Several Octobers back, the tribes of the lower basin arrived at the Klamath Basin Potato Festival in Merrill and, on the banks of the river that has inspired enmity for generations, began cooking salmon on the traditional redwood sticks over madrone embers.
The fire and sticks initially drew puzzled looks from the Oregon ranchers on hand. “You had people walking by, going, ‘What is going on here?'” says Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association. “‘These guys are supposed to not like us, right? What are they doing here, cooking salmon?'”
A crowd began to gather.
“At first they thought we were there to sell our fish,” recalls Frankie Joe Myers, a Yurok tribal fisherman. “No, that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to cook fish. And you can have it. We’re here to share what we have with you. This is what we fight for. This is what has sustained us for thousands of years. In order for you to really appreciate that, you have to have a piece of it.”
It was quite the feast, Addington says in the new film, “A River Between Us.” “It takes a lot of courage for the tribes to come up here to a conservative, rural, farming community after all the stuff that’s happened here over the years.
“And they show up here with gifts. I don’t think it’s lost on a lot of people.”
It gives you pause. It makes you wonder. Is it possible that the cowboys and Indians who depend on the Klamath can make peace with one another and the river that runs between them?
Can an inspirational 90-minute film — written and produced by Jason Atkinson and Jeff Martin — help to break the stranglehold of stubborn, fear-based, partisan politics?
Might the blessed peacemakers inherit the river in the end?
Atkinson has spent two years exploring that possibility. The former state senator from Central Point grew up on the Klamath. “I grew up being told it was my job to fix the river,” he says.
That 263-mile river and its fabled salmon runs have long been devastated — and its dependents divided — by dams, drought and disputes over the Endangered Species Act.
The river basin has, Atkinson argues, “the worst politics in America, and the best people. People in Portland don’t know about it, and people in Sacramento can’t find it on the map.”
The ranchers, tribes and environmentalists who find sustenance in these waters have long been pushed to extremes by death threats, dam obsessions, Klamath County commissioner recalls, court injunctions and the largest fish die-off — the estimates ranged from 30,000 to 80,000 salmon in 2002 — in the history of the West.
And even when historic agreement is reached — in the Klamath Basin Restoration Act — Congress balks, paralyzed by the price tag or the possibility that someone on the other side of the aisle might have cause to celebrate.
In the absence of federal leadership, fear dominates the headlines. Fear of losing control. Fear that dam removal anywhere is the onset of dam removal everywhere. Fear that the salmon may disappear before the next potato festival.
Atkinson and Martin — the executive producer of “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” — want to shift the focus of the debate, from the perpetual gloom of Capitol Hill to the small, ongoing peace conferences in the basin.
“A River Between Us” was a difficult film to make. Atkinson’s commitment to the river is so controversial in the most conservative corners of the Klamath Basin that Martin, not Atkinson, conducted the interviews.
Fund-raising was brutal. “We raised more money from one guy in New York City,” Martin says, “than we could get from any company in Oregon.”
But it’s a powerful film to watch, both in how carefully the differing perspectives on the river are addressed and how dramatically several of the major players evolve.
Late in the film, Steve Kandra — past president of the Klamath Water Users Association — reflects on the stubbornness that separated him from those who love the river as much as he does.
“I was a symbol of conflict,” Kandra says. “I thought I was the leadership in a community. Point of the spear. When someone from a different perspective told me you’re the symbol of conflict, I started thinking that’s not what I want to be. That wasn’t solving the pains in my community.”
So, Kandra set down the spear … and invited the Yurok and Karuk tribes to come feast on potatoes in Merrill.
“If you first heal the people,” Atkinson notes, “they’ll heal the river.” He knows how much remains to be done. The four dams on the Klamath must come down, and their owner, PacifiCorp, needs liability protection. The water-sharing agreement between the ranchers and the tribes must hold.
But Atkinson and Martin believe their film — which will have its first screenings in late February — can reshape the conversation on the future of both the Klamath and principled compromise. Calm the waters. Prevent the Klamath from becoming another political beachhead like the Keystone pipeline.
And keep everyone at the river’s edge focused not on the conflict behind them, but the feast before them.
— Steve Duin
firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8597; @SteveDuin