Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

November 4, 2000 - Issue 22

Trailblazer Keeps Flame Alive for American Indians
by Stephan Magagnini Bee Staff Writer

David Risling, walker in two worlds, casts his line into the shimmering waters of the Klamath River. Almost instantly, his pole bends like a willow branch and a powerful flash of silver breaks the surface.

Soon, he has landed a brawny steelhead, one of thousands of trout and salmon he has caught in his nearly 80 years, and one of perhaps millions that have fed his Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk Indian people since forever, which is how long the Indians say they have lived here along the Trinity and Klamath Rivers.

Risling was born downstream, about five miles from this idyllic spot, just beyond the northern edge of the Hoopa Valley reservation, a 12-mile square amid misty mountains, flush rivers and dense forests.

This is true Indian country, one of the few places in California where American Indians have lived on their ancestral lands and stoked the fires of their ancient ceremonies continuously.

And Risling, who wears his silky white hair in a ponytail, is one of the keepers of the flame. Like Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Captain Jack before him, he is one of America's great Indian warriors. Perhaps no one in America has done more to improve the lives and restore the pride and culture of Indian people.

The fruits of his labors are everywhere: here in Weitchpec, a Yurok village along the Klamath, where he recently helped Yurok people bring back the White Deerskin Dance of World Renewal after 80 years. In Washington D.C., where he has seen to it that California Indians will be honored at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian.

At the museum's inaugural exhibit in 2003, the Hoopa Indians, whose religion was outlawed when Risling was a boy, will present their philosophy of a world in balance with nature to an estimated 6 million visitors annually.

Perhaps his greatest impact is in America's classrooms. As a result of his efforts, thousands of American Indians, and thousands more non-Indians, have been exposed to America's tragic Indian history -- and the resilience of native people in the face of U.S. government attempts to wipe out their way of life.

"He's one of our top guns," said Dennis Banks, the father of the once-militant American Indian Movement, or AIM, and a former student at DQ University. Risling helped found the school, the nation's first off-reservation Indian college, in fields seven miles west of Davis in 1971.

"He's a pioneer in native education," said Banks. "The legacy of David Risling has spread across the country. ... Now we see a great deal of American Indians graduating, and you see hundreds coming back to help the people, and you didn't see that 40 years ago."

At his home in Davis, where he lives with his wife, Barbara, Risling pulls out his 69-page FBI file, much of it blacked out "in the interest of national security." For years, the FBI tried to prove that DQ was a training ground for AIM and other Indians intent on overthrowing the U.S. government. But DQ -- named after Deganawidah, a Huron peacemaker, and the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl -- is still alive and Risling is still chairman of the board.

"He always speaks about Indians in the present tense," said Bruce Bernstein, assistant curator of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian and a former student of Risling's at UC Davis. "He convinced students of native people's survival and vitality. I'm one of thousands of people he's touched in some way."

In 1970, Risling helped launch the Native American Studies program at UC Davis, one of the first in the nation. By the time he retired in 1992, there were hundreds of such programs around the country.

Risling's weapons of choice are Robert's Rules of Order, the U.S. Constitution and his unflappable personality.

"Dave is a brilliant negotiator, he understands the government," said Banks, who with other AIM leaders was involved in highly publicized armed confrontations with FBI agents. "A lot of times we do shoot from the hip -- that's a habit of AIM -- but sometimes we have to eat our words when we don't have the facts in front of us. But Dave has taught us a great lesson. He never shot from the hip. He wanted the facts before he moved on many issues."

Risling formed the California Indian Education Association to combat the high dropout rates of Indian children. He inspired the national Indian Education Act of 1972, which helped thousands of poor Indian students get through high school and college.

Jack Forbes, a UC Davis professor who hired Risling into the Native American Studies program, believes Risling's most important contribution is his promotion of spirituality and the Indian soul. Although his strict no-drinking policy proved unpopular with some Indian leaders, "gradually the Indian community has embraced this," Forbes said.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Risling helped found California Indian Legal Services and the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund, which have won dozens of legal victories for native people unlawfully deprived of their land, their fishing rights, their spiritual sites and their sovereignty.

