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Shooting Raises Issue of Racism against American Indians in Klamath Basin Water Wars

by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Environmental News Network, January 18, 2002

CHILOQUIN, Ore. -- Perry Chocktoot, a member of the Klamath Tribes, said he was working on his pickup when three white men drove by yelling "Sucker lovers, come out and fight!" and fired a shotgun blast at an outhouse across the street.

The men also shot at signs and other buildings in this town of about 500 that is headquarters for the Klamath Tribes which consider the endangered sucker fish sacred and asked youngsters if they were American Indians.

"They shot over one kid's head," Chocktoot said. "You know what that tells that kid? 'White people hate me.'"

The Dec. 1 shooting put a spotlight on racism amid tensions already strained over last summer's federal decision to reserve drought-depleted water for the suckers and threatened coho salmon. That left little water for the half of the Klamath Basin's farmers who rely on federal irrigation.

Three men face a variety of charges including felony intimidation in connection with the shooting. Tribal officials say they weren't surprised by the incident. "I believe it took the drought of 2001 to bring to the surface how deeply embedded racism is in this community," said Joe Hobbs, tribal vice chairman.

An Oregon State University draft report on last summer's water wars noted, "... racism that mostly lies below the surface of social life in the basin emerged as some framed the issue as 'Indians vs. farmers.'"

Demonstrators last summer carried antisucker signs and denounced the sucker as an inedible, bottom-feeding trash fish. Bumper stickers said, "Save a farmer, fillet a sucker fish."

"They don't understand how significant these fish are to us," said Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman. "To them it's a trash fish. Through their minds they associate us with trash."

But to the Klamath people, the C'waam (TCH-waam), or Lost River sucker, and Qapdo (KUP-doe), or shortnosed sucker, are sacred gifts of the Creator, celebrated with an annual ceremony to mark the spring spawning run. They tell a story about how the Creator made the white-fleshed fish from the bones of a monster and told the people that when the fish were no more, the Klamath people would be no more.

Numbers remained plentiful until the 1960s, when the fish went on the endangered species list. Biologists blamed overfishing as well as declining water quality and habitat from overgrazing, agricultural runoff, and draining marshes.

Relations between whites and Indians have been tense from the start. A Hudson's Bay Co. trapper reported friendly contacts with the Klamaths in 1826 but complained of raiding by the neighboring Modocs. In 1846, explorer John C. Fremont retaliated for a raid on his camp by burning a Klamath village. Indians were massacred after complaints of raids on wagon trains in the 1850s. An 1864 treaty put the Klamaths, Modocs, and Yahooskins together on a reservation at Chiloquin, opening the land for settlers.

In 1907, the federal government began recruiting farmers for the newly built Klamath Project, which drained marshes to create farmland and tapped lakes to irrigate crops.

By 1954 the government dissolved the tribes and paid people for their shares of the reservation, which became a national forest and wildlife refuge. The tribes have since regained tribal status and are trying to regain the reservation.

Steve Kandra, a farmer who has been a leader in the water fight, said no reasonable person would support the shooting in Chiloquin. But he said farmers have legitimate differences with the tribes. Tribal research went into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion that led to the irrigation cutbacks, and when farmers filed suit challenging the water cutbacks, the tribes intervened on the federal government's side.

"The tribes as a business entity, they have had opportunities to work with the community and were not very cooperative," Kandra said. "If I make a comment that the tribes could have done this better, am I a racist when I say that?"

The tribes note that irrigators dropped out of court-supervised mediation looking for long-term solutions.

On his visit to Oregon this month, President Bush pledged support for Klamath Basin farmers. Meanwhile, a formal ajudication process has begun to sort out the basin's water rights, and a wet winter promises to take some of the pressure off finding solutions.

Elwood Miller, the tribes' director of natural resources, said both farms and fish can thrive, but only if the entire ecosystem returns to a more natural condition. To do that, "people have to be able to come together and respect each other," Miller said. "We are concerned about the livelihood of the farmer, but they have to be concerned about the livelihood of the Klamath tribes."

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Shooting Raises Issue of Racism against American Indians in Klamath Basin Water Wars
Environmental News Network, January 18, 2002

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