The following is the established format for referencing this article:Reed, R., and S. Diver. 2023. Pathways to healing: Indigenous revitalization through family-based land management in the Klamath Basin. Ecology and Society 28(1):35.
Indigenous revitalization includes community-led healing from intergenerational land-based trauma. Yet given colonial legacies that perpetuate the devaluation of Indigenous knowledge and dispossession of Indigenous lands, healing in Indigenous communities presents particular challenges. Such challenges can include responding to western models of bureaucratic governance that replicate historical trauma in governance relations. Building on existing frameworks of Indigenous political ecology, we consider the importance of resisting colonial legacies that can influence Indigenous environmental governance. We do so by discussing community-led revitalization and resurgence in the Karuk tribal community, and an exemplar case of family-based management systems for caretaking ceremonial trails in the mid-Klamath (Northern California, USA). Through this case, we consider the interdependent functions of family-based governance and tribal government institutions for collective decolonization and healing. Our analysis of family-based management provides insights into the sociopolitical and ecological dynamics of healing in diverse Indigenous communities, and explores more inclusive models for Indigenous environmental governance.
Management of a watershed is truly a spiritual relationship. You have prayer spots. You have life providing areas. You have creation stories associated. Everything we need is in that watershed. . . . It is taboo to harvest from our traditional food base if you don’t manage for that traditional food base. So being disallowed to manage our resources is actually a denial of our religious beliefs. And that has got to change. (Ron Reed, traditional dip-net fisherman, Karuk Tribe)
There can be the seeds of healing in recognizing the effects of history, and in simultaneously acknowledging and investing in cultural, political, economic, and spiritual decolonization. (Beth Rose Middleton, Native environmental policy scholar; Middleton 2010:20)
The relationship-based approach to environmental governance not only entails attentiveness to relationships with the nonhuman world but also entails a focus on interpersonal relationships. (Clint Carroll, citizen of the Cherokee Nation and ethnic studies scholar;
References to Indigenous leadership and the co-production of knowledge are becoming more prominent in mainstream environmental science and teaching (e.g., Mistry and Berardi 2016, Kutz and Tomaselli 2019, Knight et al. 2022, Reeder-Myers 2022, Chen et al. 2022). Building on these important shifts, further engagement with Indigenous environmental governance requires a deeper understanding of and response to colonial histories. Many contemporary environmental governance institutions, including state and federal institutions, have played a significant role in facilitating the colonial dispossession of Indigenous lands, and continue to exclude Indigenous knowledge and management systems in environmental governance. This occurs, in part, through the dominance of bureaucratic and hierarchical approaches to management (Pierce 1998, Nadasdy 1999, 2003, Martello 2001, Weir 2009, Norman 2012, Matsui 2015, Diver 2017), as well as inadequate self-representation of Indigenous peoples in decision making (Kovach 2009, McGregor 2014, Arsenault et al. 2019). Knowledge hierarchies that exclude Indigenous peoples can assert narrow definitions of expertise that privilege Western scientific knowledge systems over Indigenous knowledge systems, and delegitimize Indigenous land management authority on the basis of disputed historical and legal frameworks (Wilkins and Lomawaima 2001, Alfred 2005, Weir 2009, Pasternak 2017, von der Porten and de Loë 2013, von der Porten et al. 2016).
Seeking to dismantle colonial legacies, Indigenous resurgence initiatives are working to revitalize human-environment relations as well as to advance Indigenous sovereignty (LaDuke 1999, Risling Baldy 2013, Simpson 2014, 2017, Popken et al. 2023). Here, we use the term resurgence asserted by Indigenous scholars who are committed to the pursuit of decolonial futures that turn away from the state and instead focus on Indigenous leadership advancing social and cultural rejuvenation from within Indigenous communities. We also use the term revitalization, which is frequently used by Karuk community members and tribal land managers to describe tribally led ecological and cultural restoration initiatives informed by longstanding Karuk knowledge systems and cultural practices, as well as tribal community relearning of such. We see the two terms as being intersectional. We specifically use revitalization when considering how collaborations may leverage state structures to advance Indigenous futures.
One aspect of Indigenous resurgence is community-led response to ongoing land-based trauma connected to colonial legacies. Here, we use land-based trauma as shorthand for the dispossession and devaluation of Indigenous lands and knowledge that have disconnected many Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands across generations. This resurgence work includes responding to forced assimilation and the historical dismantling of many Indigenous governance structures. It also includes response to environmental decline affecting Indigenous lands, waters, and resources, driven by intensive natural resource extraction targeting Indigenous lands as well as current challenges of climate change (e.g., Diver et al. 2010, Whyte 2017, Yazzie and Risling Baldy 2018, Estes and Dhillon 2019, Norgaard 2019). The concept of land-based trauma is partnered with intergenerational trauma: trauma that is passed down to family relations, where land is also considered a relation.
Although much has been written on the causes of intergenerational land-based trauma (e.g., Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998, Norgaard 2014, 2019, Willette et al. 2016, Bacon 2018), this case study focuses on community resurgence in the face of such trauma, and tensions that may arise when communities engage with Indigenous resurgence as a collective project. We specifically focus on community-led revitalization through Indigenous environmental governance being led by Karuk tribal community members in the Klamath Basin. In this case, tribal citizens are working to restore the land and ceremonial trail systems while simultaneously connecting with cultural practices and tribal protocols rooted in family, place, and ceremony.
We discuss decolonization as a complex, place-based process and acknowledge that intergenerational trauma shapes Indigenous decolonization and resurgence efforts (e.g., Tuck and Yang 2012). Although much work is needed to repair relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples more generally, this article focuses on transformation of environmental governance institutions. We specifically consider how colonial legacies can be reproduced within tribal governments that are organized on the basis of Western bureaucratic models. When trauma is intertwined with governance structures, tribal community members can feel alienated from tribal government, even when working on the land and in their own community (e.g., Carroll 2014, 2015). Yet, speaking to Indigenous resurgence, scholars assert the “ability of indigenous communities and individuals to transform imposed political institutions” (Carroll 2015:174).
