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Preserving a Way of Life

Legislation introduced to return sacred lands to the Karuk Tribe

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At the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon rivers stands a small mountain known as á›uuyich to the Karuk people, for whom it is the center of the world.

Close by is the historic village of Katimiîn, where the Karuk Tribe's annual world renewal ceremony to restore balance to the universe takes place, and down river is Ameekyáaraam, site of the Jump Dance and First Salmon Ceremony.

Sacred to the Karuk people since time immemorial, these lands will be among some 1,200 acres returned to the tribe from U.S. Forest Service control under legislation introduced this month by North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman.

These majestic places, nestled in parts of Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, are integral to the history, religion, culture and identity of the Karuk Tribe, says Karuk Tribal Chair Buster Attebery.

Returning them, he says, "will ensure the Karuk culture and way of life can endure for future generations."

"Natural resource stewardship of land, wildlife, plants and water is the core of the Karuk people's culture and identity," Attebery says. "So, this bill will give us ceremonial areas that will come under our management and will fit into our core values of restoring these lands that we use for ceremonies and dances, in particular places where we do our Pik-ya-vish, our fix-the-world ceremony. So, it's vital that the Karuk Tribe has these placed under our jurisdiction, so we can restore them back into their natural state and continue to perform our ceremonies and, again, restore our culture."

The legislation represents the culmination of around seven years of efforts by the Karuk Tribe, which has worked in collaboration with Huffman to reclaim at least a portion of their ancestral lands, of which about 95 percent is under federal management.

"This bill seeks to return sacred ground to the Karuk Tribe, correcting an historic injustice," Huffman states in a release, which notes that only U.S. Forest Service lands will be returned to the tribe under the bill, with all private lands, allotments and existing rights associated with those are excluded. "I've had the immense privilege and honor of visiting Katimiîn and its surrounding acres."

Karuk Tribe Executive Director Joshua Saxon says efforts leading up the legislation's introduction included inviting Huffman on a visit as well as outreach to area tribes, the counties involved and local agencies, describing the process to date as "a long journey."

In return, he says, the tribe has received a lot of support from its partners and organizations that view the return of the land as a necessary step for the federal government to take, noting these places are the center of the Karuk people's world.

"Our philosophy is not necessarily that we own the land," Saxon says. "We owe a responsibility to this land and a responsibility to restore this place. So, that's really our mission."

Darrel Aubrey, the Karuk Tribe's self-governance director, says the return of the lands is a "huge deal," one that will allow the tribe to manage the land and continue to practice its culture without interference in the future.

"So, we are very excited to get this out there and hopefully get it back into our management," he says.

While the tribe has a special permit to access the land included in Huffman's bill for ceremonial purposes, that is not always guaranteed. And the ceremonies are sometimes interrupted, although usually not intentionally, most often by river rafters.

Attebery says the return of the lands will allow the Karuk Tribe to better inform the public and provide notice of ceremonies being held.

But there's also the dark legacy in California of the systematic and government-sanctioned attempted genocide and destruction of Indigenous communities across the state that occurred after contact, with Native people subjected to institutionalized violence and driven from their ancestral lands, their families ripped apart as children were forcibly sent to boarding schools in an attempt to strip them of their culture.

This legislation will allow the Karuk Tribe to restore these lands for generations to come.

"We are very proud of our elders and their resilience ... . The genocides and the boarding schools, that took away a lot of our language and our way of life, and their resilience, we want to honor that by bringing back this part of our culture, so our children and their children can enjoy that way of life," Attebery says.

Saxon says the tribe does not see the return of the lands as controversial.

"It's not complex," he says. "It is very simple. It is very straightforward. It's only about 1,000 acres. We see this as non-controversial and necessary to right a historical wrong."

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the digital editor at the Journal. She is thankful for her family, friends and the wonderful people she works with each day. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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