HOOPA, Calif. — Every two years just before the salmon run in the fall, ceremony leader Merv George, Jr. gathers members of the Hoopa tribe to perform what’s called the “White Deer Skin Dance.” The ceremony involves a 10-day canoe ride down the Trinity River in Northern California.
The White Deer Skin dance is essential to Hoopa culture, and its origin is told through a story that starts with a trickster. The trickster, named Coyote, wanted to steal a woodpecker blanket from the Kahani, which are the tribe's spirits.
“He knew the Kahani were going to want their blanket back and they were going to be chasing him. So, he built a big bow up on Bald Mountain and shot himself to get away,” George said.
Coyote spent several days hiding from the Kahani. He moved along the Trinity River from one location to another until one day the Kahani found Coyote and took back the woodpecker blanket.
“Part of his punishment was that he needed to teach us mortals how to be able to gather things for yourself, to be able to make your own woodpecker blanket, to be able to gather your own acorns and to feed yourself with fish and deer meat,” George said. “And that’s part of the reason why these ceremonies were handed down to us."
Stories like this are what help keep the Hoopa’s culture alive. As it is passed down, it reminds new generations of the importance of the water and land they live on.
“We are known for being one of the tribes that have been able to keep our culture going since day one. We’ve been doing these ceremonies since the beginning of time,” George said.
Mainly due to the remoteness of their territory, the U.S. government never forced the Hoopa off their land, unlike most Native American tribes. A treaty signed in 1864 protected the land that the Hoopa lives on, but it did not protect the water that ran through it.
“Since the dams went in, it made it a lot easier to divert the water that should normally be coming down here to go somewhere else,” George said.
Starting in the early 1930s, a massive water reclamation and relocation effort known as the Central Valley Project began. Today, 18 dams and reservoirs on major rivers, including the Trinity, store water, create electricity and transport water to thirsty crops from Redding to Bakersfield.
Broadly speaking, every American who bought or sold grapes, lettuce or cotton from Central Valley crops benefitted from the project - everyone, except the Hoopa.
“When the Lewiston dam was put in place it wasn’t long before we noticed that we are suffering some salmon population issues,” George said.
Prior to 1999, upwards of 90% of the clean, cold water from the Trinity River was ultimately stopped at the Trinity and Lewiston dams, then they were diverted to the Sacramento River. That loss of the water caused fish kills like the one that happened in 2002.
“When you are looking at 68,000 adult salmon belly up, littering the sides of the bank, the only thing that I could think of in my mind was the feeling that a lot of the natives had when the buffalo were killed,” George said.
The Hoopa tribe has spent a great deal time fighting for water rights in the Trinity, and they’ve made progress. Today, 50% of the original flows are released from the dam, but it’s often not enough.
In order to safely float the river for the “White Deer Skin Dance,” the Hoopa must request that dam operators release more water from the dam so the tribe's boats can float.
“This year being a drought year, I know how valuable this water is,” George said.
The water release agreement is not ideal, but the Hoopa were here before the dams and they hope to be here if the day comes when they are gone.
“Our old people tell us, 'No matter what, you keep these dances going. Keep making canoes and take care of the redwoods, so you have materials to make the canoes in the future,'” George said.