By centering community responses to land-based trauma, this article seeks to contribute toward scholarship on Indigenous environmental governance, resurgence, and revitalization. We do so by building on Middleton’s work on “the political ecology of healing” (Middleton 2010) to consider how multi-faceted Indigenous environmental governance institutions can support community healing from land-based trauma. We also draw on Carroll’s discussion of “resource-based” and “relationship-based” approaches to environmental governance in Indian Country (Carroll 2015:xiii). Through our case analysis, we engage with an exemplar model of family-based management with Karuk ceremonial trails to explore the balancing act of engaging with resources and relationships in Indigenous environmental governance. By tracing family management events of restoration and revitalization, we consider interconnected sociopolitical and ecological dynamics of healing. Learning in this way from community-led efforts to overcome land-based trauma, we hope to engage in a discussion about inclusive models of Indigenous environmental governance that can serve diverse communities.
Indigenous community responses to intergenerational land-based trauma
Previous scholarship has established how problems of intergenerational trauma are connected to the racialized dispossession of Indigenous lands, resources, and land management practices (Reed and Norgaard 2010, Marks-Block et al. 2019, Norgaard 2019). In her scholarship working with the Maidu Nation, for example, Middleton (2010:8) refers to “intergenerational, natural resource-related manifestations of trauma and wounding,” which include lack of access to sacred sites and hunting and fishing areas, and “an inability to steward the landscape and thereby maintain living cultural relationships with the land” (Middleton 2010:8). Here, historical trauma refers to unresolved historical grief stemming from colonial violences carried across generations (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998, Risling Baldy 2018). Although this article focuses on land-based revitalization, calls for justice and reparations for the historical traumas experienced by Indigenous peoples are much broader. For example, a number of Indigenous leaders have mobilized trauma theory in response to physical and emotional abuse enacted upon Indigenous peoples through residential schools (Million 2013).
Less attention has been directed toward historical trauma and tensions with contemporary environmental governance institutions that govern resource access for diverse Indigenous communities (e.g., Carroll 2014, 2015). Scholars have documented how external governance relations between Indigenous nations and federal as well as state governments have prevented Indigenous access to land and resources, contributing to cultural genocide and also sparking Indigenous resistance movements (Norton 1979, 2014, Usher 2000, Wilkins and Lomawaima 2001, Nadasdy 2003, Norgaard 2005, 2014, Risling Baldy 2013, Madley 2016, Alliance for a Just Society and CATG n.d.) Yet there is an additional need to understand current Indigenous resurgence efforts in environmental governance that are working to reestablish tribal access to Indigenous lands as well as Indigenous land management practices such as cultural burning.
Indigenous governance today involves working with complex, multi-jurisdictional institutions that have evolved in a highly colonial context. Importantly, a core principle of Indigenous governance is self-determination: colonial histories demonstrate that in the absence of formal tribal governance institutions, U.S. federal institutions have typically asserted the rights to manage and control Indigenous lands (e.g., Carroll 2014). Yet achieving self-determination given dominant political landscapes has been a complex endeavor (e.g., Wilkins and Lomawaima 2001, Powell 2018, Dennison 2012), in part because tribal government structures in the U.S. can sometimes reproduce Western land management frameworks and the land-based trauma that they represent (e.g., Fleder and Ranco 2004). Carroll refers to this as a “resource-based” approach characterized by more formal, bureaucratic institutions rooted in extractive traditions of resource use and Western legal structures. He contrasts this to the “relationship-based” approach rooted in longstanding spiritual beliefs, informal practices, and mutually beneficial responsibilities held between particular Indigenous peoples and the places they come from. Whyte (2018a:10) further summarizes this problem:
US federally recognized Tribes have come to operate using organizational structures heavily influenced by US and Western political traditions, which divvy up issues like health, culture, food, and the environment to separate sectors or departments - reducing them to being matters of “resources,” “rights” or “jobs.” These traditions are quite different from the organizational traditions derived from Indigenous calendars or seasonal rounds where government integrated together the issues with clear connections, such as language, health, economics, spirituality, politics, and the environment.
Given that colonial legacies can create divisions between tribal lawmakers, managers, and staff and tribal elders, cultural practitioners, and spiritual leaders (Whyte 2018a), some tribal community members choose to work through informal governance structures. This includes self-organizing, working informally on land management issues, traditional foods, or ceremonies, or establishing tribal organizations that operate separately from tribal government (e.g., Curley 2019, Estes and Dhillon 2019). These approaches often build on community-based Indigenous knowledge systems that arise from collective experiences and continue to evolve. As Whyte (2018b) argues, leveraging Indigenous knowledge systems for resurgence in this way conveys the importance of the governance-value for Indigenous peoples that is held within Indigenous knowledge systems. Such community-driven tribal governance initiatives are exemplified by Cherokee traditional plant medicine knowledge holders creating their own talking circles (Carroll 2014), intertribal partnerships establishing their own organizational structures to create Indigenous land trusts and cultural conservation easements (Middleton 2011), Diné water protectors working through community-based organizations (Curley 2019), Akwesasne grassroots gardening initiatives organized at the family and community level (Hoover 2017), the California Indian Basketweavers Association linking weavers to share knowledge and engage in collective action (Oberholzer Dent et al. 2023), and many other examples of Indigenous community leadership.
Land-based trauma and the political ecology of healing
We recognize Indigenous healing as a multifaceted, broad response to colonial legacies and land-based trauma. Based on a definition used in Truth and Reconciliation processes in Canada, Indigenous healing can mean the “personal and societal recovery from the lasting effects oppression and systematic racism experienced over generations” (Graham and Newhouse 2021). Indigenous healing is viewed as holistic, which “encompasses the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual world” (Dewar 2021:310). It is considered a “shared journey,” where “individual healing blends with collective healing of family, community, and nation” (Tait et al. 2021:244). Further, there is a strong environmental component, because “health is supported by the solid foundations of a healthy natural world” (Arquette et al. 2002:262).