"Dave never gives up -- that's why he's never lost," said NARF executive director John Echohawk. "Dave understood Indians have a strong legal foundation under law, and that legal representation could make all the difference, and that's exactly what has happened."

"The key is knowing how to walk in two worlds," says Risling. He's been an adviser on Indian affairs to three U.S. presidents and a pillar of the Traditional Circle of Elders and Youth, a gathering of some of the most respected Indians on the continent.

On a recent weekend, Risling rode deep into Hoopa-Yurok-Karuk Country in his '94 Ford pickup truck, a two-wheel-drive that he constantly challenges on dirt roads and mountain passes.

Risling makes the 300-mile drive from Davis to Hoopa at least a dozen times a year, especially in October when the waters run cold and the spawning salmon and steelhead strike anything in their path.

Though he sings the sacred songs and dances of his father, a Karuk-Hoopa leader, and dances in healing ceremonies as much as he ever did, fishing is his true religion -- which is fitting, since the North Coast Indians have prayed to the salmon god for centuries. His Yurok mother often prepared salmon for 25 people, including Risling and his seven siblings. "We had to catch at least 300 salmon a year just to eat.

Pole in hand, he hops from rock to rock, then disappears into the thick reeds and bushes along the river bank, finally emerging 300 yards upstream. "That's an old bear trail," he later explains.

In mid-afternoon, Risling drives into the hills above the Klamath to the house he was born in, a wooden shack built by his father.

He munches on some of the world's juiciest blackberries, and tells the story of his father, D.W. Risling, the son of a German American who ran a trading post in the town of Orleans and of a young Karuk woman. She later married a Hoopa medicine man who adopted D.W. Risling into the tribe.

D.W. Risling escaped from several Indian boarding schools and jails, and once slipped out of handcuffs and jumped out of a moving train. "He fought the government, he fought everybody," David Risling says.

As a young boy, David Risling went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian boarding school on the Hoopa Reservation. Like tens of thousands of other American Indians in BIA boarding schools, he was forbidden to speak his native language. "We were beaten with a hairbrush if we did," he said.

In 1924, American Indians became U.S citizens with standing in the courts, and in 1930 his father exercised his legal right to establish a school in Hoopa. Many years later, when Indians were being arrested for traditional gill net fishing on the Klamath River, D.W. Risling walked into then- Gov. Ronald Reagan's office and didn't come out until he had Reagan's backing, Risling says.

David Risling was one of the first California Indians to graduate from a four-year college. Before he left for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1939 his father called him to the woodshed.

"He gave me a 15-minute lesson that taught me more than I ever learned in college. He said, 'Don't come home if you forget who you are. If you do come home, you have to know how to fight fire with fire (use the government's laws to fight the government).' He said the odds were 100 to 1 against me, and then he drew a little flag in the dirt, the stars and stripes, and said, 'That flag is the power of the United States -- nobody's ever taken that flag down.'"

At night, Risling tends a smoker at a relative's house, making sure the fresh-caught salmon is smoked properly. It's hard work, but he says self-sacrifice is the Indian way. "When you killed your first deer, you'd bring it back to everybody else, before the white man came and changed everything."

He's troubled that successful gaming tribes have done so little to help other native people. But he's backed Indian gaming from the beginning, because "with money you can force the legislature to do things."

Many in his extended family also have gone on to become educators, lawyers, healers and keepers of American Indian culture. His daughter Lyn and her daughter Geneva spent five years doing research to re-create the Ihuk, or Flower Dance, a Karuk ceremony celebrating a girl's passage into womanhood that hadn't been performed in 120 years.

Lyn's sister, Kathy Wallace of Fairfield, is an internationally known Indian basket weaver.

Risling's nephew, Dale Risling, is a former Hoopa tribal chairman who now serves as superintendent of the BIA's Central California region, which covers 52 tribes.

Dale Risling, who's taken ribbing from his uncle for working for the "enemy," said Risling gets his toughness from his days as a middleweight prize fighter and his patience from his years of fishing.

Says David Risling: "I'll be all right as long as I can fish. It's when I clear my mind. It gives me a chance to actually think problems out. I'll sit on a rock, eating my lunch, and build a whole program in my mind."

D-Q University



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