Take Our Waters, Take Our Lives

An Interview with Charley Reed

Interviewer: Tali Trillo, NEC Staff

Charley Reed

Describe who you are and your relationship to local lands.

My name is Charley Reed. I’m a Hupa, Yurok, Karuk person whose core identity is immersing through the roots of the trees, rivers, and mountaintops. Our everyday use of the lands and cultural practices is what connects me most to the land.

Can you share some of this ongoing, intergenerational history of Klamath River defense, including specific examples of injustices you have addressed?

My core memories are inherently included by being a hunter, fisherman, and gatherer – as most of our traditional areas have been made illegal to hunt, fish, or gather. So I think that inherently, we have been advocates by practicing our culture. It wasn’t until after the 2002 fish kill on the Klamath River where I became a little bit more active. I think I was six, maybe seven, years old. Being involved in dam removal rallies with my dad and other colleagues that he worked closely with. And so that’s where I became more of a frontliner, I guess you could say.

We’ve definitely experienced several forms of environmental injustices over the course of the last four or five generations. One of them being the rivers being hydroblasted beyond recognition, and the water diversion that is continuing to happen today, even though the dams are slated to be removed. Those are two of the many injustices that happened to a river. That obviously impacts the water quality and water flow, which is like a trickle down effect from there, where it impacts our fisheries, which impacts the upslope management and the overall biology of our ecosystem systems. It was a big hang up for who we are as Karuk people, as Native people. Take away our waters, you take away our lives. That’s at the core of the injustices we experienced.

Aside from the nutrients that come from fishing and the connection that fishing and hunting offer, the water is integral to our ceremonial practices where we’re not able to practice forms of our rituals that we would if we had healthy waters and access to an abundant amount of fish. There’s parts of our culture that haven’t been practiced since I’ve been around, or since my elders have been around, because of how impactful the dams have been on our water systems. That’s one of the bigger issues that I feel is not often spoken about.

But aside from the river part of the injustices, I think that it’s also as impactful that we continue to face mismanagement of our aboriginal territories. Since we didn’t have a ratified treaty, it basically meant that we lost any type of responsibility to burn and manage our forests, which is connected to the river health by taking out some unnecessary or inefficient plants or trees that would only be taking water from the watershed. So there’s definitely a connection between upslope management and how it impacts water quality, and water allocation in that way. These are a couple of the injustices that we experience. I think there’s a lot more to be said about the injustices. These injustices aren’t accidents, but they’re created by design to remove our people. And it’s great to know that they’re failing at that. 

What does undamming the Klamath mean for your community, including nonhuman relatives? 

How I imagine the dams being on in the rivers for as long as they have been, I imagine it being some type of clot and in a vein system. Removing the dams is like removing a life threatening blood clot. It’s very much a second-chance-at-life feeling. Like a breath of fresh air. A gleam of hope for next generations to not have to spend so much time on energy and resources trying to fight for the dams to be removed. Imagining what could come of that energy that I feel is now restored. That’s the personal and community part of it. 

But I think that, most importantly, the undamming of the Klamath for more-than-human relatives – fish, birds, mammals, plants, trees – I think they’re going to be the first ones to really notice a difference and experience the difference. We’re going to see that difference in the overall health of our watershed ecosystems, especially the spring Chinook salmon, who were very close to extinction. I think that they’re going to bounce back quicker than we could ever imagine. 

I’m excited to witness the resilience that our more than human relatives have. To see the impacts on our community that this also has. It’s very hopeful, and I know that there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s that balance of gratefulness and there’s more work to be done type of attitude.

Can you explain how your fight for water protection connects to cultural fire?

Water protection is connected to cultural fire because fire was and continues to be our tool that protects both our spiritual health and our upslope forestry health, which is tied together through our river health.

One example that I like giving when folks have a hard time making the connection between river health and fire is: you can imagine a warm, spring day and it’s a little too warm for the fish to travel upstream where they need to be and there’s a nice plume of smoke from some burns that are going on up the river. That gives them just enough of a break to make their move to the next main cool water refugia site.

The smoking itself is an identifying signal that fish can continue to make their journey. Without that smoke, maybe they’re holding out in a smaller refugio site, which makes them more susceptible to disease. And obviously, the water temperature will be higher. That speaks to how fighting for water protection is connected to cultural firework because it’s all interconnected. It’s not one or two different categories. 

We know that fire is a tool that connects the river to the upslope forestry. If you’re fighting for cultural fire, you’re fighting for water protection. If you’re fighting for water protection, you’re also fighting for that cultural fire component. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship that we’ve known for millennia.

What is Save California Salmon and your role there?

It’s a nonprofit that centers indigenous experiences on the river, especially in rural communities throughout the northern state, and it’s broken down into two departments. I’m the Education Director for the education side of things. Then our executive director, Regina Chichizola, is the policy leader in our organization. There’s a lot more of the on-the-frontline public hearings, commentary, a lot of the political sides of things.

