Indigenous leaders walk a trail in the Yurok Experimental Forest during a visit to the Yurok Tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'This was always our home': Yurok Tribe welcomes indigenous leaders to forest

By Kevin Abourezk

KLAMATH, California – On a cool, foggy afternoon, Sergio Guzman walked along a sandy trail a few hundred feet from the beach, where waves crashed on a rocky shore.

Seagulls and hawks sailed along the shoreline, and a low fog hung in patches throughout a forest that clung to the edges of cliffs overlooking the ocean. Spruce and Douglas fir trees mixed with alder thickets on both sides of the trail that Guzman walked, along with nearly 30 other indigenous leaders from Indonesia, South America, Central America and North America.

The eclectic group navigated a narrow trail near the northern California community of Klamath on the Yurok Indian Reservation, where they gathered in early September to learn about the Yurok Tribe’s efforts to preserve its forests, creeks, wildlife and fish.

Guzman, who fights deforestation in northern Guatemala, said he came here so he could learn about forest management techniques in California and to share his own people’s efforts to manage their forests.

“What we are doing here is to share knowledge about forest fires and forest sustainable management,” he said. “We know that the sustainable forest management that we do mitigates climate change.”

A gathering of 30 indigenous leaders prepare to take part in a wyusa tea ceremony during a visit to the Yurok Tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The indigenous leaders spent several days in early September on the Yurok Reservation, hearing from the tribe’s natural resources staff and touring the Yuroks’ forests, creeks and rivers to see for themselves the impact of the tribe’s efforts to preserve its lands. They also learned about the Yurok Tribe’s use of carbon credits – allowances the tribe sells to corporate polluters in California that allow those polluters to avoid paying fines – to buy back its ancestral lands.

The indigenous leaders, who camped in tents by the picturesque Klamath River for several days, are part of an informal alliance of indigenous people who have gathered for the past four years in order to learn environmental techniques from each other and to advocate for themselves as forest protectors.

“Many of them are experiencing what so many Native American tribes suffered,” said Coimbra Sirica, a communications consultant who helped organize the event. “They are under siege from powerful actors who see indigenous land as owned by no one and free to anyone able to use force to take the riches from those lands, without regard for the spiritual value of the forests and rivers and the forms of life they protect that are so much a part of the culture of Native peoples, regardless of where they live.”

Their journey to the Yurok Reservation was a chance to see what hope looks like, Sirica said.

After their visit, the indigenous leaders joined environmental and Native leaders from across the world in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit held September 12-14.

At an introductory event held just outside the Yurok Experimental Forest – more than 900 acres of redwood forest not far from the mouth of Klamath River – the indigenous leaders listened to the Yurok Tribe’s natural resources staff and California state leaders who are considered allies to the tribe.

Jim Wood, a California assemblyman who represents the state’s north coast, spoke to the group in a heavily forested area as the indigenous leaders sat on hay bales and reporters invited for the event shot photos and videos of those speaking.

Wood complimented the Yurok for helping to successfully transform the Blue Creek watershed into a cold-water salmon sanctuary that serves as a tributary for the Klamath River.

In February, the Western Rivers Conservancy transferred title of more than 9,000 acres within the Blue Creek watershed to the Yurok Tribe. The transfer was part of a larger effort by the conservancy to secure 47,000 acres of forest and watershed along the Klamath River for the tribe.

Wood also thanked the tribe for its efforts to reintroduce the California condor into its forests. He said the tribe had succeeded in convincing state and local leaders to allow the tribe to reintroduce the bird to its ancestral lands.

And he congratulated the tribe for leading efforts to remove four dams along the lower Klamath River.

Indigenous leaders walk a trail in the Yurok Experimental Forest during a visit to the Yurok Tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

“I’m happy that the state that I represent, that we are all a part of here, is finally listening to your respect for the land and your approach, and I apologize for the many generations of those who did not listen to the wisdom of the Yurok and many of the other indigenous people here in California,” Wood said.

Massive wildfires in recent years have demonstrated the need for state and local leaders in California to heed the wisdom of the Klamath people and begin working to maintain dense forests through controlled burns and other means, Wood said.