Although we focus here on the lens of Indigenous political ecology for understanding healing, this work relates to a broader body of scholarship on Indigenous reconciliation, including the truth-telling policies and processes that make visible and seek reparations for colonial violences that are linked to intergenerational trauma, addiction, and mental illness/distress. Importantly, strategies for healing are holistic and may include revitalization of Indigenous languages, cultures, arts, and ceremonies, and additional strategies (Graham and Newhouse 2021). Holistic healing can also include interventions that shift political power and institutional structures toward meaningful support of Indigenous self-determination (Million 2013). A central component of First Nations healing efforts in Canada, for example, includes the reconfiguration of Indigenous health care to provide effective culture-based health and wellness services, in part through centering Indigenous leadership and cultural safety principles (e.g., Bourassa et al. 2021).
Here, we draw on an Indigenous political ecology approach to emphasize how “coloniality is expressed in and through the land,” an approach that highlights the importance of responding to land-based trauma (Middleton 2015:565). Indigenous political ecology seeks interventions that center Indigenous epistemologies, including revitalization of place-based relationships (Middleton 2015). The focus on Indigenous ways of knowing uplifts collaborative care for relationships held between individuals, families, and their non-human relatives in Indigenous communities (e.g., Vaughan 2018). It also emphasizes Indigenous self-determination, where governance interventions center Indigenous peoples’ own understandings of and solutions to environmental and interrelated social problems.
Responding to structural barriers to achieving Indigenous health and wellness, Middleton’s “political ecology of healing” considers how colonial influences on environmental governance in Indian Country have complicated Indigenous self-determination efforts. This includes the reproduction of colonial structures that perpetuate trauma within Indigenous communities (i.e., devaluation of Native knowledge, exclusion from land management, etc.; Middleton 2010). This challenge can be understood given colonial structures such as residential school systems that have disassembled the familial and community bonds essential to maintaining social relations and place-based connections (Tait et al. 2021:240). Accounting for such complex dynamics, Middleton distinguishes two interconnected responses to land-based trauma, decolonization and healing, and considers how we might engage with both processes simultaneously, at multiple levels:
De-colonization focuses specifically on countering the devaluation of indigenous identity, knowledge, and lifeways that came with colonialism. . . I generally see the term “healing” used to refer to emotional and spiritual processes, which include conscious and holistic recovery, recognition, and re-building within Native individuals, families, communities, and nations. Healing includes personal efforts to acknowledge the effects of historical trauma in multiple aspects of one’s life—relationships, health, etc.—and then conscious work to change any negative patterns in which one might be passing on the trauma. De-colonization, on the other hand, involves a larger socio-political project of examining and working to dismantle coloniality in multiple arenas, including epistemic, social, political, and economic. Healing may seem impossible without some de-colonization. (Middleton 2010:11, emphasis added)
While colonialism can be seen on Indigenous terms as “a painful dismembering of families and societies” (Million 2013:20), healing can be understood as a personal and embodied process for bringing back a sense of family and well-being. At the same time, healing requires structural changes that extend beyond individual responsibility, where individualization of health problems can sidestep highly political forces reinforcing environmental and social injustices in Indian Country (e.g., Hoover 2017). To this point, Million (2013:12) proposes a central question: “on what terms is self-determination offered in this political moment?” Attending to the socio-political drivers perpetuating racial hierarchies, decolonization seeks to position Indigenous peoples as leaders in ongoing negotiations of Indigenous self-determination and healing, thereby raising the question of healing by whom, of whom, and to what end?
Scholars highlight the dangers of pursuing revitalization entirely through narratives of healing and trauma. For example, trauma can activate medicalized discourse, pathology narratives, and narrow terms of health interventions focused primarily on alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse (Million 2013). Million further outlines the problems of an all-encompassing trauma ethos that can reproduce Indigenous subject positions as vulnerable populations or “dying cultures,” thereby increasing existing barriers to Indigenous leadership and self-determination. What happens, Million asks, when “whole populations are deemed traumatized?” (Million 2013:11). Importantly, feminist scholars such as Risling Baldy (2018) offer additional storylines around the revitalization of women’s coming-of-age ceremonies, which interrupt dominant narratives of trauma and loss. Such contributions witness Indigenous capacities for survivance through tangible actions, exemplified by the celebration of strong, powerful, and healthy Native women through ceremony (Risling Baldy 2018), by the holistic healing achieved by Indigenous communities returning to traditional foods (Hoover 2017, 2021), and many other examples.
Transformation of governance institutions
To build on Indigenous political ecology frameworks, this article leverages research on environmental governance from Indigenous studies (e.g., Carroll 2015) and commons governance (e.g., Ostrom 1990) to consider institutional transformation for healing through formal and informal institutions. Offering a more holistic definition of Indigenous governance as “the all-encompassing structure of relationships and responsibilities between individuals, families and non-human relatives in a specific place,” Middleton makes room for informal community governance institutions and family-based governance processes as part of a relationship-based approach to tribal government (Carroll 2015).
Whereas political ecology considers who benefits from environmental policies and how (often focusing on the structural conditions leading to uneven environmental and social outcomes), additional insight can be gained by examining institutional formation at multiple scales. Carroll engages with dynamic processes of institutional transformation and “institutional change as a product of coalitions” that are co-constituted with one another (Carroll 2015:xiv). His work extends beyond a binary of tribal community or tribal government, such that “the constructions of tribal government and community, tribal complex and rural area, scientific and traditional knowledge, and so on, get broken down to a practical level, where, rather than their distance from each other, one can focus more on the connections between them and the potential to mobilize these connections to solve problems” (Carroll 2015:xiv).
Evolving tribal governance institutions take on many responsibilities for community healing, including the repair of land-based trauma. This can involve expanding community access to restoration, revitalization, and stewardship opportunities that strive to reconnect community members to place. This is challenging work, especially given that tribal governments are not always intact or well resourced. In addition, tribal governments are working with diverse sets of community members and families experiencing a variety of needs. A focus on institutional transformation reflects the process for building community healing frameworks that involves looking back and looking forward (e.g., Arsenault et al. 2018), drawing from community knowledges of longstanding Indigenous governance structures as well as dynamic, contemporary Indigenous knowledge systems (e.g., Clifford 2001).
