Oregon Water War Taking Ugly Turn


Perry Chocktoot was in front of his house working on the stereo in his pickup when three guys drove by yelling, “Sucker lovers, come out and fight!” They fired a shotgun at a portable outhouse across the street.

The pickup drove around this town of about 500 that is headquarters for the Klamath Tribes, firing at signs and buildings, and stopped for a while behind a school bus, where the men asked kids headed for a basketball game whether they were Indians, Chocktoot said.

“They shot over one kid’s head,” said Chocktoot, a tribal member. “You know what that tells that kid? ‘White people hate me. Not for anything I’ve done, because I haven’t done anything.’ That is so wrong.”

Though no one was hurt, taunting Indians with the word sucker--an endangered fish sacred to the Klamath that became an icon of last summer’s federal decision to reserve drought-depleted water for fish over farms--potentially converted the Dec. 1 shooting from rabble-rousing to criminal racism.

Three men from the farming community of Bonanza were arrested three weeks later and charged with felony intimidation, unlawful use of a weapon, conspiracy, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. They have yet to go to trial.


Authorities say ranch hand George Curry, 23; logger Richard Sharp, 26; and Adam Lee, 27, no occupation listed, were goose hunting and drinking beer when they decided to shake up the Klamath Tribes.

The arrests came on the heels of an Oregon State University draft report on last summer’s water wars noting that “racism that mostly lies below the surface of social life in the basin emerged as some framed the issue as ‘Indians vs. farmers.’ ”

Tribal officials say the shooting was bound to happen, given the tensions over irrigation cutbacks mandated by the Endangered Species Act to assure water for the endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, as well as threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

“I believe it took the drought of 2001 to bring to the surface how deeply embedded racism is in this community,” said Joe Hobbs, tribal vice chairman.

Though water dedicated to the salmon tipped the balance away from farmers for the first time since the Klamath Project irrigation system opened in 1907, the local focus was on suckers.

People at rallies carried anti-sucker signs and denounced the sucker as an inedible bottom-feeding trash fish. Bumper stickers said, “Save a farmer, fillet a sucker fish.” Signs announcing a “Sucker Special” were left at the tribes’ Klamoya Casino.

“They don’t understand how significant these fish are to us,” said tribal chairman Allen Foreman. “To them it’s a trash fish.

“Through their minds they associate us with trash. That’s the way they view us. ‘The fish is useless and using it takes away from our livelihoods.’ ”

But to the Klamath people, the C’waam (TCH-waam), or Lost River sucker, and Qapdo (KUP-doe), or short-nosed sucker, are sacred gifts of Creator, celebrated with an annual ceremony to mark the spring spawning run just as Columbia River tribes celebrate the return of the salmon.

Estimates on how long the Klamath people have lived in the basin go back more than 10,000 years. One of their ancient stories tells of a time when a monster was on the land, eating the people. Creator killed the monster and carried the body to the middle of Upper Klamath Lake, where he ripped it apart and transformed the bones into the white-fleshed C’waam.

Creator told the Klamath people that as long as the C’waam survived, they would survive. And when the C’waam disappeared, the Klamath people would be no more.

Besides feeding the Klamath people, the suckers supported a popular sport fishery. But after state-regulated harvests plummeted from 12,500 in 1966 to 687 in 1986, the fish went on the endangered species list. Biologists blamed overfishing, and declining water quality and habitat from overgrazing, agricultural runoff, and draining marshes for pasture.

Relations between whites and Indians have been tense from the start. Hudson’s Bay Co. trapper Peter Skene Ogden reported friendly contacts with the Klamaths in 1826, but complained of raids by the neighboring Modocs. Klamaths attacked explorer John C. Fremont’s expedition in 1846, killing three men, and Fremont retaliated by burning a Modoc village. Reports of Modoc raids on wagon trains in the 1850s were repaid with a massacre of Indians.

After the treaty of 1864 put the Klamaths, Modocs and Yahooskins together on a reservation at Chiloquin, a band of Modocs complained of mistreatment by the Klamaths and left. When the Army tried to force them back in 1872, the Modocs held out for months in one of the last of the Indian wars.

The federal government assigned shares of the reservation to individuals in 1887 and in 1954 dissolved the tribes, paying people for their shares of the reservation, which became a national forest and wildlife refuge. The money was quickly spent and the tribes descended from one of the most economically successful in the nation into poverty.

Since regaining tribal status, the tribes have been trying to regain the reservation as a key to their economic revival.

Ever since protesters forced open irrigation head gates last July 4, Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger has been trying to avoid violence. He was concerned enough about racism to call in two U.S. Justice Department mediators, but says they found no problem. He investigated complaints of Indians refused service by merchants, and found no basis for criminal charges.

He compares the bumper stickers to a similar focus on the northern spotted owl when national forest harvests were cut back in the 1990s.

“A bumper sticker is one thing. Discharging a shotgun in a city is a whole other issue,” Evinger said. “I think it’s important that we set the tone that people not be put in fear, especially over this water thing. Because I don’t believe we’re out of the woods yet.”

Steve Kandra, an alfalfa and grain farmer who has been a leader in the water fight, says no reasonable person would support the shooting spree in Chiloquin, but added that farmers have legitimate differences with the tribes.

The tribes intervened on the side of the federal government in the irrigators’ lawsuit last year challenging the irrigation cutbacks. Tribal research went into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion that led to the irrigation cutbacks. And irrigators had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to see water documents passed between the tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“The tribes as a business entity, they have had opportunities to work with the community and were not very cooperative,” Kandra says. “If I make a comment that the tribes could have done this better, am I a racist when I say that?

“When you are doing business with somebody and they have treated you unfairly, you really don’t want to do business with those kind of folks.”

As for cooperation, the tribes note that irrigators dropped out of court-supervised mediation looking for long-term solutions.

But farmers may find themselves having to go to the tribes for water. A formal process of adjudicating water rights has begun, and the tribes’ treaty guarantees them water to sustain traditional fisheries.

Elwood Miller, the tribes’ director of natural resources, said there is hope of resolving the Klamath water wars, but the entire ecosystem needs to return to a more natural condition to sustain both suckers and farms.

To do that, “people have to be able to come together and respect each other,” Miller said. “We are concerned about the livelihood of the farmer, but they have to be concerned about the livelihood of the Klamath tribes.”