Tribes and Tribulations

Lessons and Conversations from encounters with Yurok tribal councilmen in Klamath, California

I haven’t spent time on a reservation. I don’t know any Native Americans personally. I have, however, spent the past several months either based in Spokane, Washington/Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (Spokane named after the Spokane tribe, but where are the present-day Spokane Indians? The Coeur d’Alene—with their prescribed French name that stuck–still have something going, although I’ve never been to their reservation. All I really know is that they upkeep of part of a bike path I really like to ride on. Growing up in Florida, I paid little attention to Seminole indian heritage. My point is that I am ignorant and have been most of my life.

Through many parts of Montana, Washington, and Oregon, my bike ride has repeatedly overlapped with the Lewis and Clark trail. From Beaverhead Rock that signaled to Sacajawea that they were in here people’s lands (she was probably Shoshone), to Jackson Hot Springs where–according to a local interpretive sign–Clark cooked different cuts of meat in the natural hot water, to the extremely rural Nez Pierce museum commemorating a nasty massacre by the Americans (an all-too-familiar historical occurence).

Why do Native American Reservations have such sketchy reputations for traveling bicyclists to pass through? On three separate occasions in three separate parts of the western US, I spoke with riders relaying stories of “sketchy” vibes on reservations and their feelings of wanting to “get out of there as soon as possible.” The first was a woman who passed through Navajo territory in the Southwest while riding the Continental Divide, then a group of boy scouts speaking of their experience in Wyoming, and finally a German duo riding north on the California coast through Yurok territory.

I would hear talk of rape, of meth, of poverty, but nothing substantial or substantiated. As I spoke vaguely with more bicycle travelers about their uncomfortable feelings from reservations, I realized that I was developing negative stereotypes where previously I had a neutral (or an ignorant) opinion. As I neared Klamath and the Yurok reservation in the Northern California Redwoods, I found myself wanting to zip through as fast as possible, and only in broad daylight.

This was absolute bad news. I severely disliked the way I was approaching the situation, by living in fear entirely based on rumor and stereotype.

So when I pedaled past an office of the Yurok tribe, I pulled in with my question framed and ready to go, “I was just riding through and want to know more about the tribe… where can I get more information?” I wasn’t entirely sure how to get at what I wanted to know. What is this place really like and why are there negative stereotypes for travelers passing through? I didn’t get a full answer to either of these questions, but I did get to hear some about issues that concern the Yurok.

I spoke mainly with two middle-aged men—one Yurok councilman named Jack and another white guy from Crescent City employed by the Yurok’s environmental department. Below are some lessons and conversations that contribute to my slowly expanding consciousness of contemporary Native American life in the US.

Fun Fact #1: The California coast had the most linguistic variation before the arrival of the Europeans of anywhere in North America? (at least according to a map and interpretive sign in a touristy section of the Redwood State Park in Northern California.. fact should be cross-checked)

Fun Fact #2: The Yurok are the largest existing tribe in California with approximately 6,000 people.

Environmental Interconnectedness
The tribe is connected to the community in all sorts of ways–there’s a lot of overlap in education, employment, social interaction, and environmental consequences/repercussions (among other things). When speaking of environmental interconnectedness, the man heading up the Yurok’s version of the EPA shared the example of California’s marijuana farms up-river from the reservation that are diverting water from the rivers during growing season. With this act, they decrease access to water downstream in Yurok territory and also therefore negatively affect the salmon migration (salmon fishing being a big industry for the Yurok, and concerns of over-fishing due to commercialization of the practice are present).

“Transportation,” Jack told me, “affects everything.”

Back before the Yurok regained some of their land from the US Government, California built roads, mostly for logging purposes. Now the US government doesn’t build new roads through the territory and doesn’t upkeep the old ones. Because of poor road quality and network, it takes 45 minutes to drive to remote parts of the small reservation, something Jack didn’t seem too happy about. I asked Jack why they didn’t build more roads, and he went on about budget and fixing other road problems first. “Transportation,” Jack told me, “affects everything.”

Access to Electricity
Jack also told me a story about how some parts of the reservation only recently got electricity—not for lack of desire or due to inaccessibility, but due to discrimination of certain employees of the electric company. Apparently the situation was so drawn out with obvious discrimination against the tribe (in the form of added obstacles to getting electricity up and running) that the electric company employees lost their jobs.

Safety & Poverty
I didn’t get a chance to ask the tribal councilmember about poverty and the transient people that apparently hang around Klamath, but I did bring it up with the guy in the Environmental Department. His response was of the “poverty is everywhere, some places it’s just more pronounced” sort.

The Yurok tribe is currently building a casino. To be completed in the next year or two. It’s expected to bring in a lot of money, but I wonder—what kind of social effect do casinos have on reservations? To voice another potentially ignorant stereotype I have, does the population casinos attract contribute to the “sketchy” vibe that some travelers get when traveling through a reservation? I still wonder what is behind these uneasy feelings. As I’ve said, I have a lot yet to understand about the factors playing into poverty, benefits, social problems, and social perks on various Native American reservations.

P.S. An interesting side note I really like UVA’s historical podcast, Backstory, and was recently listening to a ‘rules of warfare’ show. Apparently the tribes in the northeast that encountered the British settlers had a version of warfare than European settlers. ‘We’ valued number of enemies killed; the tribes of the Northeast before European interaction valued scaring the enemy without inflicting death.

Killing was not the key to victory. Rather, there are accounts of battles where fighting paused if warriors were killed so that the respective tribe could collect the bodies of the deceased.

A common wartime practice would be sneak in to enemy territory at night to attack. European settlers picked that trick up from Native Americans, and it changed the ‘rules’ of warfare. The thing is, Europeans then carried their ‘traditional’ battlefield mentality into the nighttime raids, shooting at their victims—men, women, and children—as they ran away. This act initially appalled the natives, but then some also adopted more violent means of fighting against the Europeans.

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