Restoring reciprocal relations and access to land
As asserted above, restoring reciprocal relations, or mutual caretaking between people and place, is a key part of healing intergenerational land-based trauma. Here, relations emphasize intimate, embodied, and interdependent relationships held between communities and the places they inhabit. Reciprocity refers to the two-way flow of benefits and mutual responsibilities—as opposed to the unidirectional, human-centric benefits of land and resources (e.g., Diver et al. 2019). Such responsibilities are built into long-held spiritual covenants held between Indigenous peoples of today, their ancestors, and the places they come from (e.g., McGregor 2014, Larsen and Johnson 2017, Wilson and Inkster 2018).
Restoring reciprocal relations is predicated on restoring Indigenous access to land and resources. Access facilitates a community’s ability to exercise and benefit from stewardship responsibilities through multiple channels. This includes legal aspects (such as land ownership and use rights) as well as informal, sociopolitical aspects (such as education, knowledge, and social ties; Ribot and Peluso 2003). In the context of Indigenous environmental governance, community access to knowledge and place-based relationships are bound up with having the authority to use, manage, and care for the land (Carroll 2014, 2015, Vaughan 2018, Diver et al. 2019).
Research has established the deep value of recreating opportunities for Indigenous community members to experience being on the land by participating in restoration and revitalization efforts. These are opportunities for reestablishing reciprocal relationships, i.e., relearning, reclaiming and reasserting community connections to place and land management (e.g., Ford and Martinez 2000, Kimmerer and Lake 2001, Anderson 2006, Kimmerer 2013, Risling Baldy 2013, Larsen and Johnson 2017, Vaughan 2018, Diver et al. 2019, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021). By directly participating in Indigenous-led stewardship actions on the land, individuals and families gain knowledge about their relationships to place and how to go about caring for a place as part of their individual and cultural identity.
Problems can occur, however, when community access to land, resources, and stewardship knowledge is uneven. Such inequities can be conditioned by different family experiences with respect to colonial legacies. For example, families may be coming from different economic or social positions in the community, which can affect their ability to engage with Indigenous stewardship initiatives (e.g., Middleton 2010, Reed and Norgaard 2010, Carroll 2015, Norgaard 2019). Given the powerful role of participating in eco-cultural restoration and revitalization, where transformation in the landscape is coupled with change in the individual person and community, attending to difference in community access to stewardship is essential to advancing more inclusive environmental governance.
Research as relationship
It is the personal relationships that came out of survivorship. (Ron Reed)
This writing emerges from a long-standing collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous co-authors. Our work draws from Shawn Wilson’s (2008) contributions to Indigenous methodologies emphasizing “research as relationship,” as well as models for learning through conversation and dialogue (e.g., Kovach 2009, Craft 2017). This article both reflects our perspectives leveraging multiple knowledge systems (e.g., Arsenault et al. 2018) and builds on weekly conversations between co-authors over a four-month period in 2021. We also draw on material from co-written grant reports and proposals from 2010 onward, joint presentations made from 2016–2021, and notes from recent planning meetings and field notes from 2018–2021.
We present the case study from the first-person perspective to center Reed’s voice in sharing his family history. In our discussion, we shift to combined first-person and third-person perspectives to present our case analysis. Because this case study focuses on an individual family and a longstanding collaboration between the co-authors, we do not attempt or claim to represent the entire community. Nor do we intend to overlook the tremendous leadership and accomplishments of additional leaders within the Karuk community, now or from before, to whom we are most grateful. Rather, we position this case within a broader conversation around institutional transformation, Indigenous resurgence, and revitalization for the purpose of respectful knowledge exchange and community engagement.
Diver and Reed first met through the Karuk Tribe–UC Berkeley Collaborative, a connection that has grown into a long-term collaboration (https://nature.berkeley.edu/karuk-collaborative/). In 2007, Reed connected with UC Berkeley scholars Jennifer Sowerwine and Tom Carlson regarding Reed’s work on eco-cultural restoration and supporting Indigenous youth. The following year (2008), Diver started her Ph.D program in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. At this time Reed and colleagues launched a formal collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Karuk Tribe. Based on Diver’s previous collaborations with Russian Indigenous peoples on salmon protection, Sowerwine introduced Reed and Diver. This introduction led to a collaboration among coauthors on an Indigenous mapping presentation as well as a Berkeley college motivation visit for Native youth from the Klamath River. These visits grew into a community-based research collaboration and deeper family connections for the co-authors that continue today.
Reed is a Karuk community member coming from the Charley Davis family, and a traditional dip-net fisherman. He has previously served as a cultural biologist for the Karuk Tribe. Reed comes from a family of traditional spiritual leaders and cultural practitioners, and is the father of six children. He is also a founding member of the Karuk Tribe-UC Berkeley Collaborative, a formal collaboration that develops synergistic partnerships between the Karuk Tribe and UC Berkeley research partners.
Diver is an interdisciplinary environmental scientist and community-engaged scholar. She has worked with Reed and others to help develop the Karuk Tribe–UC Berkeley Collaborative, and continues this collaboration through her studying and writing about Indigenous environmental governance on the Klamath River. She now teaches in the Earth Systems Program at Stanford University.
Land back pathways: Reed’s family history of revitalization starting from “the center of the world”
My first memories are of gathering traditional food and our ceremonies. This meant fishing down at the Ishi Pishi Falls, hunting, and gathering. The ideology I developed during the participation in those ceremonies allows me to be who I am doing the work today, and also determines what I did yesterday and what I will do in the future. (Ron Reed)
I come from a family of ceremonial leaders and culture bearers. I was born in 1962 in Yreka, California. As a child, I grew up with my mother and five other siblings in the town of Happy Camp in Karuk territory, which also has a history of being a logging center and a mining town. In 1989–1997, I lived with my wife and children on the Hoopa Reservation.
It was an important moment in 1997 when I moved to Katimîin in the role of caretaker-in-training for the Karuk Tribe’s cultural area at the request of ceremonial leaders. For Karuk people, this is the center of the world, a spiritual balance point for all of existence, and also the site of the Karuk Tribe’s only recognized subsistence fishery. In Karuk World Renewal philosophy, one’s ethical responsibility to care for natural resources stems from an understanding of the long-term relationship between humans and the places with whom we hold ancestral ties (Lake et al. 2010).