“After your many generations of being a role model, we’re finally adopting your approach to sustainable forests,” he said. “I regret that it has taken so long.”

Several Yurok natural resources staff and environmental experts spoke to the group before their tour.

But as they prepared to start their walk through the Yurok Experimental Forest, one South American leader took a moment to pay homage to two recently slain indigenous leaders and to call for an end to such attacks. It was a poignant moment that demonstrated the vast differences between the experiences of the Yurok – who are today largely accepted as a self-sufficient tribe by state and federal leaders – and the indigenous people of Latin American who continue to face assassinations and land grabs by timber companies and federal officials.

Candido Mezua, a leader among the Embera people of Panama and Colombia, said the two leaders – Amparo Paola Rodríguez Muchavisoy and her husband Alonso Taicus Guanga – were killed in the southern Colombia village of La Castellana just three days before on September 2.

Muchavisoy was an indigenous teacher and leader among the Inga Kamentsá people and Guanga was a farmer. Their 10-year-old daughter was also injured in the attack, which was among more than 30 murders of indigenous leaders in Colombia since early August, Mezua said.

“Now there’s an orphan child and a struggle that must continue,” he told the indigenous leaders gathered on the Yurok Reservation. “To all the peoples of the world, please help us.”

Sirica said the Yurok event was important to help indigenous leaders from Latin America understand ways to gain the political clout necessary to gain support for their efforts to fight deforestation in their home countries. However, the challenges they face, compared to the challenges faced by tribes in America, often require much more complex solutions, she said.

A group of journalists and indigenous leaders listen to Tim Hayden (not shown), natural resources director for the Yurok Tribe, during a tour of the Yurok Experimental Forest.
A redwood tree in the Yurok Experimental Forest. Photos by Kevin Abourezk

As the indigenous leaders set out on a trail through the Yurok Experimental Forest, they embarked on a path taken for centuries by the Yurok.

The tribe once inhabited more than 50 villages along and near the Klamath River. They depended on the river and forests for all their needs, using fallen redwoods to build their canoes, homes and sweathouses. They pulled salmon, sturgeon and candlefish from the Klamath and its principal tributary, the Trinity River.

They gathered mussels, seaweed and acorns from the beaches along the ocean coast and hunted deer and elk from the forests. They gathered berries, teas and herbs for medicines and cultural ceremonies from the forests as well.

And they hosted community dances in villages along the coast.

Like many tribes, the Yuroks’ numbers were decimated by contact with settlers and miners after gold was discovered in northern California. By the tribe’s estimate, they lost 75 percent of their population to massacres and disease starting around the mid-19th Century.

After being moved to different reservations and government forts, many Yurok remained on their ancestral lands – effectively squatting – and began exploring avenues for establishing a reservation of their own, eventually leading to the 1988 Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, which finally provided the Yurok land of their own. The tribe’s 63,000-acre reservation straddles the Klamath River, extending one mile on each side of the river from the river’s mouth to 44 miles upriver.

“This was always our home. It just got shortened up to a mile on each side,” said David Gensaw, vice chairman for the tribe. “We’ve been buying our land back.”

Frank Lake (left), a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and Tim Hayden, natural resources director for the Yurok Tribe, speak to a gathering of 30 indigenous leaders on the tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The tribe has continued to fight efforts by timber companies, hunters and fishermen to encroach on their ancestral lands, as well as efforts to assimilate their children. Like other tribes starting in the late 1800s, the Yurok were forced to send their children to boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their Native language or practicing their traditional customs. The experience led to the near extinction of the tribe’s language, though recent efforts to teach the Yurok language to the tribe’s children has led to a cultural resurgence.

And pressure from settlers and non-Natives has continued to plague the tribe, which has responded by asserting its rights and taking back its land.

A particularly explosive conflict between the tribe and the state of California occurred following the state’s decision to ban the use of grill nets for fishing on the Klamath in the 1930s. Many tribal members continue to use nets, leading to repeated confrontations between fish and game wardens and tribal fishermen, an era that became known as the Klamath Salmon Wars.

