests touching on racial equality and social justice — like last May’s Black Lives Matter demonstration — have been met with armed opposition.

“I think our silence is part of the toll that hostility has taken on us,” Gentry said.

Though the Tribes feared that things could devolve, they got more support than they expected. Several people passing by the gathering at Veterans Park made supportive gestures.

“We were kind of worried about what we were going to meet in town with the BOR’s decision last week,” said tribal member Charlie Wright, the caravan’s lead organizer. “At the same time, we really need to stand up and be heard.”

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Tribal council member Willa Powless said growing up in Klamath Falls, she saw how negatively tribal people were treated. She expected to encounter some racist behavior on the caravan, but instead she largely saw support from the community.

“What we did today, that was one of the most powerful things I’ve felt in a long time. Going around in that caravan, I wanted to do it again 20 times,” Powless said in a speech to the group. “We had a lot of support, and it actually kind of surprised me.”

Powless added that, in some ways, tribal members censor themselves. Reeling from the impacts of generational trauma inflicted by the boarding school system, many may still feel ashamed to be Indigenous. She hopes having more gatherings like this can change that.

“We need to be loud and boisterous and unapologetic,” Powless said.

For tribal leadership, the decline of C’waam and Koptu is a direct violation of the 1864 treaty with the U.S. government, when the Tribes’ ancestors ceded millions of acres of land in exchange for a small reservation and an assurance that they would be able to hunt, fish and gather on that land. Tribal members haven’t been able to fish C’waam and Koptu for subsistence in nearly half a century due to the collapse of their fishery, and tribal members feel the United States has allowed that to happen.

“Until this day we’ve always upheld our end of the bargain,” Powless said. “But they never have.”

“I don’t think our treaty signers would have envisioned that we wouldn’t have the salmon anymore,” Tribal Chairman Don Gentry said to the group. “I don’t think they would’ve ever imagined that our C’waam and Koptu would be in the perilous place that they’re at now ... we’re praying for a time of justice and rightness, and that people would rally behind us in protecting the resources that are important to us.”

Tribal council member Clay Dumont said that similar to the treaty signers, today’s tribal members gathered to do what they felt was necessary to protect their homelands.

“All we’re asking for is to have our home respected and to respect us for trying to defend our home,” he said. “Every living thing tries to defend its home. Poke a bee’s nest. Put your arm in a beaver’s den. See what the heck happens.”

Charlie Wright was pleased with how the caravan and gathering went, and she said she hopes to help organize similar events in the future. As far as she’s concerned, mum’s no longer the word for tribal members, and they hope to add something of value to the conversation around water.

“It’s not just an ag community,” Wright said. “There’s a much older voice in the Klamath Basin — an Indigenous one, (a voice) of reason that says we have to take care of our land if we’re ever going to have a future.”

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