Breath of Clarity

First Draft of Research Proposal- Native Knowledge: A Steward of the Klamath River


Considering newspaper columnist Doug Larson once said, “wisdom is the reward you get

for a lifetime of listening,” I imagine there is remarkable insight cultivated through multiple lifetimes of listening. In the memoir “The Color of Water,” James McBride clears his confusion about his identity by examining his past via interviewing his mother. Learning about one’s own heritage can reveal stories containing corridors not accessible any other way. The indigenous world view provides people with a rooted self-understanding, as the sense of community transcends the experience of a single lifetime, and the philosophy is transportable. Therefore, studying indigenous land management and applying its tenants to the Klamath river is important because the approach opens restorationists to a refreshing array of accessible knowledge.

The paper is a model for implementing indigenous principles into river restoration initiatives and shows how doing so is a strategy to sustain life of all beings in the area. Just as a musician specializes in a genre, native populations are experts about their habitats and build relationships to spaces through ceremony. The indigenous rendition of creation is not limited to historical explanations, but rather it contains imagery about the way we presently experience reality. Indigenous philosophy’s concept of mauri emphasizes that every material of the earth contains the same energy, a life-force evident in a river’s current. According to the perspective, since the same force is flowing through everything, there is separation between a river’s flow and the heartbeat within the self. As I listen to a river’s waves, they send me back home. My aim is to depict the indigenous people’s understanding of life-force and proceed to identify additional ways to enhance the river’s heath which is represented by the survival of salmon. Such a study is grounds for strengthening the tribal voice in Klamath river natural resource management and, perhaps, is going to add a story for peers to pass onto future generations. While the existent literature addresses indigenous people’s particular strength in listening to the color of water and seeing conservation from a non-western perspective, there is a gap in the content considering the principles have not yet been directly applied to the Klamath river.

My experience abroad in New Zealand sparked my fascination with the value traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) brings to natural resource management. The duration of time between when a wave first starts to build and then finally crashes was significantly expansive as I overlooked the Tasman Sea from stories above. I was awed by the Maori indigenous population as I learned about their deep reverence for natural landscape, water, and the force sustaining life. The Maori study information, passed down by ancestors, about their homeland and then channel ancient philosophy to support the environment. They revealed, before planting a seed for growth, it is important to understand the sub-climate. That being said, before diving into ecological restoration, it is crucial to develop a thorough understanding of the field. The optimal way of doing so is to utilize the breadth of insight ancestors already revealed. The result is effective collaboration in conducting efficient operations which nourish the planet’s health. I wonder to what extent traditional ecological knowledge supports salmon population in the Klamath River.

Literature Review

There is abundant study about indigenous people’s presence surrounding natural resource management problems. Centering the paper around a certain location aids in understanding the degree to which indigenous philosophy is practical. To paint a vision of the Klamath river, authors depict its range and illustrate anthropogenic activity causing the death of salmon. Existing literature proceeds to identify the Klamath’s ecological problems, illustrate indigenous philosophy’s fundamental tenants, discusses tribal involvement in various restoration projects, references co-management techniques and offers potential strategies for improvement. While the politics of the region factor into the ability for indigenous people to contribute to Klamath river restoration, the paper demonstrates how TEK can theoretically guide proper conservation, as well as suggests potential gateways for indigenous strategy to be applied in saving the salmon.

Ecological Context

The Klamath is a transboundary river. The basin covers approximately 40,632 square kilometers (KM) of south-central Oregon and northwestern California (Oliver et al 2016). It feeds numerous sinks, wetlands, and lakes (McCool 2018). It stretches from Upper Klamath Lake to the Pacific Ocean, as it flows 402 KM (Oliver et al 2016). The upper basin hosts the massive Klamath Bureau of Reclamation project, which provides water to about 210,000 acres of agricultural land. The river’s range of stakeholders is complex as it includes tribes, farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, two states, and multiple federal agencies (McCool 2018). The water body is also home to a collection of salmon species such as Coho and Chinook which are threatened by a range of human activity such as commercial fishing, logging, urban development, dredge mining, and dams (Collin 2019).

