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 The Karuk Tribal Council rescinded their previous motion and committed to supporting the dance, allowing use of the land, and provisions for a dumpster and porta-potties at the dance site.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




16 to “Cultural Controversy in Orleans”

  1. anonymous says:

    So much for unbiased journalism. This was completely skewed in one direction and relied mostly on testimony from one side of the argument.

    • JB says:

      How is it biased if she couldn’t get in contact with the people who put up the fence? We’re you with her for the five days she had to write this article? How do you know she didn’t attempt to contact the other “side” and they didn’t want to respond to her? She is just trying to write an article about the community for the community, it’s not her fault if part of that community doesn’t want to give input.

      This isn’t TIME Magazine. It’s a community newspaper telling the stories of it’s people…stories that people don’t want to read 2 weeks after it happens because we had to wait for the “other side” to decide if they wanted to tell their story. Everyone has the opportunity to respond to an article in the TRT, that is why they have an opinions column. If the “other side” feels they haven’t had a voice in this article then maybe they should have picked up their phones or opened their doors. Maybe they should send in their opinion?

    • "Henchman Of Justice" says:

      Maybe why there is a Part 2?- HOJ

  2. anonymous says:

    david risling was my great grandfather. i lived in orleans for over a decade less than 100 years ago.

  3. Tim Stuart says:

    Good story, I think it’s unbiased, impartial, and informative. it’s sad to see the quarrel, but tradition, and respect have to be given equal observance.

  4. RiverKeeper says:

    This story is why the truth needs to come out when it comes to the Risling family. The Rislings were “adopted” into the Hupa Tribe (said so in the article), so under “native law” they are no longer Karuk but Hupa. Once a dowry was paid for David Sr. mother, they were to be considered Hupa and their heirs were to be considered Hupa. Once this happened, they lost all “rights” to the Panaminik dances…end of story

    • Erica Terence says:

      The comment above by “RiverKeeper” was not posted by the registered 501c3 nonprofit organization Klamath Riverkeeper or any individual staff member of that organization. Just for the record. Not sure who is using this name, but wanted to be clear that our organization has not taken any position about the issue written about in this article.

      Erica Terence, Conservation Director/Executive Director
      Klamath Riverkeeper

  5. anon says:

    It sickens me all the ugly things I have seen since I came home. No wonder the world is in such a state when certain people care only about personal glory and do not truly work for the people. This has been a problem for the last 15 years and probably a lot longer. Drinking and drugs surround religious events and disgust me. Politics and destruction seem to be the game, and many lives are being hurt by this. Where does a young person turn for strength and guidance, with such “leaders” as these?

  6. MGJ says:

    Good Job Allie!
    I’m sure you will take ridicule and harassment from people, don’t let it get to you.
    You did a good job of bringing a situation to light. We all have to remember that each family is given their own history & stories. Each of us, even from the same family, has a different view of the same history, event, or story that was passed on to us. Mine is skewed from a woman’s perspective; my brothers would be skewed in toward a man’s perspective because that’s the way we were taught.
    The intent of all our ceremonies is to bring positive energy to the place and people attending. Right? So would we (people now) want our grandchildren (descendants) band or harassed for wanting to share those positive songs, regalia, and moments because someone else thinks differently than them?
    Thank you for taking the time to share this article with the people, and thank you to Viola for speaking up.

  7. Dan Effman says:

    I agree with Anon and MGJ. It seams like everytime there is a BIG problem with our Karuk Tribe, the same common variable is present, Leaf Hillman. It seams to me that the council is again allowing a idiot to run around claiming to be a spiritul leader of our people, yet the council still employs him. I am proud to be a karuk but stand very ashamed and sadend that our so called leaders continue to allow our people and good name to be miss represented. I will say it again EVERYONE MUST REGISTER to VOTE. I am afraid if “We The People” don’t take a stand NOW there will be far more death’s and extreme couruption within our tribe. Our future generations will suffer immensely. Its up to us.VOTE<VOTE<VOTE. If you do not VOTE dont CRY. I often hear negative comments directed towards the tribe when in fact it is the dark shaddow of the council that reflects this negativity, not the people.

    Dan Effman

  8. torn says:

    My family was paid in a traditional way from down river people, nothing was paid
    from up river people. Down river people have allowed my family to move on by the actions taken on our behalf, Leaf Hillman has never shown respect for my family,
    for that matter Arch super was the only tribal leader to give respect to my family
    for the lose of our loved one.

  9. Dan Effman says:

    I agree with MGI, anon and JB. The karuks need to clean house. The same idiots keep causing the Tribal People to be frowned upon by the general public. We The People need to stand up and rid our tribe of false representation. VOTE,VOTE,VOTE.PETITION,PETIION,PETITION.
    Dan Effman

    • Appauled says:

      Numerous families that have lost loved ones were not contacted or paid by this family. How can they even say they are traditional when Viola states that her regalia is a costume. A traditional person would have stated my family regalia not a costume. That is very dis-respectful to true native people.

      Another little interesting fact is that Mr. Lyle Marshall and Gary Risling did a photo shoot in the Panamnik dance house wearing reglia and sunglasses of all things. Posing for this photo shoot, how traditional is this. It was for a political campaign.

      It also appears that the Karuk Tribal Council gives more consideration to non-tribal members than tribal members. How very sad is that.

      Mr. Effman were you not a supporter of the Karuk Tribal Council when your good buddy was committing fraud to be on the council, provided forged documents to be a tribal member. You supported him full speed ahead and he committed fraud.

      It is very hard to imagine who you Mr. Effman would vote for in this election since no one is committing fraud!

  10. kelli says:

    I over the past three years had the great HONOR of meeting and geting to know Viola Risling She is an elder who should be shown the utmost respect by all her true love love for her heritage and her passion for the tradional ways of her people to be preserved passed on and not forgoten should be commended not critizied. myself not being native american but native hawaiian through her eyes,her passion ,dedication to tradition taught me so much and gave me so much respect for her and the native american culture and meanings behind the dances how sad for it for the first time not being the WHITE MAN fighting to make something so beautifull be lost,forgoten over what looks to me as power trips among your own and a few wanting controll andself gratifications over something that is not ment to be done with the intentent of self reccoognition sitting next to Viola last year @ the dances was one of the greatest honors I have ever experienced in my life to see her with the joy of ncontinuing something for her father and her only concern was who whould make sure the dances whould continue as they begain and not forgotten or changed.Your heritage is the most beautifull thing i have ever experienced dont destroy or allow outsiders or glory seekers the oppertunity to tarnish the beauty and the true meaning of the dances.Ignorance is the lack of knowldge dont be ignorant amongsts yourselfs and so many allready have before you and have tried to hide your culture and trditions and ways the world would have been a much better place if we all lived the ways of our grandfathers so to you Mrs Viola Risling My deepest respect for all that you have done and your father and grandfather has done for the native american people and how hard they fought for your rights maybe you all need a history lesson it was an honor to have the great pleasure to call you auntie for the time i did kelli

  11. babyw says:

    Installing barbed wire around a ceremonial dance site? Someone is drinking too much of the Kool-Aid. It is a shameful act to prohibit an Elder from participating in ceremonies……Tribal affiliation shouldn’t matter.

  12. "Henchman Of Justice" says:

    I like Allie Hostler’s writing. Very informitive and enlightening. Culture versus politics, again darned-it. – HOJ

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