The Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1996, Friday, Home Edition 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. Before Europeans arrived in North America, the area that makes up modern California had the largest population and the greatest diversity among its people--just as it does today. Experts estimate that more than 300,000 indigenous people lived here--about a third of the native population of what would become the United States. Ranging from the coast to the deserts to the mountains, the California tribes spoke more than 100 languages. Thanks to a mild climate and rich wildlife, they lived off the land with comparative ease. They wore little clothing, built modest dwellings and were more peaceful than tribes elsewhere. But in 1776, the arrival of Spaniards and their missions put an end to a way of life that had lasted for thousands of years. By 1846, enslavement and disease had cut in half the state's population of Native Americans. After California joined the Union in 1850, ridding the Golden State of its remaining Native Americans became official policy. State officials and newspapers talked openly of extermination. Hunters were paid bounties for the heads, ears or scalps of Native American men, women and children--and were reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses by the Legislature. Proponents justified the policy by claiming California tribes were more primitive than others, contemptuously calling them "diggers." The killing of their children was dismissed with the common saying, "Nits will be lice." By 1870, California's Native American population had dropped to 30,000. "You have a situation of legalized, subsidized murder on a mass scale," said Jim Rawls, an instructor of history at Diablo Valley College and author of the new book, "Chief Red Fox is Dead." "The idea of ethnic cleansing is precisely what was attempted here, with forced acculturation of the survivors." While reservations were established in other parts of the nation, most of California's tribes--including the Karuks--were denied even that. Eighteen treaties negotiated with the state's tribes that would have given them 8 million acres never were ratified by Congress, in large part because of opposition from the state. California's only true reservation--the Hoopa reservation--was established in 1864 not far from the Karuks' territory. Later, small out-of-the-way tracts known as "rancherias" were placed in trust by the government for members of some other tribes. But by the turn of the century, the few Native Americans left in California largely were impoverished, homeless and scattered. In the 1950s, the U.S. government adopted a new policy of "terminating" the tribes by breaking up their limited land holdings--distributing some of the acreage they occupied among individual tribe members or taking it away altogether. It was during this era that the Karuks lost the sacred village site of Katamin: the center of the Karuk world and where tribal members believe numerous spirits dwell. Known to the non-Karuk world as Somes Bar, Katamin is just upriver from the hill where tribe members performed the Jump Dance. It is the historic site of another sacred ceremony, the annual Brush Dance. Unfortunately for those living at Katamin, the land never had been put in trust for the tribe and the federal government seized it under the policy of "termination." The government assigned most of the property to the Forest Service, but sold four acres to outsiders, who built the Somes Bar Lodge for hunters and fishermen. Over the years, the Karuks continued to hold the Brush Dance--an important rite of renewal--near the lodge while tourists sat on the porch and watched. In 1993, the lodge's then-owner, Bradley Throgmorton, was arrested for cultivating marijuana. He pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and forfeited the Somes Bar property to federal authorities, who put it up for sale. The following December, California's Native American leaders met with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in Palm Springs, and Karuk tribal planner Munk asked for his help in reacquiring the sacred land for the tribe. After more than a year of negotiations with the Justice Department and other government officials, the four acres finally were returned to the Karuks earlier this year. "Land once used by a criminal who flouted the law will be returned to those native peoples who hold it sacred," said U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Now the tribe is negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service to win back the rest of the Katamin site. In the 1960s, the Forest Service built a ranger station and work facility on about 10 acres there. The structures have been plagued by landslides--which some tribe members believe is no coincidence. Some buildings have been torn down. The Forest Service is considering allowing the Karuks to occupy the remaining structures. "The thinking now is we should turn them over to the tribe," said George Harper, Klamath National Forest district ranger. "They would probably occupy a residence or two on the site and maintain it for its cultural and religious values." Such concessions by the Forest Service would have been highly unusual, if the Klamath National Forest and the Karuks had not developed a strong working relationship. A number of Karuks are employed by the Forest Service, including two tribal council members. The tribe and the agency work together on such matters as fire suppression, controlled burns and the use of sacred sites in the forest for religious ceremonies. "My perception is the tribe has gained a bureaucratic and political maturity over the past several years," Harper said. "They have become skilled and astute at working the system and acquiring funds." The Karuks, who once had 40 villages along the Klamath River, have used some of their resources to buy ancestral lands from private owners and put them in trust. Since 1979, the tribe has purchased about 600 acres, tribal chairman Johnson said, about half of the land in Happy Camp, a historic village site where the tribe's main offices are. The remainder is in Orleans, another historic village site to the south, and in the city of Yreka, where many tribal members have settled. With their initial success at rebuilding, the Karuks have started programs to help tribe members and others in depressed Klamath River communities. In Orleans, where the construction of tribal housing has removed land from the tax rolls, the Karuks used health service funds to double the community's water treatment capacity. The tribe also bought a fire engine for the volunteer fire department. In Happy Camp, among programs available to the non-Native American community, the tribe offers a class on running a small business. Tribal leaders say the hardship their people have endured makes it easier for them to adjust to the economic changes brought on by the near-collapse of the region's timber industry. "Being Indian people and survivors, you have to learn when certain ways of life are over and adapt," said Munk. "The reality is spotted owls are here to stay. The old growth is gone. The mill has pulled out and is not coming back." For many Karuks, perhaps the best example of their resilience is the Jump Dance. Before it was revived in 1994, the ceremony had not been performed for 99 years. The dance, which is staged every sunset for 10 days, was performed again in 1995 and will be again this month. When tribal members began planning to bring back the dance, no one alive had ever seen it performed; only descriptions of the rite and some costume pieces had been passed down from generation to generation. In a concession to modern times, last year some dancers wore shorts or blue jeans with their deerskin skirts, abalone-shell necklaces and headdresses made of the red scalps of woodpeckers. Re-created as a simple dance, the line of performers stomps and chants before a manzanita fire. Despite the name given the ceremony by whites unfamiliar with its religious significance, the Jump Dance includes only occasional jumping by the lead dancer at the center of the line. While Karuk leaders acknowledge that rebuilding the tribe is a painfully slow process, they say they are encouraged by their recent progress in reestablishing sacred ceremonies, building their tribal economy and acquiring some of their ancestral lands. "We will persevere as long as it takes," said Munk, the tribal planner.