Moving to this key cultural area was an opportunity for me to revitalize a cultural lifestyle: dip-net fishing, cultural burning, and working with ceremonial leaders on trails restoration. While my grandparents passed down knowledge of Karuk language and culture to my mother, she did not speak Karuk with her children. After attending boarding school, she did not want her children to have the same experience she had with being shamed for her culture.
Bringing up my younger children here was an opportunity for them to learn in close connection to Karuk Indigenous knowledge that is rooted in the cultural practices and place-based ceremonies. The trails I walk with my children are the same trails used by my Karuk ancestors. We continue to harvest salmon to support our extended family, our elders, tribal ceremonies, and the community, at the same time that we care for our fishery.
This move was not just a family decision; it was only possible after extensive negotiations between the tribe and the U.S. Forest Service over returning Karuk ceremonial areas to the tribe. Before we moved in, this area housed a U.S. Forest Service ranger office. At this time, newspapers were covering tribal protests over clear-cut logging in tribal areas, which placed pressure on the agency to make amends.
Even taking small steps toward making amends was not easy. Karuk–Forest Service conflicts are rooted in a long history of racialized dispossession. In contrast to other federally recognized tribes, the Karuk do not have a designated reservation area. In 1905, the U.S. federal government designated most of Karuk territory as National Forest (Bower 1978, Salter 2003). This designation was made possible because the U.S. government never ratified treaties negotiated in good faith with the Karuk people (Heizer 1972, Hurtado 1988, Johnston-Dodds 2002, Madley 2016). Instead of creating a reservation, federal agencies set aside small allotments for individual families. Many allotments were lost or sold by tribal members under economic duress (e.g., Huntsinger and McCaffrey 1995), although the tribe still holds a number of small tracts in trust status.
This means that the ability of Karuk families to live on the river and bring up their children in direct connection with cultural areas is severely limited. So, despite ongoing frustrations with the agency, I view this as a partial land-back moment. It was an imperfect arrangement with no transfer of ownership. Yet the Forest Service developed a special use permit with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which supports the Karuk Tribe’s current use of the site. The Forest Service also created a Cultural Management Areas (CMAs) designation for the site and surrounding landscapes within its 1995 Long Range Management Plans (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] Forest Service 1995, Diver 2014). It was a decision that had an immense impact on my immediate family.
Bureaucratic pathways: Tribal science and advocacy for dam removal
How do we use indigenous knowledge in a Western science paradigm? What does it mean to do this? How can we use natural resource management to fix some of the social ills that are happening? How do we get our tribal community healthy? (Ron Reed)
In 1997, I started working as a fisheries technician for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources (KDNR). At that time, I was also supervising a group of youth to manage our ceremonial trail systems at Katimîin and Inaam. This work involved working with my mentors to train our youth as future knowledge holders, a role that continues to inspire my work today. In 2001, I moved into the position of cultural biologist at KDNR. In this new role, I began representing the tribe in highly contentious dam removal negotiations, with the goal of bringing back healthy salmon runs on the Klamath.
The 2002 Klamath River fish kill was a key driver for my advocacy. The fish kill occurred when federal agencies approved agricultural diversions in the upper basin despite inadequate in-stream flows for fish (Paskus 2003, Most 2007, Doremus and Tarlock 2008). This resulted in between 34,000–78,000 adult salmon and steelhead dying without spawning in the lower Klamath. An outbreak of fish disease was caused, in part, by poor water quality conditions associated with dam reservoirs (Belchik et al. 2002, CDFG 2004). Built without fish ladders, these dams block fish access to high quality spawning habitat, yet they produce minimal hydroelectric power, with no flood protection or irrigation benefits.
Following media coverage of the fish kill, federal state agencies were forced to hear the complaints coming from tribes all along the Klamath River. The onset of dam relicensing, occurring under auspices of the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), provided an opening for discussions of dam removal. Often speaking to large audiences that included upper basin farmers expressing hostility, I provided public testimony on behalf of the Karuk Tribe.
The initial results of my work were deeply disappointing. Despite spending weeks away from my family in FERC relicensing meetings, my testimony was taken as “anecdotal evidence.” It was only after I teamed up with allied researcher Kari Norgaard to produce the 2005 Altered Diet Report, submitted to FERC (Docket # P-2082) that I began to see a meaningful response to tribal concerns. To connect declining community health and denied access to salmon, our research linked disproportionate levels of diet-related disease among Karuk people (e.g., diabetes) to the loss of traditional foods like salmon, in part from dams preventing fish passage (see Salter 2003, Norgaard 2005, Reed and Norgaard 2010).
The Altered Diet Report opened my eyes to a nexus between Indigenous knowledge and Western science. When I shared my personal testimony as a tribal member, my words were taken as a drawn-out story, which was not accepted in the modern management paradigm. Our research translated my story into data and concise wording, which resonated with agencies and the press. Partnering with researchers on a scientific study offered a new point of entry into a bureaucratic system driven by Western science.
During dam removal negotiations, I was away from home one week every month for three years. I look back on this time attending meetings as a missed opportunity when I was not fully present to supporting my wife and children. Being away meant that I was disconnected from the river and my immediate family for long periods of time. I struggled with intergenerational trauma driving my need for self-medication and alcohol abuse. This experience was not conducive to the healing process that I wanted for myself, my family, or my community, and it led me to search out a new path.
Collaborative pathways: linking knowledge systems for traditional foods and tribal health
I’m praying on this work and see where it takes us. It will take us to the healing that we need in our community and others. We are fix-the-world people. Here we go. We have a new era we are addressing, and I’m proud I will provide leadership in that area with some of the best people in the world—all of these folks who are my sisters and brothers. (Ron Reed)
Soon after this experience, I met Jennifer Sowerwine and Tom Carlson at UC Berkeley, and we created the Karuk Tribe–UC Berkeley Collaborative. Our goal was to build synergistic connections between tribal members and the UC Berkeley community to enhance eco-cultural revitalization within Karuk territory—restoring ecosystems and the cultural practices that have shaped the landscape and people as an interdependent social and ecological system.