Human impoundments influence the spatial dynamics of its dissolved organic matter (DOM) which significantly alters river flow (Oliver et al 2016). Past studies have linked dissolved organic matter (DOM) compositional measurements to ecosystem function through processes such as microbial processing, photo-degradation, sorption, complexation, and mineralization (Oliver et al 2016).The salmon suffer consequence due to alteration of nutrient transport and processing (Oliver et al 2016). Furthermore, a 5-year monitoring program sampling the river’s water across 212 KM revealed the parasite Ceratomyxa shasta is a significant pathogen of Chinook salmon (Hallett et al 2012). Moreover, decreased flows have been associated with increased infection by the parasite (Hallett et al 2012). As a result of the outlined factors, the salmon experienced declines in population since the mid-20th century (Collin 2019). Since 1997, the coho salmon has been listed as a threatened species, with the Klamath River listed as one of their critical habitats since 1999 (O’Dea 2013). Therefore, DOM dynamics are not representative of conditions found within a free-flowing river and have led to salmon fatality.

Indigenous Connection to the River

The river’s degradation profoundly affects indigenous families. For the Karuk tribe, fish historically accounted for over half the total calories and protein consumed, continue to be a crucial food source and centrally factor into spiritual practices (Willette et al 2016). Considering research shows Karuk tribal members suffer health consequences from denied access to traditional foods, it is clear, “Karuk culture is inseparable from its ecological context” (Willette et al 2016). In Karuk Tribe of California v. U.S. Forest Service, the tribe alleged that the Forest Service failed to consult with the proper federal wildlife agencies per section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) before approving four Notices of Intent (NOIs) to allow mining (O’Dea 2013). Sharing stories and experiences, including collaboration between Native and non- Native community members, is also an important enactment of indigenous knowledge (Fox et al 2017). The majority of the Ninth Circuit hearing held that the Forest Service’s approval of the NOIs constituted “agency action” requiring consultation under section 7 of the ESA during which time the appropriate wildlife agencies determine whether the proposed activity might adversely affect the Coho’s habitat (O’Dea 2013). Cultural and ecological reproduction are intertwined as restrictions on the ability of the Karuk to care for the river’s salmon in turn means knowledge is not transferred which creates additional ecological problems (Fox et al 2017).

The salmon’s drastic impact on the Karuk reflects the life-force commonality principle of general TEK. A member from Maine’s indigenous Penobscot Nation said, “we are the river. The river is us. The river is in our veins. If the rivers are the lifeblood of our Mother and they become contaminated, then the same happens to us” (Fox et al 2017). According to the Karuk worldview, the river and its inhabitants are living ancestors. Interconnected family networks are necessary for knowledge transfer as they are avenues for the passage of Karuk values. Since families are important sites for passing down culture, the indigenous people are raised with the responsibility to care for the species they consider as relatives through land management activities (Willette et al 2016). A tribal program manager from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians spoke of the Brown Bridge dam removal’s benefit as he conveyed, “the tribe’s involvement in this is really waking up the state government, the local units of government, the local community, non-tribal community, to the importance of the river to the tribe” (Fox et al 2017). Showcasing TEK derived from reverence for the river has potential.

Co-Management Strategy

Indigenous people nourishing their relationships with the river creates a depth of commitment to restoration that goes well beyond the ecological rationales that generally motivate other river projects. Restoration conventionally focuses on physical interventions to improve river form and function, such as bank stabilization, channel reconfiguration, floodplain reconnection, fish passage, in-stream habitat improvement, and dam removal/retro- fitting (Fox et al 2017). While many of these efforts have been successful, concerns remain about their uncertain approaches and priorities (Fox et al 2017). That being said, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is one of the most utilized models in water policy and administration (McCool 2018). One of the crucial components in IWRM is collaboration, where multiple stakeholders negotiate solutions (McCool 2018). A councilor from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians explained, considering the river may not look at matters the same way restorationists are viewing the elements their aiming to revitalize, it is logical for indigenous people “to talk to the design engineers and the consultants that work on these projects and have them, maybe not understand it at a spiritual level, but let us explain at an ecological level, supported by data, with that spirituality behind it” (Fox et al 2017). Indigenous knowledge is best understood as a process, rather than just the incorporation of TEK into a restoration plan. The mentality leads to not just focusing on the immediate when restoring the river’s health.

