Feds Return ‘Center of the World’ to Karuk Tribe

Caroline Griffith, NEC Executive Director

On January 6, in a rare act of unity for a very divided federal government, President Joe Biden signed into law an act returning the center of the world to the Karuk Tribe. Eight years in the making, the Katimiîn and Ameekyáaraam Sacred Lands Act took roughly 1000 acres of land hugging the shores along the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon Rivers near the border between Humboldt and Siskiyou Counties and placed it in trust for the Tribe. The land has previously been managed by the US Forest Service.

In 1850, the California legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians which, among other things (including establishing indentured servitude and laying the groundwork for genocide), facilitated the removal and displacement of Indigenous Californians from their ancestral lands. By the time that the first seeds of what would become the US Forest Service were planted in the late 1800s due to exploitation of the forests by miners and loggers, the original stewards of the lands that would come to be managed by the federal government had already been forcibly removed. 

For perspective, the Tribe’s ancestral territory encompasses over one million acres, 95 percent of which is currently occupied by the US Forest Service, so although this act of land return is cause for celebration, it is a mere fraction of the territory historically inhabited by the tribe. This ancestral land has been managed by the Forest Service for decades, with the Tribe being granted access to it for ceremonial purposes by way of a special permit. Katimiîn is considered the center of the world for the Karuk people and is an important ceremonial place. It was also their largest village, before European settlers arrived in the area. Ameekyáaraam is just down river from the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon Rivers and is the site of the Karuk World Renewal Ceremony and where the Jump Dance is done. According to Joshua Saxon, Executive Director of the Karuk Tribe, access for ceremonies has sometimes been an issue because of the Tribe’s inability to restrict public entry during specific ceremonies that call for seclusion. 

As Saxon explained, this ceremonial access is integral to the stewardship of the land and exemplifies a major difference between how the land has been managed by the Forest Service. “When we do those ceremonies, it’s a reminder of the agreement we made with the spirit people on how to manage this landscape in a way that is a way of respect,” says Saxon. “So we don’t treat anything as greater than us. We are a part of the whole and we’re an active part of it.” This transfer, he says, “allows us to . . . steward the land in the way that we would have, we have, stewarded it in the past, and in many instances since the turn of the century [we’ve] been thrown in jail for trying to steward these places.” As he sees it, this is a religious freedom issue, much like the G-O Road fight that lasted until the mid-80s in which sacred lands were at risk due to a proposed logging road, as well as a matter of stewardship.

“Western science with all of its great things has failed Indigenous peoples. And Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is really the fundamental well of knowledge that we should be pulling from in order to manage land anywhere, whether it’s in the United States or globally.” One fundamental way that TEK and Western science differ is in relationality; in Western science the observer is separate from the ecosystem or phenomenon being studied, whereas TEK is based on relationships and connection to land, and the generational handing-down of the knowledge gleaned from those relationships. As the Native American scholar Vine Deloria said in Red Earth, White Lies, “The main difference between Indigenous knowledge and Western science is that for [Native Americans], the knowledge is personal, and it comes with a responsibility.” 

“The significance of this landback in terms of climate change and the environment is [that] this allows the Karuk people to fix the world, every year. That’s what we do during our ceremonies … that’s the basis of our ceremonies is fixing the world,” says Saxon. “And so when you consider that that’s our worldview and our philosophy on life, allowing unfettered access to our ceremonial places benefits the entire world. Because when we say fix it, we mean the entire world. We don’t just mean Klamath River. We don’t just mean Salmon River. We don’t just mean Karuk ancestral territory. When we dance, and when we do ceremony, we believe that we are fixing the world. And I think in a global context, you can start seeing the truth behind that when it comes to Indigenous practices because the Karuk tribe is on the forefront of educating the rest of the world on how to do Indigenous practices correctly. And in a way that is respectful of all places, not just Karuk-place, but New Zealand-place, Australia-place, Europe-place. Tying to place, any place, that tie to the land is fundamental, if we’re going to have any impact on climate change.”

The transfer of this land was the result not only of the slow machinations of the federal government, but also years of outreach, with the Forest Service, the local conservation community, and also amongst the Karuk Tribe to ensure that ceremonial leaders and tribal members were supportive of it. Saxon also credited the hard work and partnership of Congressman Jared Huffman, Senator Alex Padilla, and their staff in keeping the process moving forward, especially through conflicts with the Forest Service. “I think we’ve come a long way [with the Forest Service]. In terms of mutual benefit projects, and the ability to communicate, but there are still deep seated, colonial and paternalistic mindsets that we continually come up against when we deal with the Forest Service. And this bill was a prime example.” But Saxon is hopeful that this is a sign of things to come.  As he said, “This is just a small piece of land. But it’s a start, right?”