This collaboration enabled community-based research projects and built personal relationships that benefited our collective and tribal community (see Fig. 1). At that time, I also began working with Jennifer on joint grant proposals, resulting in a major multi-year USDA grant on food security. We launched the Karuk food security initiative as a formal tribal-university partnership. One origin point for the project was my vision for advancing Karuk eco-cultural revitalization through four-season youth camps and traditional food workshops. I saw us using natural resource management for traditional foods to heal the community, including some of the social problems affecting the most disadvantaged tribal members (see Sarna-Wojcicki et al. 2019).
Through my experience running a culture camp in the high country, I found that some youth had previous experiences connecting them to the river, trails, and high country, but others did not. Part of my goal with the food security initiative was to break down inequities within the community by engaging with a broad spectrum of tribal youth. I also wanted to include both traditional knowledge systems and Western scientific knowledge systems in our programs: connecting youth to their culture and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. For tribal members seeking to reenter the workforce, I wanted to teach practical job skills around improving fire safety, ecosystem health, and tribal access to gathering areas. For example, at one prototype youth workshop, we combined traditional foods education from elders, invasive plants removal, and an easy-to-use digital mapping exercise supporting place-based learning (see Diver and Reed 2013).
Family-based pathways: ceremonial trails restoration and family management institutions
The closest thing to truth on earth is the way we manage our resources, based on ceremonies. We are not working on a whim. If we can restore our knowledge with the ritualistic management and ceremonial acts, then we are going to be closer to where we want to be. (Ron Reed)
Despite our initial intent, I did not see the families most in need of gaining access to restoration and revitalization opportunities participating in our initial food security programs. This was partly due to structural barriers, including long driving times and distance between tribal service areas, and capacity building challenges. An additional challenge was internal community conflict. For myself, I saw these conflicts stemming from social and economic hierarchies. This cascaded into a series of interpersonal confrontations that left me feeling alienated from tribal government.
I left my position with the Department of Natural Resources in 2018, and refocused on my family. I worked toward regaining mental health by revitalizing World Renewal ceremonies, in part through trails restoration with family members. This connected me back to one of my first jobs working for the tribe as an assistant caretaker, and supervising trail management teams. In this way, ceremonial and ritual-based management of these trails has been one pathway to restoring my health and my family’s health.
Our ceremonial trails provide a spiritual and geographic center for my family (see Fig. 2). My grandfather, Francis Davis, had been the Medicine Man at the Inaam Pikyávish in the early 1920s, and became the ceremonial head man until his passing in 1977. My great uncle’s brother became ceremonial leader at Katimîin. My mother also trained for Pikyávish ceremonies at Inaam, before a period of difficult years when the family stopped participating. I became Medicine Man at Inaam briefly from 1996–1998, but did not return to a leadership role until more recently in 2018. Since then, my family has been working with cousins and other relatives to fulfill ceremonial rituals and to clean trails and camps.
Our trail system is over 20 miles in length and includes steep, mountainous terrain. Impassable brush along these trails is a significant problem: overgrowth of the forest, caused by fire suppression policies and colonial legacies, now prevents the medicine man from fulfilling his responsibilities. Every year, there is a cleaning component of preparing for ceremonies, a physical practice that holds the spirit of prayer and prepares us. Hosting ceremonies also requires mobilizing family members throughout the year to gather the traditional foods we need for physical and spiritual sustenance. Yet the current state of the trails now requires collective action if we are to succeed in revitalizing our ceremonies and making the trail system passable once again.
By working on our trails, family members are protecting and relearning Karuk ceremonial traditions through the teachings that the trails have to offer us. Thus far, my family has been moving forward primarily with our own resources, with minimal support for transportation and fuel. But we have another five-mile trail section to do. Having the family itself lead and do the work with the tribal community is part of revitalizing their broader spiritual and social obligation within our place-based religion. When land management activities are led by others, or assigned to partner organizations, the process and outcomes are not the same. Yet we will not be able to succeed in clearing these trails on our own, and would benefit greatly from additional resources.
Community pathways: youth leadership and intergenerational learning at fish camp
I am up there thinking about management. And that’s the part that was stripped from me. My mother was in boarding school. Her father went to boarding school. So that was the piece that was stripped from us—there, in that time period. So now I want to manage. I want to be full. I want my grandkids to understand what a full cup looks like. It’s kind of impossible for my kids right now to look, because they’ve already seen the glass. They’ve already seen where it’s at, and it’s been half full. But at least they’ve seen it half full, and not half empty. So, I’ve got another part of my legacy, and that is my grandchildren. And that’s what all this work [is about]. (Ron Reed)
As with the trails, my work on four season camps started with my family, and extended out into the community. It is now my children working with extended family members to lead youth programs and culture camps, engaging Native youth as teachers, mentors, and friends (see Fig. 3). Building on our family relationships, we are working to support the community, especially disadvantaged youth who have had the least opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage. Our hope is that this cultural, place-based learning can help break the cycle of social ills that many Native youth are now experiencing.
For example, in 2018 my family hosted a fish camp for Humboldt State University Native youth and members of the Klamath eco-cultural restoration community. The camp included early morning dip-net fishing, where family members introduced the group to key principles of Karuk World Renewal and demonstrated Karuk subsistence salmon fishing at Ishi-Pishi falls. Our dip nets brought up just the right amount for salmon to provide us with dinner that evening.
Recalling an evening from our recent camp, tribal leaders closed the program with a meal of salmon cooked on sticks, acorn soup, roasted potatoes, salad, and homemade cupcakes. Elder Clarence Hostler shared a teaching with participants that world renewal starts from healing your own spirit. He sang for the group in Karuk language, sharing “Grandma’s Song,” a song about reaching out to your ancestors to ask for help and support through difficult times. “Life is hard,” he sang in Karuk, recalling ancestors who carried heavy burden baskets up and down the Klamath Mountains. After closing, workshop participants talked around the fire. Reflecting off car headlights, tiny frogs made their way across the precarious wet road in small hops, recalling the persistence of Karuk people in this place.
