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.


Thea and Heather

This incident happened about a week ago in Umpqua State Park/North Bend, Oregon. I typed most of it up then ob my phone, but never published it. Too great not to share.

I’m sitting on a cozy couch wrapped in a fluffy blanket drinking cider watching Star Trek on a big plasma TV flanked by four cats. Every clause of that sentence is unnatural for a bike tourist on a budget.

But it started as I set up my make-shift desk in the campground showers this morning. A thunderstorm brewed overhead, so I secured my things as well as possible and sought out some form of decent shelter. The bathroom seemed like the best place- I charged my phone until the lightning started showing up and then hunkered down in the shower area, prepared to spend the next few hours writing and drawing an still being a little nervous about being slightly exposed to the storm. I made a cushion of a spare dry towel left in the bathroom and laid out my maps and journal on the bench. Not too shabby of a spot considering the circumstances, I thought. I had a roof over my head! Still not ideal…

I had barely written three sentences when Thea, a local park ranger on duty, wandered in to change some bathroom light bulbs. Perhaps she pitied my setup and circumstances, but she offered me a ride to the ranger office to charge my phone and wait out the rain. No way I was turning that offer down! While my towel cushion was great, shower heads and toilets aren’t great company for a full day’s wait.

Interestingly, all four ranger employees in the office were women- and one my sister’s age! Anyway, the storm got unusually rough. I left my breakfast mug outside to see how much rain fell, and it was overflowing by the time the rain started to let up and I got around to checking it. The rangers were joking that this one day had more rain than the entire summer combined. At least I think they were joking… Regardless, it was certainly unusual to get anything like this storm before November!

I told the rangers I was headed south, and Thea offered me a ride to the next state campground, about 25 miles away. I’ve been pretty exhausted lately and worn out by the hills, so I welcomed the lift. I’ve been wanting to get to Bandon, OR to take a little rest, but I’d still have to pedal a hilly 50 to get there. She just cut that in half–and kept me from getting more behind on my desired schedule.

When the rain slowed, I walked to my tent site to evaluate. Cheap move on my part not to have a footprint for it! My important things were dry, but my tent was soaked through. I started considering a motel for the rainy night to come, but that thought ended quickly when Thea offered the place on her couch.

Man, is it cozy.

To add insult to injury (what’s the exact opposite of that phrase for extremely positive situations?), Thea has set me up with some delicious local bread and her roommate, Heather, is letting me have some of her sweet, sweet cider. Oh! And I shouldn’t forget to mention the socks–they each gave me a pair. Have you ever walked or biked around in wet, smelly socks? Not the most pleasant.

They go out to celebrate Heather’s 30th birthday, and I have the house to myself with the cats. The only time I leave the cushiony suction-cup of a cloud–I mean couch–is to take a deliriously wonderful shower.

Fast forward to the next morning–I’m getting ready to head out and Heather offers to drive me the ten extra miles to a viewpoint in the right direction. At this point, I’m still not prideful about getting all my biking miles in. There will be other times to do that. For now, I am resting my weary legs by car.

And to that note…
Man. The miles practically shoot past you when traveling by vehicle!

Trust and hospitality, my goodness!

The above incident happened at Umpua State Park. A Native American name, but where are the Native American people? It blows my mind how much land we have designated for national forest use in the US, but still how little of the land in the northwest has been given back to native Americans. According to Thea, there is some land reclamation going on, but it’s taken the feds a long time to get around to it.

In my bicycle travels, I have often encountered remnants of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but have seen few and have met no native Americans in these trails. What’s the deal?

Just over 200 years ago Americans and Europeans didn’t even understand anything about this area, It was the wild, foreign, Oregon Territory… Almost completely unmapped. One of the goals for the Lewis and Clark expedition was to map it, as assigned by Thomas Jefferson. Another goal was to find a water route for trade with Asia (nothing direct came out of it–there’s 600 or so miles of land they had to cross to get to the Columbia river). So much ‘unchartered’ land, so many Native American tribes to befriend and then battle/massacre.


If you fly over Oregon in a plane…

Oregon has a big history of logging and fishing. Both have significantly died down in the past years, though, in large part from over-consumption and in part due to the regulations put in place as a response to over-consumption.

Two locals I spoke with recently offered very different views about the logging industry in Oregon. They both started their arguments for or against logging with the same phrase: “if you fly over Oregon in a plane…” Then they diverge.



Bud, who has worked at paper mills his whole life:
“If you fly over Oregon in a plane, you’ll see there are plenty of trees.
Increased regulations have made it difficult for the logging industry to survive.”
Thea, who used to worked in botany with the Forest Service:
“If you fly over Oregon in a plane, you’ll see there’s a lot of destruction.
You’ll see that there’s 12% left of the forests that used to be.”
It goes to show how two people can look at the same thing and come away with entirely different ideas and impressions.

Another Instance of Overwhelming Hospitality

I was just given a loaf of bread (they offered two), unlimited bagel chips, unlimited bagels, and a 24 oz. tub of granola by the local bakers. They also offered me a place to stay the night while I’m in town. This all happened after the logger who supplies their wood paid for my lunch at the local natural market.

I am overwhelmed by hospitality. Literally need to sit down and take a step back.


Ironic that this happened a few hours after I finished a blog post with I NEED MORE CARBS.

A Challenge of Video Editing and Writing On-the-Go

So I have a few goals of this long-distance bike ride.

  1. Get from Spokane, Washington to San Francisco, California
  2. Write, shoot, edit stories in photo/video/written form about social possibilities for the bicycle
  3. Enjoy the scenery, small towns, and state parks as inexpensively as possible

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to balance the three of these. Goal #1 in itself is extremely physically exhausting, especially because I’m carrying a full multi-media production set-up to achieve Goal #2. All three goals are extremely time consuming, but I’m trying to balance that with getting a decent amount of miles in each day.

At least my tripod can double as a walking stick on side-trip hikes!

At least my tripod can double as a walking stick on side-trip hikes!

I’ve ridden almost 400 miles this trip so far, and I’m seriously considering lightening up my load by shipping my laptop and some other ‘extra’ weight ahead of me. I’ll keep the DSLR, tripod, and portable hard drive and continue on intake with less emphasis on output.

The thing about story production–the output–is that I have to remove myself from all social surroundings for an extended period of time in order to write, research, and/or edit media. Which, first of all, is ironic since story-telling is about people, events, and surroundings.

Removing myself from my surroundings is also contradictory to the whole on-the-go, take in everything I can mentality. I’m seeing small towns I would most likely never otherwise stop in, but I still feel like I’m shooting by them and can barely get a grasp of what’s going on in each place. And there are so many, the towns are on the verge of blurring together. At the same time, I want to get to San Francisco and get my ball rolling there. I’d REALLY like to be to check out Tour de Fat on September 21, which would limit my extra days in each place.

So, inevitably, much is missed.. and that’s before I take the time to be removed from constantly new surroundings so that I can produce a story… So laptop, farewell, I’ll transfer footage from camera to hard drive in libraries along the way. All I need for that is two USB ports. Personal blog updates to come from phone or library computers.