HAPPY CAMP, Calif. -- Centuries before
federal nutritional guidelines told Americans how
to eat healthfully, the Karuk Indians had figured
They ate wild salmon at every meal -- about
1.2 pounds of fish per person per day. Isolated
here in the Klamath River valley in the rugged
mountains of northwest California, the Karuk stuck
with their low-carb, low-cholesterol,
salmon-centered diet longer than perhaps any
Indians in the Pacific Northwest. It was not until
the late 1960s and the 1970s, when dams and
irrigation ruined one of the world's great salmon
fisheries, that fish mostly disappeared from their
Ron Reed fished in the Klamath River. The
tribe's catch last fall was fewer than 100
Salmon are now too scarce to catch and too
pricey to buy. The tribe caught about 100 chinook
salmon last fall, a record low. Eating mostly
processed food, some of it federal food aid, many
Karuks are obese, with unusually high rates of
heart disease and diabetes.
"You name them, I got them all," said Harold
Tripp, 54, a traditional fisherman for the tribe.
"I got heart problems. I got the diabetes. I got
high cholesterol. I need to lose weight."
On his first day as a fisherman for the
tribe in 1966, Tripp remembers catching 86 salmon.
Last fall, he caught one. "I mostly eat hamburger
now," he said.
To reclaim their salmon -- and their health
-- the Karuks are using the tribe's epidemic of
obesity-related illness as a lever in a dam
re-licensing pending before the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission. In what legal experts say
is an unprecedented use of the regulatory process,
the tribe is trying to shame a major utility
company and the federal government into agreeing
that at least three dams on the Klamath River
should be knocked down.
are quite literally killing Indians,
according to a tribe-commissioned report that was
written by Kari Marie Norgaard, a sociologist from
the University of California at Davis. The report
links the disappearance of salmon to increases in
poverty, unemployment, suicide and social
"We can't exist without our fish," said Leaf
Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk, whose 3,300
members make up the second-largest Indian tribe in
California. "We can only hope that this will be
one of those rare instances where a true look at
the cost and benefits of those dams will be a
The tribe's demand for
justice presents a prickly new problem to
federal regulators at a time of major upheaval in
the hydropower industry.
Federal licenses for private dams, valid for
30 to 50 years, are expiring in droves, especially
in the Northwest, where hydropower accounts for
about 80 percent of the electricity supply. In the
next decade or so, licenses are due to expire at
more than half of the country's non-federal dams
-- 296 projects that provide electricity to 30
million homes in 37 states.
The Karuks "have raised something that is
novel, and FERC commissioners will have to grapple
with it," said Mary Morton, a legal adviser to
Nora Mead Brownell, one of President Bush's four
appointees to the commission that rules on license
renewals for private dams.
Politically, it is hardly a propitious
moment for Native Americans to demand that dams
come tumbling down. Power rates have soared in
California and across the Northwest in recent
years. Bush has repeatedly spoken out against the
breaching of federal dams on the nearby Snake
River, saying it would be bad for the economy. His
appointees as FERC commissioners are considered
unlikely to force any utility to remove a dam, and
his administration recently granted dam owners a
special right -- denied Indian tribes,
environmental groups and local governments -- to
appeal Interior Department rulings about how dams
should be operated.
Still, the aging dams on the Klamath River
are, at best, marginal producers of power. They
were built without fish ladders (unlike most major
dams in the Northwest), and there is widespread
scientific agreement that their removal would
revive several salmon runs.
California, which could block a renewed
federal license for the dams under provisions of
the Clean Water Act, seems decidedly
unenthusiastic about keeping the dams in the
river. The state Energy Commission has said
removing them "would not have significant impact"
on the regional supply of electricity and that
replacement power is readily available.
The State Water Resources
Control Board, which regulates water quality and
could veto a renewed license,
blames warm, sluggish reservoirs behind the dams
for "horrible" algae blooms in the river,
said Russ Kanz, a staff scientist for the board.
In addition, the National Academy of Science
and local officials in Humboldt County agree that
dam removal is an option that should be examined
to bring salmon back to the Klamath.
But PacifiCorp, the company that owns the
dams, did not list dam removal as an option in its
application last year for a new long-term license.
In the Clinton era, when tribes and
environmental groups used the relicensing process
to force utilities to pay hundreds of millions of
dollars to retool or remove dams, PacifiCorp
agreed to remove a hydro dam from the White Salmon
River in Washington state -- at a cost of $20
million. The company, which is owned by Scottish
Power, has 1.6 million electricity customers in
six western states.
As part of its relicensing application for
dams on the Klamath, PacifiCorp is trying to
negotiate a separate settlement with the Karuks
and other stakeholders along the river. Dam
removal is now "on the table" in those talks, said
Jon Coney, a company spokesman, adding that the
tribe's health argument is part of the
Coney, though, said that the tribe's health
claims are difficult to substantiate in a
scientific or legal way.
"How do you separate the health problems out
from all the other societal things that have
happened to the tribe?" Coney asked.
To make their case, the Karuk Tribe offers
tribal health statistics and stories of its people
who have grown ill in the years without salmon.
Diabetes and heart disease were rare among
tribal members before World War II. Part of the
reason was the super-abundance in their
salmon-rich diet of omega-3 fatty acids, which
research has linked with reduced risk of heart
disease, stroke and diabetes.
"We do know that the nutritional values of
subsistence fish are superior to processed foods
and convenience foods," said William Lambert, an
environmental epidemiologist at Oregon Health &
Science University in Portland.
With subsistence fish all but gone from the
Karuk diet, the percentage of tribal members with
diabetes has jumped from near zero to about 12
percent, nearly twice the national average,
according to the tribe. The estimated rate of
heart disease among tribal members is 40 percent,
about triple the national average.
A number of studies of Native Americans
across the United States have shown that the loss
of traditional foods is directly responsible for
increasing rates of obesity-related illnesses.
Steve Burns, a physician for three years in
the tribal clinic in Happy Camp, said that
diabetes and other obesity-related illness are "a
huge and growing problem."
"What is happening to the Karuk people is
like something you would read about in a book on
the destruction of a minority group in the old
Soviet Union," he said.
The change in the tribe's diet in the past
generation has been so great that many Karuk
concede that it will be difficult -- even if the
dams are knocked down and salmon runs are revived
-- for them to return to their traditional
"Of course, we won't be able to eat salmon
all the time like we did," said Ron Reed, a
traditional fisherman and tribal representative to
FERC hearings on the dams. But he said everyone in
the tribe would eat vastly more than they do now
and that children would once again be able to grow
up with the staple food that has traditionally
kept the bodies and spirits of the Karuk healthy.
Last year, because of the record-low catch,
tribal elders did not have enough salmon for
religious ceremonies. So they bought some.