Sam Gensaw Jr. and his family began work long before the cars pulled into Klamath.
As folks gathered on the main drag for the parade that would kick off the Yurok Tribe’s 52nd annual Klamath Salmon Festival, Gensaw and his nephews were preparing the star of the show — fresh chinook salmon caught at the mouth of the river.
Gensaw said he and his father, Sam Gensaw Sr., began digging the pit at 6 a.m. With a large knife, Gensaw sliced the crimson-fleshed fish into smaller fillets; his nephews Frankie and Donovan seasoned them with salt and pepper; and Sam Gensaw Sr. skewered them on wooden stakes and stuck those into the ground to roast the salmon over open flames.
“We have two fish pits, one here and one behind Pem-Mey,” Gensaw said, referring to Klamath’s convenience store and gas station. “It takes an hour depending on the size of the fish.”
The Gensaws’ efforts weren’t overlooked. Folks could choose among myriad culinary choices, from Chinese food to Indian tacos, but most stood in line for a hunk of salmon. The lunch also featured a salad with vegetables from Ocean Air Farms, a fruit salad and bread.
“We always have a good time and we all love salmon,” said Crystal Huffman, who brought her family to the festival from Chico.
Tribal representatives also used the festival as an opportunity to inform people of the threat to salmon due to drought conditions on the Klamath River. Dave Hillemeier, who manages the tribe’s fisheries program, manned a booth at the festival and talked to folks about his job.
According to Hillemeier, biologists have sampled 42 fish looking for signs of disease. He said they found fish that were dead due to a bacterial disease, which indicates that the system is stressed.
“We’re working hard to educate the Bureau of Reclamation,” he said, adding that the tribe is sending representatives to Sacramento today to talk with state officials. “We hope they do the right thing and give us the water.”
In addition to the food, many folks came for the handcrafted art, including beads, woodcarving and traditional hats.
In one booth, Daniel Gensaw, Sam Gensaw Sr.’s grandson, sat with a crochet hook, making a hat out of turquoise and black Red Heart yarn. Learning to crochet after spending a summer at an aunt’s house, Daniel said he graphs the patterns out himself on graph paper before starting.
“This lets me know how big the hat will be by rows,” he said. “A small hat usually takes me an hour and a half. But a big hat takes (more) time. It depends on the materials.”
Gensaw said he uses acrylic yarn in his hats because of its durability.
On the other side of the highway at the old Klamath townsite young boys and men, including players from the Karuk and Hoopa tribes, engaged in a different kind of contact sport.
Ken “Binx” Brink coached the Karuk team in the Yurok Tribe’s annual stick game tournament. The game combines wrestling, running and passing, involving two teams of three.
Each team tries to get a toggle, two small pieces of wood tied together, across the other’s goal with sticks, Brink said. As they’re driving the toggle down the field, the players are attacked by their opponents and wrestled to the ground.
“Whoever gets two points (first) wins,” Brink said. “It’s like a combination of wrestling and lacrosse, but it’s been played for thousands and thousands of years.”