The tribe’s efforts to assert its rights to use resulted in a 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that reaffirmed the tribe’s rights to use nets on the river.

Today, the tribe has more than 6,000 members, making it the largest tribe in California. In 2015, the tribe opened a casino and hotel in Klamath and has begun investing in other economic development efforts, including a grocery store that it opened last year.

Tim Hayden, the tribe’s natural resources director, said most of the tribe’s ancestral lands were taken by timber companies that logged those lands, clearing large swathes of forest along the way.

“Now the challenge is to restore our land base, using the cap-and-trade program, sustainable forestry and creative financing to purchase our land back,” he told the indigenous leaders as they walked through the Yurok Experimental Forest.

Javier Kinney (left), self-governance director for the Yurok Tribe, listens as David Gensaw, vice chairman for the tribe, speaks to a gathering of 30 indigenous leaders on the tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

An especially vital source of revenue for the tribe in recent years has been the sale of carbon credits to industrial corporations in California.

The state of California established its cap-and-trade program in 2012 in attempt to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that large electric power plants, large industrial plants and fuel distributors produce. When those corporations produce more emissions than allowed, they are required to purchase carbon credits, which are essentially a way of polluters to pay others to reduce greenhouse gases.

The Yurok have managed to gain carbon credits by managing its forest near Redwood National Park for carbon storage instead of timber harvest.

The tribe has sold between $6 million and $8 million worth of carbon credits, Gensaw said. The Yurok have used that money primarily to buy back their ancestral lands, he said.

Standing amid massive redwood trees, some as old as 1,200 years, Hayden points to one tree that has a knobby growth on its side.

The growth, which looks like a cancerous tumor eating away at the tree, is actually a fungus and is highly coveted by woodworkers, he said.

“They cut out those burls and they make art and furniture,” Hayden says. “The grain is very beautiful.”

But cutting out a burl usually means chopping down the entire tree, and that isn’t allowed, he said. But that hasn’t stopped furniture makers and others from harvesting the burls and selling them in shops in towns near the reservation.

Tim Hayden, natural resources director for the Yurok Tribe, and Frankie Myers, tribal heritage preservation officer for the tribe, speak to a gathering of 30 indigenous leaders on the tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The federal government established the Yurok Experimental Forest near the Klamath River’s mouth in 1940 to study the redwood trees and develop management techniques. The forest also features Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock and Port Orford cedar trees.

The U.S. Forest Service manages the forest, though the tribe is currently seeking to take over management of the forest through federal legislation.

“As the Yurok Tribe asserts their sovereignty and interest in this land, they have requested in working with the Forest Service to have some of that land turned back to them,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service.

However, he said, the tribe likely won’t take over management of the entire Yurok Experimental Forest.

“There is more of a desire to have a co-management, which I am helping write the plan that would have Yurok and Forest Service management decisions for how the research takes place here,” Lake said.

He said a forest plan recently adopted by the state of California directs state foresters to work with tribes on both national forests and reservation forests. He said his work involves studying Native methods of forest management and how tribes use forests in their cultural and spiritual practices.

He said state and local forest managers can learn a lot from indigenous techniques of forest management, including controlled burns.

“The historical burning of the redwood forest and the opening of prairies added biodiversity and promoted a lot of the resources the tribe depends upon,” he said.

The Yurok Tribe's main administrative building in Klamath, California. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Maria DiGiano, a scientist with the Earth Innovation Institute, a San Francisco-based research policy organization, said the state of California has considered expanding its cap-and-trade program to include tropical forests, such as those in Latin America.

“California understands very well that the future of our climate is linked to the future of tropical forests and the future of the livelihoods of you people gathered here, the guardians of the forest,” she told the 30 indigenous leaders.

Lake said global warming already has begun to affect the Yurok Experimental Forest, which has seen its average temperature increase by a few degrees Celsius over the past 100 years. The increase in temperature has affected fog patterns along the coast.

With very little rain in the summers, the fog that descends on the forests are the main source of moisture for the trees and plants, Lake said. Without them, tree species will begin going extinct, including the redwood, he said.

