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Yurok Tribe’s Connection to Klamath River Weakens as Ecosystem Declines

Indigenous Peoples’ Week provided an opportunity for the community to not only recognize native culture but learn about it

Last Thursday Yurok Tribe member Keith Parker, a Humboldt State alumnus and fisheries and molecular biologist, gave a presentation on campus about the Klamath River, his work on Lamprey eels and the local ecosystem.

As a tribal scientist, Parker gets to use his traditional knowledge from his Yurok heritage combined with his master’s degree from HSU to conduct field and lab work. The Klamath River is significant to the Yurok Tribe, as Yurok translates to “downriver people.”

“I have a spiritual and innate connection to the land,” Parker said. “It’s not just a study subject for me, it’s not just empirical data. I have skin in the game, literally.”

“I have a cultural connection. I live off that river, my kids eat off that river, we eat the salmon, the sturgeon, the lamprey, the elk, the deer and we harvest the roots.”

Keith Parker

Parker feels that his upbringing along with his academics makes him a better and more effective scientist. It is more than just conducting research for him, as he continues to learn and then teach others about a topic he feels passion for.

“I have a cultural connection,” Parker said. “I live off that river, my kids eat off that river, we eat the salmon, the sturgeon, the lamprey, the elk, the deer and we harvest the roots.”

The river has a rich history in native lore, being home to other tribes including the Karok and Modoc long before the earliest settlers came west. But in more recent years, the river has taken a decline in health.

Some of the causes can be attributed to the damming of the river, preventing the water from flowing properly and allowing harmful algae to grow. Specifically cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services send out broadcast warnings, cautioning people to avoid swimming in areas that contain the algae.

In July 2018, the Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services issued a news release stating, “The presence of cyanobacteria has been previously confirmed in some water bodies within Humboldt, Mendocino and Lake counties including the South Fork Eel River, Van Duzen River, Trinity River, Clear Lake and Lake Pillsbury. It is difficult to test and monitor the many lakes and miles of our local rivers. Most blooms in California contain harmless green algae, but it is important to stay safe and avoid contact.” “It isn’t just a loss of biodiversity when you see a river system like that slowly dying, it’s a loss of cultural heritage as well.”

Another effect of the damming is that the salmon find it much harder to swim to and from the ocean, which slowly harms the surrounding wildlife.

“It isn’t just a loss of biodiversity when you see a river system like that slowly dying, it’s a loss of cultural heritage as well.”

Keith Parker

“Those fish leave as juveniles and they go out to the ocean and they come back later on in life much larger in size,” Parker said. “They then spawn and die, all those marine-derived nutrients that are in their flesh are absorbed into those forests.”

Yurok culture is linked to the river in many ways, including using it for transportation and trade. The Yurok tribe would trade items downstream, from the ocean, as they looked to collect larger deer and elk from deeper in the mountains.

“A lot of our people, even now, they’re breaking out in rashes from putting their hands in the water and taking the fish out,” Parker said. “The females of the tribe often weave baskets from roots they harvest from the water’s edge as well, and part of the method is sucking on the roots to soften them up so they can weave baskets and more. They are being affected as well.”

The Lamprey eels used to thrive, and were something that the natives could smoke and preserve as their food throughout the winter. They used handmade eel hooks, which the men make by hand and include carvings that are personal to each individual.

“When the women harvest those roots from this nasty river edge, when they’re making them they keep them in their mouth and they soften them up with their saliva while they’re making their basket, and they’re getting poisoned,” Parker said. “It isn’t just a loss of biodiversity when you see a river system like that slowly dying, it’s a loss of cultural heritage as well.”

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