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Tribe Sees Its Culture Drying Up

The Hoopa are fighting to keep water -- diverted for agricultural use -- in the Trinity River to save the fish and their way of life.

June 09, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

HOOPA, Calif. — They've clung stubbornly to this valley for 10,000 years. When the white man came, the Hoopa tribe endured waves of fortune seekers and government agents. As it always had, the band survived on its members' wits and on the bounty of the Trinity River.

Now the tribe believes it is in the battle of its life, trying to save the river itself.

Before dams and water diversions, the Trinity River roared through this remote reservation in a frothy torrent, noisy as a parade of locomotives.

The cold tributary to the Klamath River brought salmon and steelhead trout runs so thick that elders boasted you could cross the river on the backs of fish. Heavy flows scoured the riverbanks, exposing wiry tree roots that members of the tribe wove into intricate baskets.

The U.S. government, intent on tapping the West's major rivers, tunneled through a mountain range 40 years ago to drain the Trinity for the benefit of Central Valley farms. In some years, as much as 90% of its water headed south.

As the river sank, fish runs dwindled. The Hoopa worried that their way of life might finally disappear.

"It cuts part of you away, from the heart," said Margaret Dickson, a Hoopa councilwoman.

The tribe has battled ever since to save the Trinity. Success finally seemed at hand 2 1/2 years ago, with a federal promise to increase flows to about half the historic volume. The Hoopa figured that would be just enough to stop the strangulation of the river.

But farmers who depend on the Trinity's waters shackled that deal with a lawsuit. And, as so often happens now in the West, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals probably will decide the Trinity River's destiny later this year.

Dan O'Hanlon, attorney for the Hoopa's prime opponent, Westlands Water District, admits a grudging respect for the tribe.

"They are tenacious," O'Hanlon said. "And they are definitely keeping score by how much water is returned. They feel they've been ripped off for 40 years. Now they want their water back."

The Trinity divides the Hoopa Valley tribe's 12-by-12-mile reservation, its boundaries a perfect square amid the undulation of California's North Coast. An hour's drive east of Eureka, the valley is a mix of natural beauty and subdued poverty.

Though many California tribes these days hit it big with casino gambling, the Hoopa are too isolated to cash in.

They operate a tiny gambling hall, the Lucky Bear Casino, right next to the reservation's only grocery store. It provides only a few jobs in a valley with a 40% unemployment rate. The big action comes the day welfare checks arrive. Outsiders rarely venture in to yank the slots.

The Hoopa like that just fine. They prefer the old traditions anyway. The closest thing to industry is the tribal timber firm, which boasts of its eco-friendly, sustainable logging.

Above all else, it is the river that sets the mood on the reservation.

When the Trinity runs strongly, tribal leaders say, the valley's inhabitants seem buoyed. "It's a very important part of who we are," said Norma McAdams, a counselor on the reservation.

Salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey fed the generations. Every extended family in the 2,200-member tribe has a few designated fishermen, who stretch nets into the river at night and haul them in by morning.

Time was, crowds of salmon migrating upstream made the Trinity look as if it were running backward, said Lee McCardie, 89. Now, they say, it takes a week to snag what a man once caught in a day. Chinook salmon, a mainstay on the tribal dinner table, have declined by 80%.

A big cause, biologists say, is the river's reshaping in the 20th century. With dams standing in the way, spring flows from the frigid snowmelt of the jagged Trinity Alps to the east no longer pack the punch to scour the river clean of smothering silt. Long sections have grown narrow and deep, cut off from the gravelly backwaters that once acted as a nursery for fish.

Even so, clans hold tightly to their family fishing holes. But few are productive anymore. Carlson Kane, 66, remembers the glory days at his family's pocket beside Marshall Rock. It has slumped with the years, filling with mud and becoming useless.

"To lose a fishing hole," Kane lamented, "is to lose something valuable to the valley."

The Hoopa diet is a casualty as well. The tribe's diabetes rate is seven times the national average, Hoopa leaders say. Many blame that on a shift to the white man's starches as the fish declined. "Our staples used to be acorns and salmon; now it's potatoes," McCardie said. "So many people are dying young of heart attacks and strokes."

Though the tribe talks of suffering, the Trinity's water has helped irrigate the agricultural bonanza of the Central Valley.

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