For education, we’ve created a TEK curriculum for sixth through eighth, as well as for high school aged students. We have two forms of curriculum that meet state standards, which has been driven by community connection and environmental connection that the community has. It’s very uplifting of community voices and community perspectives, while also meeting some state standards that make it a little more appealing to non-native teachers or educators. We’re trying to have that balance approach within our curriculum development. And further from that, we offer Teacher Education trainings that coincide with those curricula.

We do a lot of summer programming. Getting Native students on to the river, getting them that in-person experience to see what’s surrounding them and hopefully inspire them to be great in their own way. We also offer in-person implementations of lesson plans that do stem from our curriculum, like helping teachers who maybe are not too familiar with what TEK can involve. Being there as a helping hand to bridge that gap for folks and help them catch up and get on board. We don’t want to set anyone up for failure because I feel like it’s very fragile information that we’re putting out. We want to make sure it’s constructed and taught in the right way. I oversee some of those projects and have some of my team go to different local schools. 

We also have a big hand in the Salmon Run that has been going on for probably multiple decades by now. Organizing the community events like that, hosting different schools and getting them connected to the outside world, and having different trainings on how to equip youth with their voices in different public hearings. We have a couple trainings that we give to different groups, in the case that some young voices want to strengthen their skills in advocating at a political level. Because we know that youth’s voices are powerful. They’re ultimately the ones who are going to carry on this fight. 

Do you only go to schools that you’re invited to? 

In this live educator training, we had this whole spectrum of schools in California and Oregon. Oregon teachers were like, “I know this is standardized to California but I really want to know what’s going on.” We’re never exclusive or turn anyone away. We do let folks know who are maybe from the Bay Area or from Southern California, where I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to offer this part of our services because of the travel.

But we always tried to encourage those folks to still adopt the curricula into their local communities. I think that we always try to let them know that they’re more than welcome to join trainings or webinars, no matter where they’re at.

In Save California Salmon, have you experienced any struggles or triumphs so far?

I think when you’re working with TEK and education, you’re trying to get this Western machine to adopt traditional ecological knowledge practices and perspectives. There’s definitely going to be some struggles, but sometimes those triumphs really keep you going. 

Some of the struggles that I have felt myself and also have heard from other fellow community members has been that a lot of times when we’re asking community members to talk about a certain topic or to come to a certain activity, it kind of makes us feel like we have to dance, you know. Just do the native thing, and we’re gonna applaud you for it. When really, we’re human beings, you know. We’re not just activists. Like, “I want to do philosophy. I don’t really feel like doing carbon today.” 

That’s one of the struggles that we experience when we’re talking about different cultural programming or lesson planning implementation. We gotta start thinking about where that land’s going, who’s going to be managing the native plants. We want to celebrate, but we also know there’s so many more things that we got to do. 

I was just telling my partner it’d be cool if we could go on sabbatical leave and enhance what we know and our connection to place and culture. Talking about it and constantly having to advocate for it verbally and orally, rather than doing it is one of the struggles but also triumph. 

I think the triumph I’ve had was getting this TEK curriculum out, seeing schools implement it, and seeing it come into fruition. Creating something that could be long term for future generations is always something worth patting your back on. There’s times where it’s like okay, we can celebrate. And then it’s like, what’s the next thing that we got to do? There’s going to be struggles but it’s always worth it when you get to those triumphs.

What does environmental justice mean to you?

I appreciate picking the term of “environmental justice” because a lot of people of color and Indigenous people have experienced environmental injustice, but I’ve never really thought of “environmental justice” per se growing up. It was more like an Us versus Them, you know? Natives versus Everyone. You basically have to be a smooth criminal to be a Native person or Karuk person. We’d go up with my dad and he would start burning a prairie, and we’d be like, “Wait, what are you doing?!” And he’d be like, “This is what we gotta do.” 

I don’t know if it’s me being rebellious to policies or laws, if that’s environmental justice. Or if it’s just living as environmental justice. It is a little bit of a confusing concept for me because I can be on both sides of it. It’s a great question that I’m very interested to see what others have to answer for environmental justice. It’s one of those buzzwords right now as a way to advocate for ourselves and things. That is something that we’ve always done since contact. I’m about it. There’s some complexities that I have a hard time grasping.

How does your work and water protection and fire connect with your understanding of Environmental Justice?

Working in water protection or connection to fire builds up my connection, sense of belonging, and understanding of what it means to be a Native person and who I am. It also helps me understand that that’s environmental justice. You don’t really think of it as being an environmental justice advocate. You just think of it as like “I’m just doing what I have been set here on earth to do and I still practice my culture. To manage the land and take care of it the best that I can with what I have. That’s what water protection and fire relationship does for me and to me. It’s more than words. It’s so deep.