Foresters, Indians Clash Over Fate of Sacred Ground : Paved Logging Road on U.S. Land Called Threat to Freedom of Religion

Times Religion Writer

Deep in this remote land of Bigfoot, the legendary man-ape of the woods--in the rugged virgin timber of Six Rivers National Forest, among the jagged rock outcroppings of the “high country” of the Siskiyou Mountains and along the banks of the rushing, salmon-filled waters of the Klamath and Trinity rivers--there is a quiet resurgence of native American tribal religion.

Ceremonial sites for traditional religious dances that had long fallen into disuse are being reconstructed in this pristine corner of northwest California at spots with exotic names like Ishi Pishi Falls, Weitchpec, Hoopa and Kota-Mein. (The latter, in the Karuk language, means “center of the world.”)

Last summer, for the first time since 1939, the Yuroks held the sacred Jump Dance, part of the tribe’s World Renewal ceremonies intended to stabilize the Earth and preserve the human race from catastrophe and disease.


Embarrassment Gone

Native American youth, some of whom were formerly embarrassed by their Indian heritage, are now increasingly seeking to re-establish religious and cultural roots by trekking to the high country northeast of Eureka to “receive power,” according to Indian leaders here.

Those in religious training fast and meditate at places like Elk Valley, Peak Eight, the Golden Stairs, Medicine Mountain and Doctor and Chimney rocks, where their ancestors talked to the “Great Spirit” and trained as medicine men and women.

This renaissance of religious and medicinal practice among the Karuk, Yurok, Tolowa and Hupa Indians has occurred--perhaps ironically--during a decade-long attempt by the U.S. Forest Service to complete a major paved logging road smack through the middle of the mountain country held sacred by the Indians since prehistoric times.

Valuable Timberland

The Forest Service says much of the 76,500-acre Blue Creek watershed area can be used for logging 928 million board-feet of lumber over an 80-year period without interfering with Indian religious practices.

The agency seems determined to complete the final six-mile leg of the 55-mile Gasquet-Orleans Road through the Chimney Rock section of the forest, thus linking lucrative timber cutting to coastal mills.

But in June, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, citing First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, prohibited construction of that section (known as the GO Road) and blocked all logging there pending further environmental study.


The Forest Service had appealed a 1983 court decision that temporarily stopped completion of the GO Road. Federal District Judge Stanley Weigel ruled then that “communicating with the ‘Great Creator’ ” in the high country was “central and indispensable” to the Indians’ religion and possible only because of “the pristine environment and opportunity for solitude” in the roadless area.

Church-State Issue

A Forest Service spokesman in San Francisco recently said the agency will appeal again--this time to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary--arguing that to prohibit the road would in effect “establish religion” by creating a “religious preserve” for a single religious group, as well as violate the government’s authority to manage the forest.

The GO Road crisis forced the area’s tribes “to consider ways to preserve Indian identity” and shook awake long-slumbering religious practices, says Christopher Peters, 35, a Yurok Indian who has been instrumental in resurrecting the nearly forgotten ceremonies.

Peters, a plaintiff in the court case against the Forest Service and head of a private tribal consulting firm in Eureka, added that one unforeseen byproduct of the GO Road issue was organizing a “summer camp” in 1976 for 16 Yurok youths who were taught the rituals of the Jump Dance.

Commitment Strengthened

“That in itself represented a major step, an intensive focus on religion that bolstered the commitments of the people,” Peters said.

Added Jack Norton, a Hupa Indian dancer and professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University: “The outer rituals may have been lost, but the knowledge wasn’t; it’s still within the vibrant nature of this land.”


Today, only a handful of full-blooded Indians live in the tribal areas here. Intermarriage with whites and between tribal groups has all but obliterated racial purity. An estimated 4,000 Indians of predominantly Yurok ancestry, 2,000 of Karuk, 1,500 Hupa and 600 Tolowa, live within a 60-mile radius of the Hoopa Valley Reservation--the largest Indian reservation in California.

Ancient Rituals

Ceremonies of the tribes of northwestern California, practiced thousands of years before first contact with the white man nearly 200 years ago, are believed by many Indians to have been initiated by pre-human spirits, or “Beforetime People,” who inhabited the world and brought all living things and culture to mankind.

These elaborate rites, taught by these “Immortals” were repeated in precise fashion by priests, or “spiritual specialists,” in the ritual centers scattered along the steep canyons of the Klamath, Trinity and Salmon rivers.