The enactment of Indigenous knowledge can shift the time frame of restoration, resulting in thorough support to sincerely equip future generations. For example, it was crisis conditions in forest management and tribal activism that compelled the Forest Service to adopt the policy change which set the stage for the Ti Bar Demonstration Project (Norgaard 2014). A central tenant of the US Forest Service land management techniques that have transformed the landscape since the 1920s has been the suppression and exclusion of wildfire (Norgaard 2014). The exclusion of fire has led to high fuel loads, decreased habitat for large game such as elk and deer, reduction in the quantity and quality of acorns, and alteration of growth patterns of basketry materials such as hazel and willow (Norgaard 2014). In addition, Karuk tribal members are negatively impacted by the effects of catastrophic fires and intensive firefighting activities that in turn result from fire exclusion (Norgaard 2014). Through Ti Bar, Karuk managers applied prescribed burning as a new eco-cultural restoration approach to land management (Diver 2016).

Low intensity fire has been an essential tribal land management tool allowing communities to check forest succession, enhance desired understory vegetation, as well as promote a diversity of cultural resources including the plant and animal species used for Karuk subsistence foods and ceremonial regalia (Diver 2016). By being on the ground, Karuk land managers had the flexibility to conduct eco-cultural restoration treatments in a culturally sensitive and adaptive manner that responded to site-specific conditions (Diver 2016). For example, tribal crews could strategically locate brush piles for burning to avoid patches of tan oak mushrooms, an important traditional food that is sensitive to fire (Diver 2016). As with medical practitioners and their patients, healing is a two-way process where doctors need to listen carefully to their patients before diagnosis or treatment can begin.

River restoration work begins much the same way. A tribal nation elected official from New Zealand’s Waikato-Tainui noted, “to understand what the river needs, we have to look at what the river sees. Getting community members out on the river helps us view the world from her eyes” (Fox et al 2017). Direct engagement with the river enables indigenous people to learn respect and appropriate solutions not only from their ancestors, rather also from the river itself (Willette et al 2016). In other words, Euro-American actors cannot just consult with Indigenous communities or use their Indigenous knowledge in their science and engineering processes but also need to be involved in activities such as day-to-day monitoring. Moreover, The Waitkato-Tainui official stated, “we’ll know our Nanny [the Waikato River] is on a healthy path when she can take care of herself” (Fox et al 2017). Here, it’s evident the Karuk are aiming to remove human impoundments inhibiting the river from healing through its natural course. It allows for creating space within the procedures for Native people to incorporate their long-lived methods.


The Klamath river’s natural resource management of the past can aid in understanding how to collaborate going forward. The trial regarding ESA showed the importance of collective decision-making. The Ti Bar Demo project was partially completed, and then abandoned around 2000 following a Forest Service leadership change (Diver 2016). Similarly, the variety of stakeholders in the Klamath Basin negotiated three settlements to resolve many of the major issues and ultimately failed due to inability to pass in the House of Representatives (McCool 2018). Stakeholders should be categorized as either endogenous or exogenous; the former are those that are actually at the table negotiating; the latter are those parties that are not directly involved in the negotiation but have the power to interfere with implementation (McCool 2018). Collaboration must also consider the veto power and obstructive potential of exogenous groups (McCool 2018). Understanding the bureaucracy dictating the river’s health and creating strategies to break the pattern is crucial to reveal whether TEK truly supports the salmon. My hypothesis is although indigenous philosophy and practice revitalize the Klamath river, until shortcomings of the area’s co-management are abolished, TEK does not support the salmon.


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Hallett, Sasha et al. 2012. “Density of the Waterborne Parasite Ceratomyxa shasta and Its Biological Effects on Salmon”. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Volume 78 (10). pp: 3724-3731. 78/10/3724.full.pdf

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Fox, Coleen et al. 2017. “‘The River is Us; The River is in Our Veins’: Re-Defining River Restoration in Three Indigenous Communities”. Sustainability Science. Volume 12. pp: 521-533. s11625-016-0421-1.pdf

Diver, Sibyl. 2016. “Co-Management as a Catalyst: Pathways to Post-Colonial Forestry in the Klamath Basin, California”. Human Ecology. Volume 44. pp: 533-546. https://link-

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O’Dea, Elise. 2013. “A Salmon’s Travels: The Forest Service’s Struggle to Secure Proper Environmental Protection”. Ecology Law Quarterly. Volume 40 (20). pp: 565-572. seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

McCool, Daniel. 2018. “Integrated Water Resources Management and Collaboration: The Failure of the Klamath River Agreements”. Policy History. Volume 30 (1). pp: 83-104. https:// accountid=14608&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo