Indigenous Destinies and Dams

A Klamath River dam outside Hornbrook, Calif., is shown in 2009. Four dams spread across 65 miles of the Klamath River would be removed under a 2010 agreement that is now in danger of collapse. (Jeff Barnard / Associated Press)
A Klamath River dam outside Hornbrook, Calif., is shown in 2009. Four dams spread across 65 miles of the Klamath River would be removed under a 2010 agreement…. (Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2015, Jeff Barnard / Associated Press)

What did the fish say when it smacked its face into a wall?


President Obama and California officials are about to announce an agreement that will dismantle four dams on the Klamath River, thus saving the faces of many fish. As a kid I remember learning in elementary school that hydroelectric power is one of the cleanest sources of energy. The public school that I attended simply taught that unlike energy derived from coal or petroleum, hydroelectric energy was powered by gravity and falling water. Little did I realize at the time that dams serve as a source of not just electric power, but also social and political power. For those that control the dam, they control the water. And they, who control the water, control the lives of the people around that water. The United States government for so long has controlled dams on Indigenous land. Indigenous people now seek to take back control of their water by preventing, dismantling, and taking control of dams on their Indigenous lands.

My childhood government-sponsored education never taught that there were negative effects to hydroelectric power. There is no question in my mind that there is a place for hydroelectric power in America, but at the time I never thought of it as a tool of colonialism. I ask myself now, is hydroelectric power in balance with the environment, and is it in balance with Indigenous communities?  Many Americans do not know that there are negative environmental impacts that come from the construction of dams. These effects include: the blocking of fish migrations and spawning grounds, sediment build-up which kills life, pollutes water and weakens dam infrastructure, altering of plant life which changes oxygen levels in water, erosion, forestation loss, flooding, and possible dam rupture which could cause major flooding.

The negative impact that hydroelectric power has on Indigenous communities is that it takes away their sovereignty of the water. The dismantling of these four dams on Yurok land is a step in the direction to allow them to take control of their own water rights. Yurok means “downriver people.” They are identified by their relation to the water.

"The Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory" © Sunlight Media Collective 2015
“The Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory” © Sunlight Media Collective 2015

The Penobscot Nation of Maine have also fought with the U.S. government over dams and water rights. They want to restore their river to its natural conditions, which have been tainted the Industrial Age. Treaties in the late 1700s and early 1800s ceded territory back to the Penobscot Nation, but not access to the water. Starting in the 1800s, a series of dams were built which prevented seagoing fish from swimming upstream, preventing Indigenous communities from accessing their main source of food. In 2012 and 2013, the Penobscot Nation removed the Great Works Dam and the Veazie Dam, reconnecting them with the sea. Those efforts reestablished the Indigenous nation’s claims and rights to the water.

While many Indigenous nations celebrate the removal of dams, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Fountain Hills, Arizona annually celebrate the “Orme Dam Victory Days” which commemorates the Yavapai activists who blocked the construction of a dam at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers. The dam would have flooded much of the land on which they live. The Orme Dam was authorized by the Central Arizona Project in 1968, and quickly became the topic of heated debate. Opposition to its construction from Indigenous communities and questions over the environmental impacts of the dam ultimately killed the decision to build it in 1981. For the Yavapai, this commemoration is their largest annual celebration, which includes a powwow, rodeo, softball, golf, and basketball tournament, a 5K run, and a parade. To the Yavapai, the people of the desert, water is sacred, and maintaining their relationship with the Verde and Salt River is not merely a right to maintain power over water, but it is a right to maintain their traditions and their own sustenance and ways of life.

On September 4, 2015, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana exercised their self-governance by purchasing the Kerr Dam, which was constructed on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The hydroelectric dam was erected by Rocky Mountain Power in 1937, and provides energy to 147,000 homes. Much of the Indigenous community opposed its construction in 1937; however, now that it is owned by the tribes they have seen its acquisition as further evidence to their rights to the river. The Salish and Kootenai tribes have no intention of removing the dam. Instead, they have given it an Indigenous name, Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’, in order to make it their own.

The experiences of the Salish and Kootenai tribes reinforce that dams are neither bad nor good, but they hold within themselves power over water and environment. In prudence, they provide clean energy for many people. In excess and when not properly monitored, they pollute and cause harm to humans. They have been used and are continued to be used as tools for colonialism, in order to control Indigenous access to life. The experiences of the Yurok, Penobscot, Yavapai, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes all indicate Indigenous authority over water rights. They understand that those who control the dams control the water. Those who control the water, control life, and they want to take back control of their own lives and their own destinies.

By: Brian D. King, blogger and resident of Wilder, Vermont

To learn more about the Penobscot, see the Sunlight Media Collective website that includes the documentary about their struggle over water, Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory.

Works Cited:

Schilling, Ron K.. “Indians and Eagles: The Struggle over Orme Dam”. The Journal of Arizona History 41.1 (2000): 57–82. Web.

Coomes, Jessica. “Orme Dam Victory Days Celebrate Yavapai Standoff.” Arizona Republic [Phoenix] 15 Nov. 2005: 5. Print.

McNeel, Jack. “Salish-Kootenai Dam: First Tribally Owned Hydro-Electric Dam in U.S.” Indian Country Today Media Indian Country, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

Lochhead, Carolyn. “State, US Agree to Dismantle 4 Dams on Klamath River.” San Francisco Chronicle. Jeffery M. Johnson, 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

“Penobscot River Restoration Project | Home.” Penobscot River Restoration Project | Home. Penobscot River Restoration Trust, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

About the author: Farina King

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