The death and rebirth of the world were reenacted by building sacred structures, such as dance arenas and underground sweat houses, and creating sacred fires and rock walls related to acquisition of power by shamans (priests) and their assistants.

Sacred Land’s Vital Role

The sacred high country plays a vital role in “doctor training” and personal “medicine making.” The closest parallel in other cultures is the pilgrim destinations in Palestine, Mecca and Jerusalem--or perhaps the world’s great temples or cathedrals.

The Indians who use the high country view it as a “sacred whole,” Norton said; it is not just a series of isolated rocks, caves and ponds where men and women go to pray.


“It’s a church to us,” Bertha Mitchell, sister of Christopher Peters, said.

“I think places like Doctor Rock and Chimney Rock are kind of like black holes in space--high energy spots on the Earth--a vortex of some kind,” Norton said. Being there is “stepping through doors of energy and transformation. . . . There may be whirlwinds of energy that, when one comes close to them, cause visionary experiences of transcendence.”

Few Use the Land

Only a few Indians, who feel a sense of “calling” to minister to the physical and spiritual health of the tribe or people, use the high country for extended training periods.

A retreat to a sacred mountain site is usually preceded by four to 10 days of fasting, dancing and sweating for purification in a sweat house. These communal structures are situated in the traditional tribal villages near the river, are sunk five to six feet into the ground over a fire pit, and are fashioned from hand-split redwood boards. The heat generated by fir or pepperwood fires inside gives the effect of a modern sauna.

Norton described how time in the mountains is spent in isolation:

Cosmological Forces

“You leave a marker to warn others to stay away. . . . You build a small fire at night, usually on a ridge. . . . You address the spirits and tell them who you are, what you are doing there. Then you stay up all night, reviewing your life . . . and opening yourself up to cosmological forces.”

In order to heighten “mystical visions,” those in high-country training refrain from drinking water, but are allowed a kind of acorn soup for sustenance. Often, the person seeking “power” will dance for hours at a time, and perhaps shout to the “spirits.”

“Sometime during that time (on the mountain), there will be a visitation, a confirmation,” Norton told a visitor at his Indian-style home in Hoopa. “A song might come to you on the wind, and this, though yours, could be given for the healing of the tribe. . . . If you are very fortunate, a white (albino) deer would come before you, or a pileated woodpecker.”


In Training Five Years

Norton said his nephew, Richard McClelland, has been in training as a medicine man for about five years.

“He treats illness by talking with the patient; then he talks to his spirits, who tell him what’s wrong,” Norton related.

“Doctor Rock is where they give people their final degree,” said Glenn Moore, a member of the Pohlik-Lah (Yurok) Council. “They don’t all make it. The Great Spirit rejects some of them.”

Chimney Rock, perhaps the most awesome of the high country ritual sites, is a prominent 5,727-foot butte rising above Elk Valley, a meadowed flat about 30 miles from Orleans via the already completed southern section of the Gasquet-Orleans Road.

Meditator’s Wide View

At the extreme east tip of Chimney Rock is a tsektsel , a rock circle forming a rudimentary “prayer seat.” There, a meditator can survey the entire landscape. On a recent clear day, one could see the tip of Mt. Shasta to the east, Preston Peak to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Few non-Indians are escorted to these “power sites,” and photos of religious rites are now forbidden.


“You lose some of the power if you tell everything you’ve learned,” said Sam Jones, an Indian of Yurok descent whose grandmother was a medicine woman.

Jones, a “dance maker” who hosts tribal dance groups at local ceremonial grounds, noted that “making medicine” refers to more than the curing aspects. It means “to make things happen in your favor,” he explained, adding that what Indians call “low medicine” can be made for success in such earthly things as gambling, hunting, weather control and even tree-felling.

Saved During War

“Medicine” made for him while he was serving overseas during World War II saved his life while others in his unit were killed, Jones believes. The ritual involved constructing a “plate” of spruce needles, symbolizing the dish he would eat from upon his safe return.

Jones and Lyle Marshall, curator of the Hoopa Tribal Museum, cautioned that though there is much similarity between the ceremonial dances performed by the tribes indigenous to the Six Rivers area, the prayers, movements and even the costumes often convey separate meanings.

The Hupa Brush Dance “began as a healing dance and evolved into a social event,” Marshall said. On the first night, a Thursday in mid-July, the medicine woman begins the dance in the dance pit with long burning sticks covered with pitch. After resting the next day, dancers resume ceremonies at dusk Saturday. Teams from the different tribes continue dancing and singing in friendly competition throughout the night, bringing out the finest regalia at sunup for the final dance, Marshall said.

