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Shoalwater Bay

An early morning at Shoalwater Bay, on the western shore of Upper Klamath Lake. 

Editor’s note: This open letter from the Klamath Tribes was sent to Warren Buffett and Gregory Abel of Berkshire Hathaway and Stefan Bird, CEO of Pacific Power.

From time immemorial, the inherent rights to hunt, fish, and gather have defined our tribal way of life. Despite relentless striving to protect and preserve our way of life, our cultural vitality, the Klamath Tribes have endured over a century of upheaval and dishonorable treatment by the larger, colonizing society.

One potent example of this abuse is the construction of four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Klamath River beginning in 1912. The dams stopped the salmon runs, robbed us of a dietary staple, detracted from our culture, and even contributed to the loss of our language. (As we sat drafting and discussing this letter, we realized that we easily recall the Klamath words for our remaining fish but struggled to be certain of c’iiyals: salmon.)

The dams now owned by PacifiCorp, which is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway corporation, continue to annihilate tribal fisheries, traditional culture, and first foods.

Historically, the Klamath Tribes never went without as everything needed was supplied from abundant natural resources and a healthy ecosystem. Tribal traditional practices were so vital that they were expressly reserved in the treaty of 1864.

Until the forced termination of our tribal status and the unscrupulous separation from our reservation, the Klamath Tribes were beyond self-sustaining. We were the second wealthiest tribal nation in the country, and not only in terms of assets. We were rich in culture, language, and sustainably-managed natural resources.

No small measure of this cultural wealth and spiritual health was expressed in the teeming salmon runs that blessed our homeland. Numerous historical documents and countless oral stories tell of the massive migrations of salmon to our waterways and of our people’s dependence upon them.

Salmon were a staple of the Klamath Tribes. Between 1890 and 1909 there were few if any per capita payments for tribal timber. There was little tribal farming. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through that era reported in court documents detailing their anger at the dams that one-third to one-half of their diets annually had been fresh and dried salmon.

Tribal ancestor John Cole reported participating frequently in the “taking of between 1200 and 1300 pounds” of salmon from the Sprague River “in three or four hours.”

Another ancestor, Victor Nelson, testified that he watched men “at Baking Powder Grade in the Sprague River” spear “3,000 pounds of salmon … each day for 90 days.”

Then in his 60s, Clayton Kirk reported that the loss of the salmon runs was impressed definitively on his memory because he “expected to secure a large part of his family’s food from the salmon in the Sprague River” the year he was married only to find that the runs had vanished.

The reports of white men in our homeland are equally descriptive. For example in May 1846, John Freemont reported, “We reached Tlamath Lake at its outlet. This is a great fishing station for the Indians. Up the River (Tlamath River) the salmon crowd in great numbers to the lake (Tlamath) which is 4,000 feet above the sea.”

Among the worst of the many ongoing treaty violations suffered by the Klamath Tribes is over a century without c’iiyals.

Within the pre-contact oral history of the Klamath Tribes is the retelling of a story of a devasting damming of the river, of the harm caused, and how Gmokamc’ (the Ancient of the Ancients and our Creator) acted to resolve the problem. For some of our members, this teaching remains a powerful reminder of why the current struggle to remove the dams must be seen through and the health of the river restored.

What binds an ecosystem together is the water that runs through it. Multiple parties, including tribal nations, states, local stakeholders, and other groups, have sought solutions for over a decade on the complex natural resource challenges faced in the Klamath Basin.

Attempts to resolve the issues were once thought to have been resolved with the signing of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA). The KHSA was later amended in 2016 with the hopes of a license transfer that would relieve PacifiCorp of any liability and allow dam removal to begin.

On July 16, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled on the license transfer application approving a partial license transfer, which allows PacifiCorp to remain as a co-licensee.

On July 23, PacifiCorp served notice to the signatories of the KHSA to begin the “meet and confer” process as provided in KHSA section 8.11.3.

At this point, PacifiCorp cannot continue to stall the dam removal process. Tribal nations and others impacted in the Klamath Basin cannot sit back and continue to have meetings and discussions for another decade.

It is time for Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett to do the right thing. We the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin people have waited long enough. Be honorable. Respect our treaty and uphold the promises the United States made when our ancestors ceded 22 million acres of Oregon and California to preserve our right to hunt, fish, gather and live in dignified peace.

Gail Hatcher, Roberta Frost, Brandi Hatcher, Clayton Dumont, Willa Powless and Ellsworth Lang are members of the Klamath Tribal Council.