Stephen Most and Jack Kohler


Stephen Most and Jack Kohler

For centuries, tribes like the Yurok and Hoopa, among others, relied on the Klamath River in California for survival. Over the course of post-European contact the tribes have had their livelihood and source of food drastically altered by farmers, commercial fisherman and corporations, like Berkshire Hathaway, which owns some of the dams along the river.

A new documentary for PBS chronicling the tribes’ struggle is set to air this fall.  The award-winning film, River of Renewal, is told from the tribal perspective as co-producer Jack Kohler returns to Northern California to explore for the first time his tribes’ fight for water and fishing rights.

“I really liked the fact that it was about my people,” said Kohler, 47, a self-described sidewalk Indian of Yurok and Karuk heritage. He said he knew next to nothing about the tribes’ tattered history until he agreed to co-produce the project. The film “was about the area I wanted to go back and re-learn and visit the places I’ve never seen and heard about.”  

Author and co-producer Stephen Most, 56, brought Kohler on the project after Kohler, an actor, portrayed a Yurok Indian in Most’s play about the Klamath. After writing the play and turning it into a documentary, Most wrote a book about the conflict on the Klamath to explain in detail what he said a documentary simply could not.  The film focuses on the Salmon War of 1978, a time when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribes faced off on the Klamath. 

“While we were in pre-production the conflict spread to the entire Klamath Basin with the farmers protesting a cut-off of their water because of the Endangered Species Act to protect the Coho salmon,” Most said. “All of a sudden we had a film that had to cover many years and a region that’s 10 and a half million acres.”

To tie together the tensions along the Klamath in an engaging way for audiences, Most knew that Kohler’s first-hand experience would be invaluable despite Kohler’s zero experience in film production. From learning about the financials of making a film to the technicalities of bringing it to the screen, Kohler said he took it all on enthusiastically even before there was a budget to work from.

“It was a great learning experience because we were all in the same boat. We had limited funds so we had to work with what we had in the pre-production process. And when actually things started to develop on the Klamath River we just started filming,” Kohler said. “We went from pre-production to production in a matter of months.”

Most, with more than 30 years of film experience under his belt, found that Kohler’s inexperience added depth to the film. For instance, there is a telling scene at an event called the Bucket Brigade where farmers are protesting water restrictions.  It’s here where racial undertones of this feud on the Klamath came to light.

“Before the Bucket Brigade occurred there had been an incident between some farmers who got drunk and went on to the Klamath Reservation and shot up these signs with guns,” Most said. “...So when we went in there I took a camera. I was a little nervous but I was sort of really excited about being there and being able to capture all this and what might become of it.”

Growing up in the 1970s as one of two Indian students in his San Francisco high school, however, Kohler was familiar with race relations in California.

“I was used to being called Tonto and Geronimo and all of these other racial slurs and derogatory terms that people will throw at Native Americans. So I was sort of used to that and maybe I had a little bit of a harder shell from that experience,” Kohler said. “I wasn’t nervous about it. I thought if anything came of it, it might be good shots for camera.”

But Most was worried.  “I didn’t know what would happen in a crowd like that,” he said. “I actually tried to keep my eye on Jack. He went off with a camera and then I lost him in the crowd. I just couldn’t keep up. So I just had to take a deep breath and hope everything turned out all right and it did.”

Officials with Friends of the River, an organization that collaborated with the two producers for the film, hopes that this documentary will educate a wider audience about the dangers of damming. Friends Policy Advocate Kelly Catlett said the organization is dedicated to undamming the Klamath and others across the U.S. so that salmon and other wildlife will not be exploited.

“With a little help and concern across the country, we can make sure our salmon don’t meet the same fate of salmon in the Atlantic,” she said.

Kohler said the response from audiences about the film thus far has been surprise. Several tribes have screened the film, which won best documentary at the 2008 American Indian Film Festival.  But Kohler says there many people who aren’t aware of the impact of damming not only on the tribes but also on the commercial fisherman and farmers.

“Some of the people have come up to me to say that they didn’t realize all the culture on the river,” he said. “They didn’t realize how much fishing was a big part of that river.”

But both Most and Kohler hope that viewers new to this issue also come to realize that there are enough resources on the abundant river to happily sustain tribal fisherman, commercial fisherman and farmers.

“These are issues that divide people, that are behind wars increasingly as our resources get scarcer,” Most said. “…It’s something that I think will resonate with a lot of people.”

Written by Nancy Kelsey.

Interviews conducted by Nancy Kelsey. Edited by Ben Kreimer.

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