Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Racism and Genocide Denial in the Klamath River Basin

As it has before during times of tension over water management and environmental needs, racism has once again surfaced in the Klamath River Basin. The occasion this time was a series of formal public hearings to take testimony on the draft Klamath Facilities Removal EIS/EIR. That environmental review is intended to inform a decision by Secretary of Interior Ken Salizar. Salizar is scheduled to decide whether or not to implement the controversial Klamath Dam and Water Deals which were developed during years of closed-door negotiations. 

The Deals have split long-time Klamath River allies and exposed fault lines in Klamath River Basin communities. Among the Basin’s federal tribes, three tribal councils -those representing the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath Tribes - have signed the deals and are among their chief promoters; three tribal councils - those of the Hoopa, Quartz Valley and Resighini Rancheria tribes – have rejected the deals.

Prayer Pole at the stronghold where Kientpus and other Modoc's held off the US Army.
They only wanted to be left alone to live in their ancestral territory.

The environmental community is also split with several national groups in support while local and regional groups are on both sides of the split. Other regional groups support the Deals in principle but want changes to address what they see as major deal flaws.  A table listing the positions environmental organizations have taken on the Dam and Water Deals can be found at the end of this post. 

Vocal Basin residents who oppose dam removal, however, do not recognize these distinctions. As is typical of racialized attitudes, Indigenous natives and environmentalists are homogenized and objectified. In the eyes of the Klamath River Basin racist all “Indians” want to destroy “our” dams and all “environmentalists” are “radical” and want to destroy “our way of life.” 

Denial is a common feature of today’s racism. In the Klamath River Basin denial of contemporary anti-Indigenous racism and denial of the historical genocides visited upon Indigenous natives during the conquest era are both evident. The proper response to racism is non-acceptance; the proper response to the denial that racism exists is disclosure.

This post reports on contemporary racism in the Klamath River Basin and chronicles the denial of historical genocides with evidence drawn from contemporary and historic sources.  We then suggest what is needed to deal with racism in the Basin and who we believe should be leading that effort.

Contemporary Racism Surfaces in 2001

When sociologists from Oregon State University interviewed a sample of Upper Klamath Basin residents in the wake of the 2001 “Water Crisis” they reported an “undercurrent of racism” pervading Upper Basin white communities.  The researchers reported an “undercurrent” because racism was and is explicitly denied by many of those who exhibit racist attitudes and behavior. 

It wasn’t long before the “undercurrent” surfaced. In early December 2002 three white men in a pick-up truck decided to terrorize Chiloquin Oregon - home to the Klamath Tribes’ government.  The majority of Chiloquin residents are members of the Klamath Tribes.

Resident Perry Chock-toot reported that “three guys drove by yelling ‘Sucker lovers, come out and fight!’ and put a shotgun blast into a portable outhouse across the street.” The news report describes what happened next:
          The pickup drove around this town of about 500 that is headquarters for the Klamath Tribes, firing at signs and buildings, and stopped for a while behind a school bus, where the men asked kids headed for a basketball game whether they were Indians.  

Klamath River Basin white farmers and ranchers were incensed by accusations of racism and responded with denial. Dan Keppen - who as executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association was the main spokesperson for the Basin’s Irrigation Elite - accused those advocating for river flows needed to restore Klamath River Salmon, of “playing the race card.” According to Mr. Keppen “it's not race - it's a simple matter of having no water and seeing the family farms slip away from them.”

Anderson-Rose Dam - a federal irrigation facility - was built on top of a natural volcanic bridge over Lost River which became part of the Applegate Trail. The Modoc People's main village was located nearby; The Modocs were "removed" so that they would not trouble passing wagon trains.

In a little reported follow-up the three men who terrorized Chiloquin were found not only to be guilty of lawbreaking but also to be racist:
          Klamath County Circuit Judge Roger Isaacson went even further than the text of the apology, denouncing the Bonanza men as racists, symptomatic of a deeper racial problem in the Klamath Basin. "The same might be said of white guys in the 1950s who put sheets on and intimidated black people," the judge said. "Your actions aren't any different than what they did".

Racism and the Klamath Deals

As evidenced by more recent reports, some Klamath River Basin residents did not heed Judge Isaacson’s admonitions. In 2010 two officials of the Klamath Tribes published an editorial in which they complain about a political ad which they identify as racist:
          Can anyone doubt the motive for singling out the Klamath Tribes in this manner, and for grossly distorting the facts around the land acquisition? Is the Klamath Conservative Voters PAC the most recent face on local racism? We are sick and tired of the unrelenting hatred and opposition poured out towards the Klamath Tribes by groups like the PAC, Klamath Basin Alliance and several others.

