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A Tribe Reclaims a Home and an Identity

Almost destroyed by California's campaign against indigenous cultures, the Karuks are reviving rituals, recovering sacred land and creating jobs.


SOMES BAR, Calif. — Not far from the place they call the center of the world, nine Karuk men in deerskin skirts and feathered woodpecker-scalp headdresses perform the sacred Jump Dance, reviving a ritual lost for nearly a century.

Waving ornamental baskets in the air, they stomp their feet and chant in unison on a hill above the Klamath River, the spot where their ancestors staged the religious ceremony for thousands of years.

"This is a war dance against evil," a medicine man solemnly tells 50 tribe members who stand barefoot, watching in silence. "How to live is within this dance."

For the Karuks, who once were numerous enough to populate a 40-mile stretch of the Klamath near the Oregon border, the resurrection of the Jump Dance symbolizes their renewal as a people.

Up until the late 1970s, the Karuks had little land and few resources. Scattered throughout Northern California and Southern Oregon, their language and customs were on the verge of disappearing.

Sparked by a tribal reorganization in 1990, the Karuks have embarked on a wide-ranging effort to rebuild their tribe, bringing back ancient customs, reviving their language and establishing enterprises that create jobs for their people.

They also have begun to reacquire ancestral lands lost long ago--including one sacred parcel that authorities recently seized from an alleged marijuana grower.

Karuk tribal planner Crow Munk puts it simply: "This is the rebirth of a nation."

The Karuks have made more progress than most of the states' tribes, but in many ways their struggle for survival typifies the story of California's indigenous people. Throughout the state, Native Americans are returning to their ancestral lands to rebuild their tribes and reestablish their languages, religions and traditions.

"Tribes are experiencing a cultural reawakening," said Mike Smith, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in California. "They are into a renaissance, going back and using the elders to revive languages and cultural activities."

Casinos on Native American land--which became legal in 1988--have helped fund the cultural revival. Twenty-nine of the state's 100 officially recognized tribes run them and are able to finance tribal activities with the proceeds. A few tribes are doing so well they even have been able to assist the larger community. One tribe donated $100,000 to the struggling Sacramento Symphony this year.

But the Karuks, located in the Klamath Mountains far from any major population center, have rejected the idea of a casino. Instead, they rely on economic development programs that include constructing houses for tribe members, operating health centers, opening a building supply store and fashioning furniture from hardwoods gathered in the forests.

"We talked about a casino, but we don't like a vast money scheme," said Karuk tribal chairman Alvis Johnson, a former Bay Area ironworker and welder. "We need more viable businesses."

Johnson, an unassuming 57-year-old, said he returned to his homeland a decade ago with no specific purpose. He ended up running for chairman at the urging of friends.

Under his leadership, the Karuk government began hiring outsiders with management expertise as well as local tribal members, expanding from a staff of three to about 80 employees.

"We have hired some outstanding people to help make it work," Johnson said. "A lot of tribal members who have been out in the world are coming back . . . it's moving almost too fast."

Like other tribes, one of the Karuks' first struggles was to gain federal recognition--and the government funding that comes with it. The tribe succeeded in 1979. Because of its strong leadership, it was officially designated as self-governing in 1994. One of four tribes in the state with that status, the Karuks can spend the annual lump sum of more than $6 million they receive from the United States largely as they see fit.

The tribe estimates that there are 5,000 people of Karuk ancestry, nearly 3,000 of them officially enrolled in the tribe. Only a dozen fluent speakers of the Karuk language remain, most of them older. The tribe has started language classes for young people, including a language-immersion Head Start program.

The Karuks also have begun working with the National Forest Service to help manage public forests using traditional Native American methods--such as prescribed burns--practiced by their ancestors for thousands of years.

"The scientists are finding out what the Indians knew for many years," said Sonia Tamez, the Forest Service's tribal relations program manager.


California, despite its image as a progressive state, has one of the worst records of mistreatment of Native Americans, historians say.

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