SOMES BAR, Calif. — Karuk Indians insist that the spirits of their ancestors are forcing the U.S. Forest Service to abandon the tribe's most sacred of religious sites--Kota-Mein, "the center of the world." Forestry officials put the blame on a landslide.
Twenty years ago the Forest Service spent $1.5 million building the Klamath National Forest district headquarters on the historic Kota-Mein Indian burial and ceremonial grounds, despite warnings from Karuk medicine men.
Ever since, the Forest Service structures in this Siskiyou County hamlet 60 miles south of the Oregon border have been gradually pulling apart and moving off foundations. Floors, walls and ceilings have crumbled and cracked. Electric wires and pipes have snapped.
"Beginning next month, we are moving to a new location eight miles south of here at Orleans. It is no longer safe to stay here. This place is on a landslide that is continuously in motion," said George Frey, 38, acting district ranger. "The land will be returned to its pristine state and given back to the Karuks for ceremonial purposes."
What the Karuks call "the center of the world" is the five-acre Forest Service parcel and the adjacent 500-foot-high natural pyramid at the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon rivers. It is a mysterious, magical setting deep in the woods amid a never-ending cacophony of rushing turbulent water spilling over Ishi Pishi Falls.
"For 10,000 years and more our people have lived along the Klamath River in this peaceful, isolated place," said Paul Gary Beck, 37, tribal chairman of the Karuks. "We believe the world began at Kota-Mein, that Kota-Mein is the cradle of civilization and the Karuks were the first people on Earth.
"That is why we have been telling the Forest Service it must leave Kota-Mein. Thousands of our ancestors buried at Kota-Mein over the centuries have been telling the Forest Service in their own way to get the hell out of there. Why do you think that ground has never been still?"
Kota-Mein is but one aspect of an ongoing confrontation between the Karuks and the U.S. Forest Service.
Historically, the Karuks lived on 117 sites in the precipitous Klamath River canyon between Seiad Valley in the north and Bluff Creek in the south. The village sites are on what is now U.S. Forest Service land.
Three years ago, the Karuk tribal council told its members that it was time they moved back to the historic village sites along the river. "Our plan is to place at least two families at each site to serve as caretakers," Beck said. "Who is better equipped to preserve and protect these historic places than descendants of the people who originally lived there?"
So far, seven families have moved back to the village sites, all on U.S. Forest Service land. The Forest Service considers the Indians squatters on federal property.
Warren Conrad, 44, former president of the American Indian Center in San Francisco, and his wife and family have been living in a trailer on one of the sites for three years.
"I was born on this piece of land, as were my ancestors going back 150 years; that I am able to document by court records," insisted Conrad, who says he is five-eighths Karuk. "When I was 6, the government came and took my two brothers, two sisters and me to the Indian school at Chemawa, Ore. My father died when I was away at school. My mother had to leave this land to work in Yreka, but she never gave up the land, nor did my sisters or brothers."
The government claims that Conrad does not have title to the land. Two years ago he was cited for trespassing. A hearing on the matter is still pending in U.S. District Court. In a countersuit, Conrad charges the Forest Service with depriving him of his rightful property.
But Forest Service official Frey contends: "The Karuks want the river back. They would like to see the Forest Service pull out and give huge chunks of the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forest to them for the establishment of a large reservation on their prehistoric lands."
George Harper, U.S. Forest Service Happy Camp Tours district ranger the last eight years, adds: "There is no legal mechanism for us to negotiate, to even consider passing title or administrative control of those lands over to another entity. For the tribe or individuals from the tribe to gain title or control over the 117 historic village sites would require an act of Congress. It is out of our hands."
Hudson Bay Co. trappers were the first to encounter the Karuk Indians when they penetrated this area in the 1820s. Gold miners came through in the 1850s. Nearly all the Karuks' traditional tribal land was set aside as the Klamath and Six River National Forest by presidential proclamation in 1905. The Karuks remained isolated until a road finally was pushed through the river canyon in the 1920s.