The increasing temperature and loss of fog also will leave trees more vulnerable to insects and lead to more frequent forest fires.

“The fires can move and burn this area that hasn’t had much fire for over 100 years,” Lake said.

About a half mile down the trail, Hayden stands on a bridge overlooking a dry creek inside the Yurok Experimental Forest. The 30 indigenous leaders visiting the Yurok Tribe congregate around him.

He points to a large redwood tree that has fallen into the creek bed. When a redwood falls, it changes the immediate ecosystem around it, leading to an outburst of growth of other plants that failed to thrive in the tree’s shadow, he said.

“You can see how that’s opened up the canopy and let sunlight in,” he said. “It overturns the soil and that wood will actually contribute to the nutrients in the forest floor. Very importantly, it provides wood into our creeks and is important for fish habitat, for salmon.”

There was a time when logging companies would seek to remove fallen trees from creeks, he said. The Yurok people have now begun adding wood back to the creeks, in order to add habitat complexity for fish, Hayden said.

“In the winter months, when the flows are high, the pools will scour out around that wood,” he said.

Sergio Guzman, an indigenous rights advocate from Guatemala, speaks to a gathering of 30 indigenous leaders on the tribe's northern California reservation in early September 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The next day, the indigenous leaders visited the Yurok Country Visitor Center, a cultural center and gift shop in nearby Klamath, where many of them bought gifts for the loved ones and learned about the tribe’s history and culture.

Just outside the visitor center, the indigenous leaders sat on concrete benches and listened Frankie Myers, the Yurok tribal heritage preservation officer.

Myers told them about the tribe’s history with fire. Controlled burning is a cultural practice handed down from one generation of Yurok to the next, he said.

And he shared a story about how fire was introduced to the Yurok people.

When spirit people created the world, the prairie and the forest fought for control of the land, he said. To stop the forests from engulfing the prairies, the spirit people surrounded them with conifers to protect them, but they began to fear even that wouldn’t stop the forests.

“To keep the balance, the (spirit people) gave us the use of fire to burn back the prairies and to burn back the conifers,” Myers said. “It wasn’t until the turn of the century when settlers first came here and saw fires as a bad thing that we stopped burning.”

In recent years, state and federal officials have even gone far as to call the Yurok arsonists for attempting to manage their forests through fire, he said.

But recent devastating wildfires in California, including the Carr Fire just southeast of the Yurok Reservation this summer that claimed eight lives and 1,000 homes, have caused state officials to reconsider controlled burns as a fire management tool, Myers said.

The Yurok have even started allowing fires caused by nature, such as those caused by lightning strikes, to burn in a controlled manner, he said.

“When they took away that tool from us, the fire management tool from us, the world started to become out of balance and the conifers started encroaching on the prairies once again,” he said.

“We’ve just now recently started to get back to those traditional management tools because we’re able to now regain ownership of the land.”

Looking ahead, the Yurok have big plans to continue to buy back their ancestral lands and build their economy so they become more self-sufficient, said Gensaw, the tribe’s vice chairman.

The tribe plans to expand its casino, possibly adding a tent, and plans to remodel its hotel to include a larger conference room and additional guest rooms, he said.

The tribe has members throughout the country and would like to do more to help them as well, he said. And the tribe would like to be able to better support its students who attend college, Gensaw said.

He said he is a product of the tribe’s educational support programs.

When he was 37, Gensaw fished the Klamath and logged the surrounding forests to earn money. He had dropped out of high school and couldn’t read or write.

When a severe injury forced him to give up his primary sources of income, Gensaw decided to learn to read and write. A tribal literacy program helped him do that, and even helped earn his GED and later an associate’s degree.

Then, 17 years after suffering his injury, Gensaw earned a bachelor’s degree from Humboldt State.

“I could have quit a thousand times,” he said. “When you stick with something and it’s hard and you finish, it’s good.”

The tribe currently has nearly 200 members attending college and provides each of those members $500 per semester.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s something,” Gensaw said. “We really wish we could help our students out more.”

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