Run Reduce Yield, Custom of Sharing Fish Lives On
Reed, right, explains his views on the losses of Karuk ecological
knowledge and the efforts to rebuild it, between passes of
dipnet fishing at Ishi Pishi Falls. His companion Brian Tripp,
adds his own perspective. (photo by Jayme Kalal)
Brian Tripp is well known for his giftspoet and painter,
sculptor and ceremonial singerbut he has another gift besides.
He seems able to talk me into things.
I pondered this as I followed his vintage Ford Crown Victoria
from the Somes Bar store, slowly down the steep road into Ka'tim'îin,
past the ceremony grounds and then to a parking place where the
road ends abruptly at a rocky bluff.
Down below was the Klamath River and the traditional Karuk fishing
spot at Ishi Pishi Falls. A path in that direction emerged nearby.
Years had passed, decades, since I'd been down to the falls. It
was not easy going. Maybe the boulders we clambered over had grown.
Brian is no kid himself but he navigated through the jumble
like a goat, if a goat had a bent back like his and a cane. No whining
And then we were there at the river, where the boulders bend
the flow into a rapids, a grey-green, grinding flood that has run
here since the retreat of the last Ice Age and before.
Most years the river has so much power that even the runs of
many kinds of salmon, as they return to the waters where they were
born, need to slow there in what backwaters and eddies they can
find. For millennia, and maybe forever, native people have fished
there with small nets strung between long poles.
The sole fisherman worked his way in our direction through the
boulders and over shaky bridges made of thick planks. It was Ron
Reed, a cultural biologist for the Karuk Tribe, and a traditional
dipnet fisherman. He greeted Brian and me and Brian introduced Ron
to two New Orleans artists in his company.
Ron said the fishing had not been good and gestured to a weathered
frame back pack that was sitting in the shade. The tails of two
fall Chinook salmon protruded through an improvised slash in its
top. Hardly any fish, he said.
"At least it's a good year for acorns. The creator still looks
after us," he added. He began a rumination about how much traditional
knowledge was lost since what is politely called "Contact" and is
more accurately recognized as the genocide that came with the Gold
Rush and the displacement that has continued since.
"Nowadays we're fumbling around trying to figure out what to
do. When we had a hundred villages, people would learn from someone
they admired. There are just a handful of dippers left," he said.
"Two handfuls at the most."
"One of my earliest memories is coming down here to the falls
when I was just four," said Brian. He now lives in Orleans but grew
up on the Coast, just coming to the river to visit relatives and
Ron said he remembered packing out fish when he was very young.
"The last couple of years, with so many fish, got us spoiled." He
speculated that the river flows were low from the continued drought
so all the fishing holes, the side eddies where the fish typically
stop for a break in the river's main current, are shallow. "Now
the fish can see everything."
Brian said he'd heard reports from Yurok fisherman friends where
the Klamath enters the ocean and they also suggested a small and
uneven run this fall. "They'd get 30 one day and none the next,"
"We had just a couple days of catching 30, three or four weeks
ago around ceremonies or a little bit after," Ron recalled. "What
we catch now is insignificant."
He explained that different families owned fishing rights in
the old days, although when someone, especially an elder, came down
the trail and asked for a fish, the fisherman was obligated to share.
Sometimes, when Ron would get the fish up to the top, there'd be
a couple of elders sitting in chairs, hoping to get some fish.
"I asked my mom about it," Ron said, "and she told me that it
was an honor to give fish to elders." Then he looked back at the
flow through the falls, which looked ample to newcomers, but which
he described as "bony, like an underfed dog."
He again lamented the lack of fish this year. "Yreka people
want fish. Happy Camp people want fish. The system is all out of
whack. I haven't even fired my own smoker yet this year. How could
I, when other people don't have any fish? I wouldn't feel right."
I remembered coming to the falls when I was young at the invitation
of the late Willis Conrad, and being amazed by the number and the
size of his catch. He would tell me stories of fishermen who'd fallen
into the grinding rapids and were swept away. In one story, Willis
said the fisherman's remains were found downriver, beyond Weitchpec,
being eaten by feral pigs. His stories spoke to caution.
And I remembered Willis bringing sacks full of shiny fall Chinook
up to the Black Bear commune, which was then just starting and not
He never said so, but I thought somehow that he was both amused
and fascinated by a band of White people, all of us hippies, who
were held to be even lower on the Siskiyou County pecking order
than Indians. And his gift of fresh salmon was a welcome change
from the beans and brown rice in the standard commune menu.
Ron began paying tribute to the people, many of them with Ph.D.'s,
who were using their skills and their access to protect the fish
and the broader landscape. He began with Kari Norgaard, who teaches
sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon.
Dr. Norgaard and Ron have co-authored several studies.
He added more names to his list of the praiseworthy. The Hoopa
Valley Tribe for squeezing the Bureau of Reclamation to release
more water into the Trinity River at critical times of low flows.
And others: Frank Lake, Will Harling, Josh Strange, the Berkeley
"They are the ones who would blend the traditional knowledge
with the science and then bring it to the table," Ron said. He may
have meant the negotiating table where high level talks like dam
removal were being parlayed by a room full of agencies and rival
Brian said the goal should be to bring a box of traditional
provisions to elders every month. It would include a jar of salmon,
some deer meat and some acorns.
Ron shook his head in agreement and said, "That's the most important
thing any of us has said all morning."
Two Karuk men, one young and one old, joined us. After an hour
or more of conversation, Ron said it was time to try another pass
with the dipnet. Brian offered to be a clubber, the coworker of
the dipper who grabs the fish or fish-plural out of the net and
whacks them on the head with a short, heavy stick. Jayme Kalal,
one of the two New Orleans artists, is a photographer and grabbed
his camera to follow them.
Ron moved his net expertly through the first hole, probing,
exploring. Nothing. Ron cautioned Jayme that the salmon could see
Jayme's red jumpsuit and suggested he keep a low profile.
Reed dip net fishing at Ishi Pishi Falls.
Upstream for the second hole. Again nothing. He scrambled over
one boulder and skirted another to get to the third hole and Brian
followed. And nothing.
At the end of six or seven holes, nothing. Ron parked his poles
against a boulder the size of a living room, recovered his tee shirt
and wiped his brow. Brian glanced around their surroundings, a world
of rock piles and driftwood that looked much like the sculpture
parts-house in his front yard, or his living room, for that matter.
Much of Brian's signature sculpture is a mix of figures, large
and small, where the body might be driftwood and the head, a rock
that looks like a human face. I call them spirit people and Brian
doesn't disagree. As he approached us he picked up a small cobble
from the path and turned it to us. It started talking in a rock-people
voice, like a sock puppet.
"How come you don't ask me any questions?" Brian's rock-puppet
said indignantly. "I been here lot longer than any of you."
Ron gave one of the salmon to the elder of the pair who had
joined us. The man had not asked for a fish but he thanked Ron graciously.
Ron explained that he had a work assignment back in Orleans
and began packing his gear. Then he gave his second fish to Brian,
who also had not asked.