Wednesday February 1, 2023

The Scientist

To the Karuk Tribe, Ishi Pishi Falls on California’s Klamath River is the center of the world. Every spring, a nearby holy site is the location of the first of a set of ceremonies collectively called pikyávish, meaning “fix the world” in the local language, explains Ron Reed, a dip net fisherman and tribal cultural leader who conducted the ceremony for years before passing the mantle on to his sons. Pikyávish includes prayers for the area’s living things and is performed to help keep the world balanced, according to Reed. He says that the Karuk believe humans were put on the planet to be nature’s stewards, and it’s only through that stewardship that people can survive and flourish. “We always like to say the health of the river runs parallel to the health of the people of that river.”

Reed also refers to the annual tradition as the spring salmon ceremony. The timing of the ritual is supposed to line up with the arrival of áama, the first salmon entering the Klamath to return to the waters of their birth, where they will spawn come autumn. Part of the ritual calls to the animals to return, and tribe members don’t start fishing for salmon at Ishi Pishi Falls until the ceremony is complete—a delay that traditionally allowed some salmon to make it past the falls and up into the headwaters of the Klamath before harvesting began. In that way, the ceremony acted as a form of fisheries management, fulfilling the charge of “fixing the world,” says Reed.

But salmon no longer leap up Ishi Pishi each spring—or not many of them. Reed was born in 1962, around the same time that the Iron Gate Dam, which was completed in 1964, cut those early salmon off from hundreds of miles of their ancestral habitat. It was the last straw for fish already dealing with three other dams, habitat degradation from the logging and mining industries, and commercial fishing. Soon enough, spring salmon runs went from countless fish—so many that one could walk across the river on their backs, according to the stories Reed’s mother told him as a child—to almost none. By the late 1990s, Reed says, there simply weren’t springtime salmon to catch for the Karuk pikyávish rituals, and he had to ask a friend from another tribe to obtain the salmon used ceremonially.

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