It wasn’t long before a denial letter was published in response.

A more direct expression of racist attitudes occurred in connection with formal hearings on the environmental review of the Dam and Water Deals and alternatives.  At the first of six hearings on the Draft environmental review racism became explicit:
          An elderly man approached Jeff Mitchell, a Klamath Tribes member….Mitchell said the man told him “all of us Indians needed to be rounded up and put on a train and shipped back to Oklahoma again. ‘It's not the first time, unfortunately, that this has happened,’ Mitchell said.

The reference to shipping folks to Oklahoma on the railroad was not lost on Jeff Mitchell. Like every other contemporary Indigenous native, Mitchell knows that it was not long ago that “Indian troublemakers” – those who protested the expropriation of their land and the ill treatment of their people - were rounded up by the Army, loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to Oklahoma. At that time Oklahoma was – like the Gaza Strip today – a large open-air prison to which Indigenous natives were shipped to clear the way for white settlers.

The Redding Record Searchlight has not used the term “racism” to describe social relations in the Basin but it has reported on what it calls “mounting tensions” in the Klamath River Basin over the proposed Dam and Water Deals and the role Siskiyou County Sheriff John Lopey and the Scott Valley Tea Party have played in stirring up tension:
          Just a few quiet miles off Interstate 5 in northern Siskiyou County it's hard to imagine deep ideological divisions and political demagoguery threaten to turn a dispute over fish habitat, dam removal and farmers' water rights into a battleground.

Racism is a major contributor to the “tension” as is evident in on-line comments on the Record Searchlight report. Here are two examples:
           For God's sake folks let the Indians go buy some damned fish; they have taken most of the white man's money already with a casino on every street corner. I'll bet if you surveyed them they would tell you they are tired of eating fish after all these years anyway 
           Why can't they just buy fish at the market like most people do? After all, they have been living off government handouts for as long as I can remember.

 “Tension” in Basin - which we take as a euphemism for racism – is reinforced at least once a week when the Siskiyou Daily News’ “Scott Valley View” is published. The “View” includes regular columns by the Tea Party’s Liz Bowen and Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong. Both regularly attack the Karuk Tribe and other federal tribes. Recently Ms. Armstrong accused the tribes (along with the federal government) of destroying the county’s tax base.  Armstrong’s assertions were challenged by long-time Klamath River activist Felice Pace.

An example of Siskiyou County style genocide denial surfaced in 2009 as part of a conflict over recreational (sic) gold dredging:

The Karuk Tribe played a major role in the California legislature ending the practice of vacuuming river bottoms in hopes of finding gold – a practice scientists say often negatively impacts salmon.  Dave McCracken – a local entrepreneur who heads the “New Forty-niners” recreational mining enterprise – wrote in an editorial in the now defunct Pioneer Press that all claims made by Karuk Leader Leaf Hillman in a Sacramento Bee editorial were a “distortion of reality.” He then became specific:
          Let me bring the fresh air of truth into this discussion, beginning where Hillman began with a slanderous claim that the gold miners of the 19th century were guilty of, in his words, "attempted genocide" of his Karuk tribe. That is an absurd and ugly charge. Hillman knows there is not a shred of historical evidence to support his claim.

As is typical of such denials, McCracken offered no historical or other references to back up his claim. But of greater interest is the fact that there were no subsequent letters to the editor pointing out McCracken’s error by referencing the well documented genocides. The lack of protest response indicates that McCracken’s genocide denial was accepted as factual by most Pioneer Press readers. 

Roots of Klamath River Basin Racism

The roots of contemporary Klamath River Basin racism can be found in the Basin’s history and in denial about aspects of that history. 

Historians report that between 1850 and 1870 80% of the Indigenous Native Americans living in Siskiyou County were killed; most of them were murdered. 

Some of the murderers were rogue miners like a fellow called Wooley who operated near the mouth of Salmon River and who boasted about killing every Indian he encountered.  A creek in Siskiyou County still bears the murderer’s name. But there were also campaigns of “extermination” organized to prevent establishment of a reservation which – according to Siskiyou County leaders - would take up too much “good mineral land.” (see Little White Father by Ray Raphael, Humboldt County Historical Society,  1993).

