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'We're all Gonna Die Right Here': Talking About the Klamath Salmon Wars


Susan Masten, Raymond Mattz, and Diane Bowers are members of the Yurok Tribe who experienced first-hand the government crackdown on tribal salmon fishing rights now known as either the "Fish Wars" or the "Salmon Wars." KCET spoke with Masten, Mattz, and Bowers in Yurok country along the Klamath River.

How important is salmon to the Yurok?

Susan Masten: Salmon is as essential to the Yurok people as the air they breathe. Fishing is who we are. We're a fishing people, so the health of that river and its resources is the health of our people, and so if the river's sick, the people are going to be sick because our ceremonies, everything, our spirituality, our strength and health, is all connected to the river. We're all one.

Our heart and our soul is here, who we are as a people, spiritually, is connected here. We're from here, we haven't left here, we'll be here tomorrow. The river is a place that's sacred to us because it was given to us by the creator to protect, preserve, and ensure that it stays healthy. The river is our highway, it's how we get from one place to another, and it’s where we get our sustenance. We've always depended on the fishery, ocean, and the resources where we live. So we're always going to be good stewards and always be advocating for the health of the place we live, and the place we depend on.

When did the government take away fishing rights for Native peoples?

Susan Masten: In the 1930s, the state of California started its jurisdiction on the river, and closed the river for Indian gill net fishing. But didn't prohibit my family, who believed that we have the inherent right to fish. My uncles kept fishing, but they fished at night, and they continued to fish. Eventually, they did get caught, and that resulted in the Supreme Court case that reaffirmed our rights in 1976.

Raymond Mattz: I started out when I was 12 years old, me and my brother. We were fishing and [Fish and Game wardens] were chasing us up and down the river. They were chasing us every night. We'd go upriver and fish, then we'd come down, and just have them all confused. My brother said, "I'm tired of this." And I said, "I am too."

"They pull out their billy clubs. So you're thinking in your head, 'I'm gonna die. We're all gonna die right here and nobody will ever know the truth about the story.'"

The game wardens came that day and picked our nets up.  So we sat there and they asked, "Well whose nets [are] they?" Everybody looked around, nobody wanted to claim them. I said, "Well, I ain't going to let my net go...I claim all five of them."

Susan Masten: We had our case go to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, and the [1976] decision reaffirmed our rights.

What was it like in the weeks before the fish wars in 1978?

Susan Masten: The theme of the day here was "Can an Indian and save a salmon." So there was a lot of animosity because there were a lot of fishermen here on the river. When we started to fish with nets, they were very unhappy because they claimed ownership to the river at that point. There was a decline in the fish, so everyone wanted to blame the Indian fishery. There was rumors about hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish leaving the reservation. Which weren't true. And, because [Raymond] was the one that took that court case, he was a target. They would stop him all the time. 

They came in the middle of the night and they woke up him and his family. Got them all out of bed with their guns because they wanted to find fish at his house. Just the things that [they] had to go through because he stood up for our fishing rights. It's not okay.

Raymond Mattz: It was bad, because my kids weren’t even teenagers when this all started. They’re still bitter about the cops and stuff, and I can't blame them, but it's over with. It was crazy how they treated us.

Diane Bowers | Photo: KCET

Diane Bowers:  During 1978 and '79, something happened every day. It was constant. We were afraid to ride in our cars alone. Whenever we planned a trip to the store more than one person had to go. We were just scared all of the time. There was an elderly gentleman who had a birthday, [and] we took some time off from protesting and we had salmon on the sticks down there. He'd brought his drum. There was probably an even seven children, seven women, and seven men. He was singing; he had a beautiful singing voice. Right in the middle of the singing, this big flash came up the top of the hill. We knew something was going to happen. It was immediate. Everyone [thought], "Oh my God, what's going to happen now?"

