Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Native US tribes fight Scottish utility's abuse of river

NO GO FISH Native Americans protested at a British energy conglomerate's annual meeting over the dams that destroyed their traditional salmon-fishing areas


When the spring salmon returned, the tribes of the Klamath River in northern California welcomed them with an ancient ritual. But that was when the salmon still came.

Yesterday the four tribes were dancing and chanting again, this time on a pavement in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

As shareholders piled into energy utility giant ScottishPower's annual meeting, the four tribes of the Klamath River, in traditional dress, sang and danced before them. It was the latest round in a battle to shame one of Britain's most successful companies into being environmentally responsible.

The Klamath tribes have already lodged a US$1 billion lawsuit in the US courts against PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of ScottishPower, alleging that the company's dams have destroyed the Klamath's fish population and wiped out species. But yesterday they opted to embarrass the parent company.

"I have traveled all this way because the dams mean that I have never been able to see a salmon in my part of my river. They have denied me my birthright," said Gail Hatcher of the Klamath tribe.

The Klamath River, which snakes from Oregon into northern California, is central to the religion, philosophy and daily lives of the river's four tribes: the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath. For more than seven millennia, native Americans have used the Klamath for worship, healing and food. But since the first dam was built in 1916, the river's ability to provide food has been drastically reduced.

Now its tribes are fighting back.

"We evolved around the river, so everything around us -- our religion, our philosophy our food -- is connected to that place," said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk tribe. "We have lived there since time began, and so have the fish. Our dependence is reciprocal. The fish and the river have provided for us for all those years. Now it is our turn to pay them back."

Before the first dam was built on the Klamath, about a million salmon would return to it from the Pacific each year to spawn. Today a return of 100,000 fish is considered good.

Although the Klamath's tribes say that fish populations have been dwindling since the construction of the first dam, the devastating decline came in the 1960s, when the final dam was built. It was then that the tribes had to stop their spring ritual as there were no salmon to welcome home.

"When I was young we would catch 100 lampreys in a night," Hillman said. "Now if a fisherman catches 100 lampreys in a season it is considered good. It is not just the salmon that are affected."

Some 10,000 Native Americans eke out a living on the river. Tribal elders estimate that 40 percent of them live below the poverty line.

The tribes say the way the dams have been managed in recent years is having an increasingly detrimental effect. In 2002 a combination of drought and water management saw 33,000 fish die in the Klamath.

The tribes decided to slap their lawsuit on PacifiCorp and ScottishPower after the company reneged on an agreement to place fish ladders on the Klamath. Federal licenses to run the dams are up for renewal and, mindful of the tribes' lobbying, PacifiCorp agreed to install the fish ladders. Then it changed its mind, offering to catch the salmon downstream and transport them up the river.

"They wanted to catch them and truck them upriver. It's laughable," said Jennifer Miller, a Klamath.

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