Cultural Controversy in Orleans
By ALLIE HOSTLER, Two Rivers Tribune
The Brush Dance is one of the many ceremonies Karuk people fought and died to preserve when gold miners ascended on Klamath River in the far reaches of Northern California changing forever the lives and landscape of the original people.
Karuk people continue the struggle to preserve the continuity of their ceremonies, but sometimes the struggle is with each other. Although there are many stories on the River of what some refer to as ‘dance politics,’ this one is recent and has violent undertones.
Risling family phones began to ring wildly on Wednesday morning with reports of a barbed wire being installed around the Panamnik dance house located just across Highway 96 from Orleans Elementary School. The family was due to begin making medicine for a Brush Dance there on Thursday morning, as they have every Father’s Day weekend for the past 12 years.
The wire turned out to be a fence, put up by a group of workers from the Karuk Tribe’s Natural Resources Department and it’s no secret that Leaf Hillman and Norman Goodwin, sanctioned the installment of the fence.
Two weeks ago the Karuk Tribal Council, a government body recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, voted to cancel all Karuk Brush Dances following the request of Goodwin, a ceremonial leader from Inaam, the stretch of Karuk territory near Clear Creek just south of Happy Camp. Goodwin said there had been too many deaths within the Tribe and that the Brush Dances should stop for a year to pay respect to the families in mourning.
After the Risling family heard about the cancelation they paid a visit to the Karuk Tribal Council Chairman Arch Super to explain that they settled up the traditional way with the families who’d experienced a loss. Under Indian law, they then said, the dance could continue. The Karuk Tribal Council rescinded their previous motion and committed to supporting the dance, allowing use of the land, and provisions for a dumpster and porta-potties at the dance site.
The Rislings said that under Indian law, permission to hold a dance should not be given or taken away by a Tribal Council or other dance leaders from different villages. Each village makes their own decisions regarding ceremonies. However, the family respected the Karuk Tribal Council’s authority over the property and the Panamnik dance house is on Karuk Ceremonial property.
The preparations began to kick into high gear. Weed wackers, shovels, nails and hammers were all hard at work with the strength of men and women who came together to make the site ready for the ceremonies. The dance would go on.
But, not if Goodwin and Hillman could do something to stop it. And, they did. Hillman was witnessed installing the 20-post and two-strand barbed wire fence with several of his employees from the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department in what was later called an act of protest. It is rumored that Hillman and his employees took annual leave, or vacation time that afternoon and were not on the clock. But some believe that the Tribal Department’s actions were insubordinate to the Tribal Council’s approval of the ceremony and amounted to trespassing when they installed the fence. Attempts to contact Hillman were not successful by press time.
The Tribal Council decided to hold a meeting with ceremonial leaders on Friday in Orleans to discuss the problem. The meeting wasn’t heavily attended, however the entire Tribal Council was there and came to only one conclusion—they want to keep church and state separate.
“The decision to fence the dance grounds was not a Tribal Council one,” Karuk Tribal Chairman Arch Super said in a telephone interview on Father’s day. “The Tribal Council is encouraging all of the ceremonial leaders to get together to work this out. We support the various dances, but we’d like to keep a distance between tribal government and ceremony.”
Ceremonial Dance Leader, Viola Risling agrees. Now in her early nineties, she is the sole heir to the Su-Worhrom village regalia willed to her by her father, David Risling Sr.
David Risling Sr. was born in 1887 at Su-Worhrom Village and was the sole heir to his great uncle Up-Pa-Graph’s duties as medicine man for the village. Up-Pa-Graph’s white man name was Chet-Gus. Although David Risling Sr. moved to the Hupa village of Med-dil-din as a boy when a dowry was paid for his mother by Hupa Head Man George Simpson, who adopted Risling in the Indian and white ways, he continued work throughout his life to preserve Karuk ceremonies and rights as he believed it was his responsibility given to him by his great uncle Up-Pa-Graph.
His daughter, Viola, who is Karuk and Yurok, and a Hoopa Tribal member, as well as her nieces and nephews, continue to practice medicine and ceremony in Karuk territory.