Colorful Costumes

Dance regalia, symbolic of Indian wealth and the symbiotic relationship between the Indian people and nature, include colorful headdresses of eagle and flicker feathers, red woodpecker scalps, dance charms and paddles, otter hides, deerskins, and necklaces of abalone shells, polished pine nuts, and rare Dentalia--mollusk shells found only off the coast of British Columbia.


The White Deerskin and Jump dances are regarded as the most sacred ceremonies because they relate to World Renewal, according to Marshall: “The Great Spirit said, ‘Do this ceremony until I come back.’ ”

The Karuk World Renewal ceremony, which ended today, took place for 13 days near the mouth of Clear Creek on the Klamath River below Happy Camp, according to Paul Gary Beck, the Karuk tribal chairman.

Putting World Back

“The literal meaning is to rebuild . . . to put the world back to its original place after it has tipped on its axis. . . . There will (also) be prayers for an abundance of food--acorns, salmon, deer. It’s like the Indian New Year,” Beck said.

Norm Goodwin, a Karuk ceremony leader for the last seven years, said a special U-shaped rock altar is reconstructed each July at the time of the new moon before the renewal celebration, which traditionally begins with archery ceremonies.

Construction of the stone altar is timed to precede the annual run of salmon up the Klamath and its tributaries. The priest gathers “powers to make medicine there,” Goodwin said. “Then he catches as many crayfish from the river as he can.

Food Source Protected

“He bakes them, eats one or two, and burns the rest up,” placing the remains on a piece of bark, and sends it down river. This “medicine” symbolizes the Karuks’ desire that the crayfish not consume the salmon roe deposited in the river, thus spoiling the Indians’ future source of food, Goodwin said.


In a lengthy cultural research report requested by the Forest Service, renowned archeologist Dorothea Theodoratus concluded that “a necessary part of the World Renewal activity is the pre-dance preparatory medicine” made by the medicine person at specific sites in the high country.

Her study, based on interviews with 166 Indians, recommended not only that the Chimney Rock section of the GO Road not be built, but also that the completed segments be leveled and returned to their natural state.

Studies Oppose Logging

Theodoratus’ report is part of a wealth of anthropological, historical, environmental and archeological information generated by $300,000 worth of studies of the high country commissioned and paid for by the Forest Service. With few exceptions, the reports conclude that the religion and culture of the Indians would be irreparably harmed by logging and road-building.

J. C. Winter, formerly the resident archeologist for Six Rivers National Forest, advised the Forest Service in his report that the GO Road controversy “involves a cultural conflict over the meaning of the area, with one culture’s perception that it is a holy land challenged by another culture’s belief that it is merely a valuable source of timber, copper and other economically necessary resources. By denying that it is a fragile, significant area with religious values, the non-Indian culture is actually stating that the Indians’ religion is of no value.”

Forest Service Plans Appeal

Still, says Jon Kennedy, director of land management and planning for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, the service plans to appeal the court ruling, both because of the timbering revenue at stake and because if the GO Road decision stands it could set an irksome precedent for Forest Service use of other land.

The Forest Service’s position is that the 17 ritual sites could be amply protected, Kennedy said during a telephone interview.


“We have identified the sites used, taken protective measures around them (by projected ‘buffer zones’), and reached an adequate agreement with the bulk of Native American people who actually used those sites. . . . Twenty-seven square miles (of wilderness area) goes far beyond that needed to protect the religious freedom rights of that population,” Kennedy said.

Indians Believed Divided

Peters sees the present GO Road victory as short-lived “if the commitment to be an Indian isn’t there.” He agrees privately with the Forest Service’s contention that, if all the Indians living in the Six Rivers forest area were polled, a majority would favor completion of the GO Road.

But Peters, who holds a master’s degree in educational psychology from Stanford University, says that is an economic concession or “sell-out” to Indians’ need for jobs as well as an example of assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture.

“We are being systematically engineered to live, think and act like non-Indians,” he said.

But many non-Indians share concern over potential destruction of the high country.

The tribes have powerful allies in environmental groups that fear the decline of animal, fish and plant species, and damage to the ambiance of the forest. The Sierra Club joined forces with California Indian Legal Services to finance the GO Road suit against the Forest Service.

Tim McKay, coordinator of the Arcata-based North Coast Environment Center, recently hosted a GO Road “victory party” at his home. A non-Indian, McKay summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues about a road across the “sacred ground”:

“To some Christians it would be tantamount to desecrating God’s creation.”