The attempted genocides during this period were not limited to Siskiyou County. In fact a campaign of “extermination” was the official policy of the new State of California:
    In his January 1851 message to the California legislature, California Governor Peter H. Burnett promised "a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct".

While racism was rampant across the new state, Siskiyou County – and the town of Yreka in particular - was noted for its Indian haters and Indian hunters:
     In 1853 the Yreka Herald called on the government to provide aid to "enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time--the time has arrived, the work has commenced and let the first man who says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor".

Further documentation of Northern California’s late 19th century genocides is available on line at these links:

Among Northern California Counties, the Klamath River Basin's Siskiyou County continues to stand out in one respect: It is the county where denial of the late 19th century genocides perpetrated by Northern California’s white settlers appears strongest today. That denial can be seen most clearly in the failure of local historians and contemporary Siskiyou County white society to admit that genocide against the Indigenous natives was not only practiced but was officially sanctioned and encouraged.

Here’s how author Paul Harris described Siskiyou County denial of racism in 1997:
          Reading pamphlets and brochures from the Yreka Chamber of Commerce, one would hardly know of the history or the present day existence of Siskiyou County’s original peoples. There are only two references to Indians.  The first is one line stating that the name “Yreka” is a Shasta Indian word for Mt. Shasta. The second is a description of “Indian Peggy” as one of the town’s “famous personalities” who “is considered the savior of Yreka for warning the whites of an impending attack in the ‘50s.    

Denial of genocide and contemporary racism is also evident in a book published by the Siskiyou County Historical Society. In “Western Siskiyou County: Gold and Dreams,” authors Gail Fiorini-Jenner and  Monica Hall admit that bad things were done by white pioneers to local Indigenous natives. However, they present these as aberrations - not as the organized and officially sanctioned campaigns which they were.

Even the contemporary memory of a feast to which the Indigenous Shasta Indians were invited only to afterward fall sick and die is soft peddled. Fiorini-Jenner and Hall state that the meat fed to the Indians was tainted but that it is unknown “whether from spoilage or poison.” In their book the term “racism” is reserved for attitudes toward Chinese folks who came in to work the gold. Referring to racism with respect to native-white relations is apparently verboten. Remarkably, one of the authors is, in part, descended from Shasta Indians.

The history of racism in the Klamath River Basin is not limited to anti-Indigenous racism. It has also been documented with respect to black workers who came in the 1920s to work in the lumber mills
and against Italians who dared to strike at a McCloud Mill after having agreed to emigrate in order to work for what turned out to be poor wages and miserable living conditions.  In early 20th century America, Italians were considered “non-white.”


The record is clear: racism has been a major feature of politics and social relations in the Klamath River Basin from the time the area was first invaded by white gold miners right down to the present day. The record is also clear that organized genocides against Indigenous nations took place in the Basin between 1850 and 1870. These genocides were practiced, condoned and officially promoted by some of the area’s most revered pioneers. Finally we have shown that racism and genocide denial are prominent features of contemporary Klamath River Basin society and that these attitudes are condoned and encouraged by some current political leaders. 

Racism and denial are not just present in the minds and hearts of individuals, however. Racism and genocide also become institutionalized. In a study of the contemporary and traditional diet of the Karuk People, sociologist Kari Norgaard documented institutional racism in the denial of access to traditional foods via the Fish & Game Codes and in the foods available to contemporary Karuks. Here’s a link to the Klamath Environmental Justice Research and the Klamath Field Institute web page where you can  download Ms. Norgaard's fascinating study and learn more about the work of the Institute

The last known lynching in California took place in Siskiyou County on January 10th 1947. A black butcher from Weed was accused of rustling a steer and was strung up in the town of Callahan in the Scott River Valley. In typical Siskiyou County fashion, the lynching was covered up. However, those enrolled in Callahan's public school saw the strung up corps. If alive, those school children would be in their 60s and 70s today.

Modern medicine has discovered that denial on the personal level breeds disease. The same is true for communities, counties and, for that matter, countries. Unless and until the Klamath River Basin’s racist and genocidal past is brought into the light of day, discussed and accepted, that past will continue to haunt present social and political relations. There can be no peace without reconciliation.

As the feast of Thanksgiving approaches, where are the Christian churches? Where are their leaders? Who is going to lead Klamath River Basin communities to honestly confront and accept their racist past in order to build a more just and peaceful tomorrow? 

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