Pathways to healing: Reflecting on family-based management
The family where I come from teaches me what it means to be connected and never quit. It is about persistence. (Ron Reed)
My family history outlines multiple pathways toward healing through Indigenous environmental governance, where governance can be understood as something more than bureaucratic or corporate forms of management, and rather as something that builds relationships through families and communities. This is a model for community-based management that starts with the family. The family-based model responds to colonial legacies that can leave tribal community members feeling disconnected from their culture, the land, and tribal government. Such experiences are rooted in a long history of racialized dispossession and forced assimilation leading to intergenerational land-based trauma. For myself, I have experienced healing through family-based management, restoring ceremonial trails, and working with tribal youth to reconnect with the natural world and my relations. I see such family-based initiatives as an essential part of contemporary Karuk social and environmental management.
In Karuk culture, we are taught that our first responsibility is to provide for our immediate family. For example, there is a traditional Karuk story about a fisherman of the village taking salmon only for himself, and not sharing fish with his wife and children. There are negative consequences for his behavior, being stingy and not fulfilling his responsibilities. He is turned into a small bird, a moss-eating dipper, who never eats salmon again. This traditional story teaches us about the primary importance of providing for your family, and the foods you feed your children.
Yet World Renewal philosophy teaches that our second responsibility is to our extended family and community. We also have a responsibility to our non-human family. These responsibilities connect us to the web of life, including the food species and regalia species that are interwoven into our lifestyle and cultural practices. They also connect us with traditions of reciprocal exchange.
It is through practices of mutual exchange and provisioning that we build reciprocal relations and maintain connections across our community. When my grandparents shared their knowledge and spiritual sustenance with the community, for example, they received so much in return: traditional foods, fruits, and vegetables from up and down the river. This happened when my grandmother shared her weaving knowledge with community members along the Klamath and Trinity, and when my grandfather prepared for ceremonies. Reciprocal exchange continues to happen today when I distribute fish to elders and community members bring me firewood in return.
Our trail restoration work also starts with the family. We then engage with tribal members beyond our family unit, “village members” who are our friends and neighbors, and across generations. It is not family or community. Instead, by engaging in cultural practices and mutual exchange, we take care of the individual family and tribal community. Thus, our model is about following the example set by my grandparents, extending community access to opportunities for relearning and healing.
Although the family is the core of our work, support from tribal government is also needed. My family is not big enough to manage the ceremonial area in its current condition. Fire suppression has left our sacred grounds vulnerable to catastrophic wildland fire and has had a devastating impact on our place-based community and religion (Salter 2004). A single family cannot meet the broader needs for healing in the community, nor can it respond to the restoration and revitalization needs at all of our ceremonial sites, allotments, and family places.
As we engage in family-based management, we see an opportunity for a collective action. We seek to extend our web, reaching out to different families in the community. We are also building bridges with tribal government: what do we need to do to be its full partner in this endeavor? Through such partnerships we could build a wide spectrum of family-based initiatives into management plans, grants, and policies to serve the broader community. In this way, we could better reach tribal members, youth, and elders who struggle most with food insecurity, poverty, mental health challenges, and other manifestations of intergenerational trauma.
Linking formal and informal institutions for Indigenous environmental governance
We note that family-based management structures provide a more informal governance structure compared to formal tribal government agencies. Although family-based management systems are still governance institutions, prescribing rules of behavior that convey “common knowledge (that can be) monitored and enforced” (Ostrom 1990:51), they are more informal and intimate. We argue that family members hold their relations accountable on the basis of reciprocal relations that unfold in particular families and places. In this way family-based institutions differ from procedural or prescriptive rules that make up more formal tribal governance institutions (Diver et al. 2019). At the same time, we note that government agencies (tribal and non-tribal) include staff who represent the tribal community, and who are themselves members of particular families (e.g., Weir 2023).
Of course, family management is not new in tribal communities (in the sense of extended family relations, not just nuclear families), and has been the backbone of Karuk tribal governance. This evokes Deloria’s insights into defining characteristics of belonging in tribal and non-tribal communities. Whereas “non-Indian communities are defined primarily by residence, by an arbitrary establishment of political jurisdiction, or by agreement with generally applicable sets of intellection belief,” he writes, “tribal communities are wholly defined by the family relationships” (Deloria 1999:326). In this case, understanding tribal communities as family-based entities may help us consider the role of family-based management structures in Indigenous resurgence and revitalization, as well as the challenges of overcoming tensions among different families that are part of this work.
Insights about family relationships demonstrate the importance of a tribal government’s responsibility for ensuring that all families and all ceremonial sites are cared for. We see tribal governments playing a prominent role in brokering political relationships with external governments, or in building alliances with others to influence external governments. Thus, it is often tribal government representatives who advocate for the protection and caretaking of cultural resource within their traditional territory, as well as particular family areas.
Intersections between tribal government and family-based management suggest the value of supporting family-based leadership and capacity in the community. Indeed, tribal self-governance and revitalization can be predicated on community and family-based leadership existing in the first place. It is often through families and community groups that tribal communities recreate and maintain traditional management processes (e.g., Diver et al. 2019). Thus, if there are no tribal people using and caring for the plants or subsistence fishing for the community, policy shifts for land protection lose a great deal of relevancy.
Land back: engaging structural barriers to decolonization and healing
As discussed in Middleton’s A Political Ecology of Healing (2010), we recognize structural barriers to creating the transformative governance structures needed for community healing, and overcoming such barriers can require decolonization. For example, governance structures can promote healing by interrupting uneven power dynamics and bridging knowledge systems. This may involve changes in external governance relations, as well as shifts in internal governance to serve diverse tribal communities.
We emphasize the importance of creating and supporting tribal government structures that expand community access to resources and decision making as one important pathway to healing. Despite the strength of Indigenous-led grassroots initiatives, tribal governments often play an important role in acquiring the funding needed to support large-scale projects that can sustain land-based cultural practices. Given tribal governments’ primary role in receiving and implementing grants and tribal programs, traditional knowledge holders may sometimes feel excluded from governance. To overcome such challenges, funds can be directed to community-led initiatives.
Another challenge to revitalization that we see includes political barriers to working across all cultural sites or family areas. For example, the Karuk Tribe includes three different tribal centers that are about an hour’s drive from one another and span multiple counties with drastically different political orientations toward Indigenous self-determination initiatives. Illustrating an additional problem, colonial histories have prevented the tribe from taking more effective action around individual allotments. Given fractionated ownership of allotments, where the original allottee’s ownership rights are passed down equally to all descendants, it can be difficult for family members or the tribe to make land management decisions. We argue for reestablishing connections between tribal government, families, and family members for collective land-based restoration and revitalization as an important step toward repair.
