Chapter 3: Impacts to Social Networks and Subsistence Economy

And it’s, sometimes, when there’s low economy and there’s no other jobs to do and it’s just tough, yeah, people – you drink it or you smoke it away because, well, you know, what the hell, there’s nothing that you can really do that’s going to be good anyways. So you pass the day by numbing the senses and – you know when things aren’t good with the fish, people take it out because they’re stressed, right? Normally, that salmon would be that role of building that capital when you don’t have that capital, it’s not a reservoir of, either monetary or even, kind of like, ‘I owe you one,’ type of thing to draw from or relationship in the community. Yeah, you get stressed. Just like people in a contemporary sense would get stressed for not having financial security, when you don’t have salmon security, it adds all those other dimensions of stress to it.

–Frank Lake, Karuk descendant

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Ron Reed and sons. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

An early anthropological account described Karuk people as amongst the wealthiest in the state (McEvoy 1986, Andersen 2006). Today Karuk people are amongst the hungriest and poorest people in the state. While the decline of salmon and other riverine foods are centrally important, there are at least 25 species of plants, animals and fungi that form part of the traditional Karuk diet to which Karuk people are currently denied or have only limited access. The percent of families living in poverty in Karuk Aboriginal Territory is nearly three times that of the United States as a whole. This dramatic reversal in economic circumstances is the direct result of the systematic, state sponsored disruptions of the existing Karuk cultural and economic organization that were at the heart of traditional management and traditional knowledge. Karuk sovereignty over culture and knowledge has ongoing economic consequences today.

The non-Indian “western” capitalist economy that has emerged around the world classifies wealth in terms of dollars. The alteration of the ecosystem and disruption of cultural practiced described in Chapter Two was implemented on the Klamath along the same time that this monetary economy achieved dominance. It is difficult therefore to know exactly what (if any) Karuk monetary economic uses of the forest would have been occurring today had the Karuk Tribe’s management authority not been contested. Instead, this section will first note that the reduced ability to carry out denied cultural practices has profoundly disrupted the existing Karuk economic system, and second, that the extraction of monetary wealth from the region by non-Native people has occurred via the same management practices that have transformed the landscape. Karuk management practices that were oriented around species complexity and long term sustainability were forcibly replaced by extractive management activities that were geared towards the withdrawal of commodities (gold, conifer trees, fish). These commodities became the basis of monetary wealth for non-Native people. Laws and policies designed to reduce Karuk people’s ability to inhabit and manage their lands were implemented by the state of California and the Federal government specifically to achieve this transfer of wealth to non-Native settlers in the region. Thus, while we know that Karuk people were wealthy prior to European invasion, that poverty in the Karuk community is now very high, and that the enforced changes from Native to non-Native land management was a key mechanism for this transfer of wealth, we cannot describe specific dollar impacts to the Karuk Tribe to the changing forest landscape. Most importantly for the present, continued denied access to cultural practices that constitute traditional Karuk knowledge including the disruption of ceremonies and the exclusion of fire from the landscape continue to be instrumental to this economic reorganization.

While the change in economic systems makes impossible some calculations, we can examine the impacts of denied access to traditional management for the Karuk subsistence economy today. This chapter describes how Karuk cultural knowledge and practice has been a critical activity underpinning this subsistence economy, which in turn provides individuals and families food, social capital, access to trade networks, and enhanced social networks and forming a type of “social glue” for relationships between families, and elders and youth across the Karuk community. Much of this subsistence economic activity including gathering acorns, mushrooms, berries, basketry materials, and burning is now either impacted by the exclusion of fire, outright illegal, or regulated by the Forest Service and other agencies in ways that limit or prohibit Karuk access. The chapter describes the economic impacts of the criminalization of traditional management activities including data on hunger and food security.

Food and Hunger

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Ron Reed and Merv George Jr. at the 2004 Scottish Power shareholders meeting in Scotland. Link to BBC News Story. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

Communities are defined as food secure when all members have access to nutritionally good, safe and culturally acceptable food through local non-emergency sources at all times. For most people in the United States food security is related to income and monetary wealth. In the Karuk community a high percentage of families living in aboriginal territory continue to rely directly on the land for a meaningful portion of their food. In the 2005 Karuk Health and Fish Consumption Survey we asked respondents whether their household fished for a variety of common species. Over half of families reported that someone in their household continued to fish for Steelhead and Fall Chinook, see Figure One below.

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Similarly we asked whether someone in their household hunted for a variety of common animals including deer, elk, bear and others. Again, attempts to access subsistence sources of food are widespread in the Karuk community. Note that nearly seventy percent of households reported that someone in the family hunted for deer, see Figure Two below.

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Yet while a significant percentage of Karuk people continue to fish and hunt traditional foods, over 80% report that they are unable to harvest enough of these foods to meet their family needs. Furthermore, the foods that were most central in the Karuk diet, providing the bulk of energy and protein: salmon and tan oak acorns are amongst the missing elements. Without salmon and tan oak acorns, Karuk people are currently denied access to foods that represented upwards of 50% of their traditional diet. The absence of food and cultural use species in this overgrown forest undermines the subsistence economy. Food insecurity within the Karuk Tribe is evidenced by the fact that forty-two percent of respondents living in the Klamath River area received some kind of food assistance, and one in five respondents use food from food assistance programs on a daily basis (Norgaard 2005, 2007). With the decline in access to once abundant food sources such as deer, acorns, elk, salmon and mushrooms, a significant percentage of tribal members rely on commodity or store bought foods.

Especially in this remote, rural community with high unemployment, the inability to access traditional food leaves Karuk people with basic issues of food security. Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture studies show that while roughly 85% of the US population is food secure, only 77% of Native Americans in the United States are food secure (Otto and Gordon 2012). Self report data from the Karuk Health and Fish Consumption Survey indicate that nearly 20% of Karuk people consume commodity foods and another 18 percent of those responding indicated that they would like to receive food assistance but do not qualify, see Figure Three below.

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Hunger and poor nutrition are bad for individual health (see Chapter Four), and difficulty in meeting basic needs results in overwhelming psychological stress as will be discussed in Chapter Five.

Subsistence Activity as Social Capital and Social “Glue”

Subsistence economic activity is critically important for providing the calories in the form of foods for survival, but it has a number of other functions as well. A central point of this report has been to illustrate how Karuk traditional knowledge is one consequence of activities and observations conducted in the landscape over time. Activities of fishing, hunting, gathering serve as an important social “glue” by bringing people together to work, socialize and pass down the values and information now known as “traditional knowledge.” It is during the process of spending time that stories, techniques and information are shared, new observations are made, and young people are socialized around values of reciprocity and responsibility. Subsistence activities are thus central to the process of cultural transmission and cultural continuity on a practical level. As Ron Reed notes, “it’s not just a matter of what you eat. It’s about the intricate values that are involved in harvesting these resources, how we manage for these resources and when.”

The degradation of the mid-Klamath ecology under non-Native management together with explicit regulations and policies by Federal and State agencies that prohibit Karuk subsistence activity thus directly interfere with the maintenance and generation of Karuk traditional knowledge. This interruption — which is an extension of the process of forced assimilation described earlier in Chapter Two — has economic consequences for both the subsistence economy and the disruption of trade and social networks.