[The agents] pulled out their billy clubs. So you're thinking in your head "I'm gonna die. We're all gonna die right here and nobody will ever know the truth about the story." They came to shore and we were surrounded. The elderly gentleman started drumming and he started singing. We all sang. We didn't know the song but we all knew it all of a sudden. The children sang, everyone sang the song. They sang and they got louder and louder. They said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

There was a fear of our spirituality, so they left. What happened when they left was that the people had wet their pants, people had thrown up. We were left frightened. Yes, they left us but when we walked from that beach, they took from us something that we never got back.

They took away something that I always say that before the salmon wars, the Yurok tribe, the Yurok people used to be this community. Although we were the poorest tribe in the United States, you would've never known it. We had the salmon, we had the crab, we had the eel, we had all of the fish and the seaweed and everything. We had each other. After the salmon wars, that wasn't there anymore. How do you get that back? I don't know. They took that from us. They took something from me that I can never have back.

What role did women play in the fish wars?

Susan Masten: Women have always played a prominent role with the Yurok tribe and people. In fact, the Yuroks, when they were in war, sent their women first and I think it was intimidation more than anything else to cause shame on the pride of the tribe that was coming to them. But you will see in the organization of the tribe and activities that women play prominent roles.

You'll find that even during the "Fish Wars," our women were there, on the forefront, every day, every night, along with our men. They always felt like if they were there and there were witnesses then they'd be less likely that my uncle would get killed.

A lot of the agents, were very disrespectful. And even my uncle's wife at the time, they would pull the women across the sandbar by their hair when they would be arresting them. There was a very intense times down there that were not good.

"You'll find that even during the 'Fish Wars' our women were there, on the forefront, every day, every night, along with our men."

In the middle of all of that, My grandmother went out in the boat with [my mother] and it was an intense time. And the Feds were down there and my mom didn't want to let go of the net and she was begging her to let go of the net because she was fearful that they were going to pull her out into the water because they were pulling on the net also.

When you're on a little boat and you're hanging onto a net, it's pretty dangerous down there. And so she stood up and she began to sing a prayer song in Yurok. At the time, she was a little woman but she was big in stature. She was holding her arms up singing and all the birds in the area came and began to circle around up above. And the agents became fearful and said "Let's get the hell out of here." And they left immediately.

It was a very powerful moment that here's this little woman who is so small in stature but so big in her medicine and power that she caused for those birds to come to be there around her and caused for all those agents in full riot gear to be fearful and leave.

Diane Bowers: We were down on the beach and we had a pretend net in. It had buoys and a line, but it had no webbing on it. Here came the US Fishing Wildlife law enforcement officers. They rushed onto the beach and they threw nets over the top of us and maced us. Your body is stinging, your face is stinging, everything's stinging. You're trying to get out, but because you're stinging you can't get out of the net.

This guy comes by and he kicks me right in the leg. I was offended. It was like, "What?". Not that I'm maced, not that I'm under this net but that he kicked me. I immediately got out and here is this big guy in full riot gear. I got up on my tippy toes and I just grabbed him and pulled him down to me. I said, "You listen to me. You ever do something like that to me again and I'll kill you." I meant that.

Coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 12 1978 

How did the fish wars end?

Susan Masten: I brought up a news crew and we did some interviews, and then I came home, and that was at the end, when salmon season was over, and pretty much the agents were leaving and our fishermen were extremely agitated and fearful of the federal government and the state government and not trusting anything that they had to say or do.

What were the sentiments after the fish wars?

Diane Bowers: I didn't think something like the salmon wars could happen and nobody ever hear about it. It didn't seem right, it didn't seem fair. So I felt like the story still didn't get told. Why can't the truth be told? Why can't what happened there be told? What's wrong with that? That's across Indian country. That's part of our past. When we talk about genocide, everybody knows it, so why can't it be a part of history? Do you know what I mean?

As far as healing, how can you heal Indian country? You tell the truth. Maybe that's our responsibility. For so long we've wanted it to be someone else's responsibility. Maybe it's our responsibility to finally tell the truth across Indian country.

Maybe those people are long gone. The story still has to be told. This is what happened. Then we say, "It didn't just happen, it's still happening." 1978 and 1979 for us, but look at other tribes who are still struggling. Look at us struggling over our river. That's today. That's not your ancestors. This is today what's going on here.