Dispossession of Indigenous lands is always a structural barrier. We underscore the role of land back movements in providing an important pathway forward. Land back initiatives reconfigure structural relations around land ownership to affect decolonization and healing efforts at all levels. As demonstrated in this article, even small land back moments can create structural changes that reverberate within a family and community and extend across generations. Shifts in ownership and use rights can shape day-to-day expressions of Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous land management practices that facilitate healing and repair. This is especially the case when families regain the ability to care for ceremonial areas and for each other.
Healing through reciprocal relations: nurturing flexible interdependence
We see the potential for collaborative healing initiatives that connect tribal community and tribal government, and in doing so, are inspired by Whyte’s (2018c) concept of “collective continuance.” The collective continuance concept emphasizes flexible interdependence and is based on qualities of moral relationships, such as consent and trust, which support particular Indigenous understandings of social-resilience and self-determination that predate Western concepts of social resilience (Whyte 2018c). This is an important concept for considering how more traditional forms of government can potentially work with more bureaucratic tribal governance bodies in ways that do not perpetuate trauma.
As an example of collective continuance, Whyte (2018c:131) describes seasonal round governance systems and how they “are highly flexible webs of relationships. The relationships are based on particular responsibilities that each party in a relationship has.” He points to the moral qualities of these relationships that facilitate “an interdependence capable of transformation and change through facilitating persisting and emerging responsibilities” (Whyte 2018c:133).
Ceremony presents an additional example of an Indigenous practice working against stove-piped organizations and weaving connections between disparate community efforts back together. As Whyte explains, “The ceremonies and feasts bring people together to strengthen moral qualities, in this case accountability, but also trust, consent, and reciprocity. They seek to not only rebuild the social fabric of Indigenous peoples, but also to repair the conflicting relationships with settler and other non-Indigenous populations in the region” (Whyte 2018d:14).
We want to reflect more on collective continuance to guide us toward additional pathways for creating more interdependent arrangements connecting disparate tribal governance institutions, perhaps through land-based practices and ceremony. The concept speaks to questions of coordination in tribal environmental governance, which can be based on non-hierarchical linkages emphasizing mutually beneficial reciprocal relations and connections between knowledge systems. Given the different ways in which families and tribal governments operate, there may not always be points of alignment between them. Yet at the same time, these entities share similar interests in managing the landscape as well as helping people and the land to heal.
The collective continuance concept also speaks to questions of simultaneity of resource-based and relationship-based approaches in Indigenous environmental governance. As discussed in Hoover (2017), some tribes are interfacing with state and federal agencies, universities and consultants, and the bureaucratic worlds that they represent, while at the same time engaging in grassroots, community-based efforts to support tribal community members and nonhuman relatives. This speaks to the multiplicity within Indigenous communities that engage with individual, social, and political bodies to promote healing through a range of concurrent strategies, which may be distinct or overlapping with one another (Hoover 2017:254).
Pikyáv (to fix it)
This is our philosophy: fix it. All these pathways need to be fixed. So that we can recreate Pikyávish (World Renewal). (Ron Reed)
This article considers histories of intergenerational land-based trauma and the role of family-based natural resource management in facilitating collective action and healing. Our analysis considers whether by “scaling down” with governance, i.e., engaging in governance challenges at the family level, Indigenous community leadership can advance eco-cultural revitalization and repair. In the case of the Karuk Tribe, these insights are shaped by the Karuk philosophy pikyáv (“to fix it”). In Karuk World Renewal traditions, pikyáv involves restoring the land and all the pathways that enable tribal community members to rebuild relationships with each other and with the world. Importantly, fixing “the world” starts with the individual person, and then expands out: first to the family, then into the broader community, and finally into a broader cosmology of place-based relationships that includes non-human entities. Thus, we understand pikyáv traditions to suggest starting healing and repair with the individual person and family, then expanding out into the community.
If we understand colonial experiences to involve the painful dismembering of Indigenous families and societies, pikyáv invites an embodied understanding of tribal environmental governance that involves interpersonal healing with the land. We see the pikyáv concept as helping us to make space for family, including nonhuman relatives, as an important part of Indigenous environmental governance and resurgence. Bringing embodied, interpersonal healing into tribal environmental management invites a relationship-based approach to revitalizing place-based connections with tribal community. Although the idea of transforming bureaucratic governance into a relationship-based approach may seem paradoxical, this is precisely the kind of experiment we are considering.
This work leads to numerous questions for further research: how do understandings of environmental governance shift when Indigenous knowledge systems, epistemologies, and lived experiences are taken as the starting place for environmental governance? How can Indigenous languages and concepts, such as pikyáv, inspire innovations in contemporary environmental management? What does it mean for different Indigenous communities to bring a relationship-based approach into tribal policy and programs? And in this context, what are the intersections between formal and informal governance institutions that can support ongoing efforts to broaden community access to healing? These are complex questions that require a collaboration between knowledge systems and between cultures—working across systems to better understand how, once again, to get our communities and our planet to a healthier place, and to fix the world.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
We gratefully acknowledge our ancestors, our families, and our children, past, present, and future, as well as the Klamath River watershed, as teachers and ongoing sources of encouragement, support, and inspiration. Thank you to our mentors and teachers, including Vera Veena Arwood, Ronnie Pierce, Misha Jones, Louise Fortmann, and others. We express our thanks to the many Karuk leaders and allies supporting community-led eco-cultural restoration and revitalization in the mid-Klamath, including friends and colleagues working at the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, Karuk Tribal Council, the Karuk Tribe–UC Berkeley Collaborative, and additional community-based initiatives in the Klamath Basin. We extend our deep appreciation to Carolyn Smith for reading an early version of the manuscript, although any errors are our own. Thank you to Mehana Vaughan and Mez Baker-Médard for their collaboration and friendship in creating this special feature. A final, deep thanks to Robyn Reed for always being there for us, and for her contributions to ongoing family-based management and revitalization efforts. Yôotva.
Selected data from this study may be shared upon request, with permission from co-authors.
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