Some Karuk Tribal members have complained that they are enrolled Hoopa Tribal members.
“What they are doing (the people responsible for constructing the fence) has nothing to do with traditional law,” Viola Risling said. “The Tribal Council does not have the authority to approve or disapprove a dance.”
Viola also holds a plethora of written material that she helped her father type. Her father was a prolific writer drafting many documents throughout the course of his life that explain his family’s close connection to Su-Worhrom, the history of the village and protection of Karuk fishing rights on the Klamath River.
Below is an excerpt from David Risling Sr.’s writings:
My great uncle willed me by Indian Law, all of his ceremonial costumes and his share of all their sacred ceremonial grounds, and he taught me all their religious songs for each kind of ceremonial dance before he died in 1898, always impressing upon me the importance of practicing the customs exactly as they were taught to me to preserve the balance of nature and to be able to pass these things on to the future generations just as these rights had been passed down from time immemorial.
When David Risling Sr. passed, his inherited responsibilities and Su-Worhrom regalia went to his daughter, Viola, she followed his instructions to not bring the items out to dance for 10 years following his death. After the 10-year period the family began to put on and help other Karuk leaders revive ceremonies on the River; bring back the Deerskin Dance at Katimin, then Tishannik; the brush dance at Panamnik and Happy Camp. They helped out with dances at Inaam, Katimin and Happy Camp, but they were not ceremonial leaders from there.
“We didn’t come from there. We were just there to help get the ceremonies going again,” Viola Risling said. “Just like Norman Goodwin doesn’t belong down here dictating our ceremony.”
None of the dances have gone without some level of controversy. Within the past decade-and-a-half the Katimin dance house has been filled in with dirt. When it was rebuilt, it was burned down. It was rebuilt again this Spring, and already has come under threats of being destroyed in the coming weeks. Patrick Case, son of the late medicine woman Elizabeth Case, vows that the dance will go on this year and is camped out at Katimin protecting the site.
A young dancer who grew up on the River, David ‘Two Sticks’ Arwood said he’s saddened by the dance disputes.
” I used to dance for everyone. I was impartial. As a young man, I didn’t pay much attention to the politics. I just went to dance and sing. This is a sad day,” Arwood said.
Arwood sang his dad’s song over the phone as darkness began to swallow the sky on Saturday night.
“I would have been dancing right now, and my daughter would have been watching,” he said.
Before the phone interview ended, Arwood said, “The era of fear where one or two men determine our religious rights is coming to a close. Religious freedom is a Karuk right. No one person has the authority to make decisions for the ceremonies of our people. The time has come for all of us to join together.”
Arwood was at the Karuk Tribal Council Meeting in Orleans and so were a few others, including Mavis McCovey, a Karuk woman from Orleans. She feels the deaths in the area and past deaths that have occurred within hours of the Panamnik Brush Dance signals the need to discontinue the dance for a year or two.
“That dance house needs to be rebuilt anyway. I also don’t think the Rislings have the right to dance there. They do not live here and have not lived here. They are Hupa,” McCovey said. “It has been over 100 years since their family has lived up here.”
A few others share her feelings, however, according to Arwood, the Karuk Tribal Council meeting held Friday was full of negative comments about Goodwin. He is being accused of being a dictator attempting to consolidate power over the ceremonies.
Viola’s nephew, Gary Risling fears that the inaction by the Tribal Council to stop the madness infringes on the Indian Bill of Rights to freedom of religion, something the Council as a government is sworn to protect. Although Gary is not an enrolled Karuk Tribal member, he is of Karuk decent, he and his family believe they have the right and responsibility to continue Karuk ceremony as they were instructed to do by their patriarch, David Risling Sr.
In the meantime, Viola’s heart aches. Her father’s hard work, and her life’s work, to resurrect and continue the dances is being disrespected by a handful of men.
“It’s sad to think people were turned away all because two self-serving men want complete power and control of all the Karuk ceremonial dances. True ceremonial leaders would not do this sort of thing,” Viola Risling said. “We don’t bother them up the river and they shouldn’t bother us down here.”
Look for Part II of this series next week: Controversy at Katimin