Can you talk about the fish kill in 2002?

Susan Masten: You can't separate our subsistence and our ceremonial needs from salmon because they're one.

I was [Yurok vice-chairperson] at the time, and I had met with the commissioner to talk about the concerns about the water conditions and that there would be a fish kill, and then there was a fish kill.

When we had the fish kill, we immediately closed our fishery because that was a sign there was a terrible imbalance in the world. So we didn't fish, but everyone else still fished. There were thousands of dead salmon, twelve to fifteen pound salmon laying on the banks of the river, four to five deep and hundreds floating down the river and they were still fishing. Well, to us that was just disrespectful because there was something seriously wrong with that balance. That's why all those fish were killed.

Scenes like this were common along the lower Klamath in September 2002. | Screen capture: courtesy Earthjustice

When I went on that river, it hurt. It actually hurts your very soul, your very being to see all of them dead. So senseless over a decision of a government to provide water to the farmers and not to [the salmon in the river] when the water flows were so low and the temperature so high. We knew and we warned them, I warned them personally that there was going to be a fish kill because the conditions were so hot that. So the tribe presented data and science to say, "You have got to provide what water is there to the resource to protect the fishery." And they chose not to. As a result, we have seventy to eighty thousand dead Chinook salmon.

We have a lot of threatened species on the Klamath now and we have already lost species in the Klamath. The government doesn't do what they're obligated to do, and what they promised to do, so you'll hear a lot of anger and frustration from us because they should doing that on behalf of the tribes, as well as the resource itself, and they're not. To me, that's unacceptable.

Sounds like it’s a constant fight for your resources.

Susan Masten: It doesn't matter how little or how much you have, there's always someone looking to take it away. The Yurok people are always the first to come to the table and the last to leave the table because we can't afford not to be there to protect our resource because it's our responsibility that we ensure that the resources we have are better than how we received them for tomorrow's generations.

And so, it's extremely important to us that we uphold that agreement we have with our creator because he gave us that responsibility and we take it very seriously. So we manage properly. We've been wonderful stewards of the resources since the beginning of time.

"How can you heal Indian country? You tell the truth."

[After the fish wars] we began to talk about needing to combat the rumors of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish that the tribal people we taking because they wanted to blame the Indian fishing for the depletion of the salmon. So there were a lot of angry people who were approaching our senators and our congressman to do anti Indian legislation.

The fishermen began to meet, and we talked about the importance of us being able to provide the number of fish that we were counting to the biologists so that we could determine run sizes, but also to dispel the rumors about the numbers of fish that we were actually catching. We met with anyone and everyone that we could so that they could be aware of what was actually happening in the Indian fishery.

That was a long process and not an easy process because our tribe wasn't organized at the time. What made it so challenging was because of our fishermen had post war syndrome, every time we would talk about what happened during the fish wars, they would become very agitated, very sad. They were violated, and many of them would cry, including the men when they would think of the incidents, and just the mention of it. Overcoming those kinds of fears and emotions to move forward wasn't an easy task, and we had a lot of meetings, and we had to go through the biology and educate our tribal members on the formula that's used for the management.

What is your relationship with non-Native fisherman today? What do you hope for the future of the Klamath River?

Susan Masten: Through the years of us working to protect the fish and to ensure that there are adequate flows in the river we have begun to create alliances and strong partnerships with the farmers upriver, fisherman in the ocean, commercial fisherman and sport fisherman in the river because all of our lives depend on the river. So we're all partners in advocating for additional water and for quality of water. For a lot of people's livelihoods along the river and along the coast. So we do partner when it comes to lawsuits against the government to protect the river. And we do call on each other for advocating for the health of the river.

There's a renewal of commitment from the government for the dam removal, but we've yet to see that, and there's a promise of it. If it happens, that will be a wonderful thing for the fish, for us, but government hasn't established a good reputation around living up to its promises. I'd like to see it, but I quite frankly don't know that it will happen in my lifetime.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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