Karuk Tribe: Learning from the First Californians for the Next California

Editor's Note: This is part of series, Facing the Climate Gap, which looks at grassroots efforts in California low-income communities of color to address climate change and promote climate justice.

This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.

The three sovereign entities in the United States are the federal government, the states and indigenous tribes, but according to Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, many people are unaware of both the sovereign nature of tribes and the wisdom they possess when it comes to issues of climate change and natural resource management.

“A lot of people don’t realize that tribes even exist in California, but we are stakeholders too, with the rights of indigenous peoples,” says Tripp.

Tripp is an Eco-Cultural Restoration specialist at the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. In 2010, the tribe drafted an Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan, which aims to manage and restore “balanced ecological processes utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge supported by Western Science.” The plan addresses environmental issues that affect the health and culture of the Karuk tribe and outlines ways in which tribal practices can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Before climate change became a hot topic in the media, many indigenous and agrarian communities, because of their dependence upon and close relationship to the land, began to notice troubling shifts in the environment such as intense drought, frequent wildfires, scarcer fish flows and erratic rainfall.

There are over 100 government recognized tribes in California, which represent more than 700,000 people. The Karuk is the second largest Native American tribe in California and has over 3,200 members. Their tribal lands include over 1.48 million acres within and around the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests in Northwest California.

Tribes like the Karuk are among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, despite their traditionally low-carbon lifestyles. The Karuk, in particular have experienced dramatic environmental changes in their forestlands and fisheries as a result of both climate change and misguided Federal and regional policies.

The Karuk have long depended upon the forest to support their livelihood, cultural practices and nourishment. While wildfires have always been a natural aspect of the landscape, recent studies have shown that fires in northwestern California forests have risen dramatically in frequency and size due to climate related and human influences. According to the California Natural Resources Agency, fires in California are expected to increase 100 percent due to increased temperatures and longer dry seasons associated with climate change.

Some of the other most damaging human influences to the Karuk include logging activities, which have depleted old growth forests, and fire suppression policies created by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s that have limited cultural burning practices. Tripp says these policies have been detrimental to tribal traditions and the forest environment.

“It has been huge to just try to adapt to the past 100 years of policies that have led us to where we are today. We have already been forced to modify our traditional practices to fit the contemporary political context,” says Tripp.

Further, the construction of dams along the Klamath River by PacifiCorp (a utility company) has impeded access to salmon and other fish that are central to the Karuk diet. Fishing regulations have also had a negative impact.

Though the Karuk’s dependence on the land has left them vulnerable to the projected effects of climate change, it has also given them and other indigenous groups incredible knowledge to impart to western climate science. Historically, though, tribes have been largely left out of policy processes and decisions. The Karuk decided to challenge this historical pattern of marginalization by formulating their own Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan.

The Plan provides over twenty “Cultural Environmental Management Practices” that are based on traditional ecological knowledge and the “World Renewal” philosophy, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. Tripp says the Plan was created in the hopes that knowledge passed down from previous generations will help strengthen Karuk culture and teach the broader community to live in a more ecologically sound way.

“It is designed to be a living document…We are building a process of comparative learning, based on the principals and practices of traditional ecological knowledge to revitalize culturally relevant information as passed through oral transmission and intergenerational observations,” says Tripp.

One of the highlights of the plan is to re-establish traditional burning practices in order to decrease fuel loads and the risk for more severe wildfires when they do happen. Traditional burning was used by the Karuk to burn off specific types of vegetation and promote continued diversity in the landscape. Tripp notes that these practices are an example of how humans can play a positive role in maintaining a sound ecological cycle in the forests.

“The practice of utilizing fire to manage resources in a traditional way not only improves the use quality of forest resources, it also builds and maintains resiliency in the ecological process of entire landscapes” explains Tripp.

Another crucial aspect of the Plan is the life cycle of fish, like salmon, that are central to Karuk food traditions and ecosystem health. Traditionally, the Karuk regulated fishing schedules to allow the first salmon to pass, ensuring that those most likely to survive made it to prime spawning grounds. There were also designated fishing periods and locations to promote successful reproduction. Tripp says regulatory agencies have established practices that are harmful this cycle.

“Today, regulatory agencies permit the harvest of fish that would otherwise be protected under traditional harvest management principles and close the harvest season when the fish least likely to reach the very upper river reaches are passing through,” says Tripp.

The Karuk tribe is now working closely with researchers from universities such as University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Davis as well as public agencies so that this traditional knowledge can one day be accepted by mainstream and academic circles dealing with climate change mitigation and adaptation practices.

According to the Plan, these land management practices are more cost effective than those currently practiced by public agencies; and, if implemented, they will greatly reduce taxpayer cost burdens and create employment. The Karuk hope to create a workforce development program that will hire tribal members to implement the plan’s goals, such as multi-site cultural burning practices.

The Plan has a long way to full realization and Federal recognition. According to the National Indian Forest Resources Management Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, it must go through a formal review process. Besides that, the Karuk Tribe is still solidifying funding to pursue its goals.

The work of California’s environmental stewards will always be in demand, and the Karuk are taking the lead in showing how community wisdom can be used to generate an integrated approach to climate change.  Such integrated and community engaged policy approaches are rare throughout the state but are emerging in other areas. In Oakland, for example, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition engaged community members and a diverse group of social justice, labor, environmental, and business organizations to develop an Energy and Climate Action Plan that outlines specific ways for the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a sustainable economy.

In the end, Tripp hopes the Karuk Plan will not only inspire others and address the global environmental plight, but also help to maintain the very core of his people. In his words: “Being adaptable to climate change is part of that, but primarily it is about enabling us to maintain our identity and the people in this place in perpetuity.”

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.