By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN, The New York Times, March 18, 2012
KLAMATH, Calif. — From a forested bluff, Willard Carlson Jr. stands watch over Blue Creek where its indigo eddies meet the gray-green riffles of the Klamath River. The creek is sacred to Yurok Indians like himself: it flows into high country, a pilgrimage point and a source of curative power for tribal healers. The Yurok consider it their “golden stairway” and weave its stepped pattern into their basketry.
This is a California few outsiders know, where remote villages still await electricity, and the river is a liquid neighborhood. For the state’s largest tribe, with about 5,000 members, well-publicized battles over fishing rights and hydroelectric dams are perhaps less pressing day to day than the question “What part of the river are you from?”
Five years ago, Mr. Carlson was rebounding from alcohol and drug abuse when he felt the need to return here, to his family’s ancestral ground. One night, cooking salmon and eel over an alder fire, he vowed to do something that had not been tried here for at least 150 years: to build a traditional Yurok village from scratch, a ceremonial place that will “bring people home to reconnect with the old ways,” he said.
Mr. Carlson, now 59, his salt-and-pepper hair heavy on the salt, named the village now rising in a clearing Ah Pah, or “the beginning of the stairway.” He views it as a place of healing for “the many people who have lost their way.”
Aided by foundation grants, the project is part of a broad resurgence in traditional tribal culture that began in tandem with the American Indian civil rights movement and aims to foster community resilience and identity. The Yurok villages that once existed by the hundreds on the banks of the Klamath, now reservation land, were homesteads for extended families. Ah Pah will be a ceremonial rather than a residential gathering place — “a college of knowledge,” Mr. Carlson said on a foggy, chilly morning, sipping tea made from wild coastal vines.
Mr. Carlson has already built a dance pit and plans to build a sweat lodge for prayers and a plank house where basket weavers and other artisans can demonstrate their work.
In Yurok country, close to the Oregon border, rituals like the brush dance — a three-day ceremony to heal a sick child or pray for a long, healthy life — are flourishing, especially during the summer dance season, when they attract hundreds every weekend. Yurok language classes are now an elective at four local high schools, including the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods, a charter school that incorporates fishing and other cultural knowledge into the curriculum. There is also a newfound expertise among the young in basketry and a growing interest in native foods, exemplified by a sign in the lobby of a multitribal health clinic in Arcata, about an hour’s drive south of Klamath, that says “Got Acorns?”
To build his traditional village, Mr. Carlson and young student volunteers — all male, as is the custom — have cleared hundreds of stumps, hauled redwood logs from afar down muddy roads and split them into planks the old-fashioned way, using a hammer and an iron wedge.
In a sense, Ah Pah is also Mr. Carlson’s own “golden stairway”— a path to personal and cultural renewal. His struggles with alcohol and methamphetamine, which he openly acknowledges, are endemic to generations of Yurok, who live with poverty and unemployment rates that range from 30 percent in coastal towns to 80 percent on the upper reservation. Some, like Mr. Carlson’s 76-year-old mother, Marguerite, live in houses accessible only by boat.
Mr. Carlson’s son Per-gish, whose name means “gray eagle,” recalled the landmarks of his own childhood: “Three bars — that’s it.”
Per-gish is now a professional fishing guide, with an eaglelike knowledge of the river and the seasonal arrivals of steelhead, eel and salmon. “Everything that happens everywhere else happens here,” he observed of the social ills that continue to reverberate. “There is an imbalance between bounty and want.”
The Yurok have endured massacres during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, the subsequent forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools and a violent dispute in 1978 over a moratorium on salmon fishing that pitted Indians against federal agents. The fight politicized many Yurok. Mr. Carlson was arrested numerous times, once for “letting an agent have it,” he said, before diving off his boat and “side-stroking away like an eel in a Pendleton shirt,” he recalled.
Years later, in his 40s with four children, his life hit bottom after four back-to-back D.W.I. convictions landed him in jail. “I wasn’t even visiting my children,” said Mr. Carlson, who was by then separated from his partner. “I knew it had to end.”
His rehabilitation finally took hold eight years ago when he boarded a bus to San Francisco with $42 in savings and enrolled at Friendship House, a nonprofit residential substance abuse center for American Indians. Toward the end of the program, “praying for guidance,” Mr. Carlson noticed a street sign near Golden Gate Park that said “Willard North.” He took it as a signal that he was meant to go home.
“Willard led his own rehabilitation,” said David Tripp, an associate professor at Redwood Community College who runs the tribe’s vocational rehabilitation program. “It was healing for him to go back to his points of origin.”
Mr. Carlson needs more old-growth redwood to finish the village, he said, but the rectangular brush dance pit, composed of chiseled redwood planks, is now complete, as is the “dress house” for treasured dance regalia made from feathers, abalone and shells.
The prospect of a first brush dance at Ah Pah, which is planned for July, is a much-anticipated event, said Christopher Peters, president and chief executive of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, a nonprofit foundation that regards the village project as a reaffirmation of spiritual practices. “Ah Pah is a pathway to sacred places,” he said. Because of its remote location near Blue Creek, he added, only “those most interested in revitalized traditional ceremonies are apt to be there.”
The dances nearly disappeared early in the 20th century along with other rituals, said Geneva Wiki, founder of the charter school in Klamath and the executive director of the Wild Rivers Community Foundation. “There was a fair amount of hopelessness and depression,” she said. “It wasn’t O.K. to be an Indian.”
Now, young people use Facebook to notify one another when the eels are running, or when there is good acorning in the hills.
Among Mr. Carlson’s protégés is 18-year-old Sammy Genshaw III, who honed his building skills at Ah Pah. “The wood has a spirit, which will now live indefinitely in the village,” said Mr. Genshaw, whose goal is to be the first American Indian governor of California. “Those planks are going to see my kids.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 19, 2012, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Vision of Reviving Tribal Ways In a Remote Corner of California.