Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
L avina Bowers is an elder in the Yurok Tribe. In this interview, she bears witness to her family’s experiences of “termination era” politics and their assertion of their rights in the infamous Fish Wars. She also recounts her personal growth, from a shy and withdrawn girl to a more outspoken woman, cognizant of the need to do what is right. Notably, this interview took place at the Requa Inn, which overlooks one of the family’s traditional fishing spots on the Klamath River. Her daughter’s family recently acquired it as part of a lifelong dream to re-establish the family here.
I was born in 1935 at Knapp Hospital — Seaside Hospital — in Crescent City. My brothers and sisters and I grew up as upriver Indians.
Our house was right across from Brooks’ Riffle on the Klamath River. An Indian boy lived next door to us, and across the river there were a lot of Indian kids coming from probably four or five families living there. We saw very few white people.
We didn’t go to town very often. It was a big deal. But to get to our place from town, I remember, we went by car, and we had to walk a ways. Then we went by boat across the river, and then walked up the hill to our place. Later, Simpson Timber Company made a road, but that was after we had moved.
There was one white man and woman who lived up there. I think the man’s name was Max Barber. It’s crazy I would remember that. They were lovely. She always had cookies for us when we came by. But my experience with white people wasn’t always positive in those early days.
My parents were wonderful people. My mama was raised in Requa by her grandparents and at an early age went to Chemawa, an Indian Boarding School in Salem, Oregon. She stayed there until she was sixteen. A lot of her generation did. They had to. The government made children go back then. Mama was lonely there, she told me. She missed her grandmother terribly.
Her grandmother had pretty much raised her, you see. What happened to my mama’s mother, Martha Reuben, is a long story.
When she was just a girl, Martha was bought by my great-grandparents in the Indian way. Martha came from Orleans, from a dance family, and my great-grandparents paid regalia for her. She lived in Requa with them for two or three years before she married their son, James Brooks, who lived in Crescent City.
When my great-grandma and great-grandpa told their son James that they’d bought him a wife and brought her to Requa, he was mad.
He said, “Why did you do that? I already have a girlfriend!”
But it was too late. It didn’t matter. They’d paid for her, and she was there. She stayed at Requa until they got married. They had three children, including my mom, Geneva Brooks.
Geneva was two when her daddy died. Her grandparents sent her mom, Martha, home to Orleans after that. That was the tradition when a bought wife’s husband died. Because they fully paid for her, she wasn’t allowed to take her babies. I guess they let her take one — but mama never said who it was. Anyway, Martha was so lonesome, she asked to come back to be with the kids. They let her, but they made her get married to her wetchger — a relation of her late husband who was single. That’s another part of the tradition.
Martha moved clear up to Crescent when she did that, and although she did get to visit her kids, she didn’t live with them. That’s why when my mom, Geneva, went to boarding school at Chemawa, she complained about missing her grandma. That’s who she was most attached to.
Mom was small, so in Chemawa, even though she had no family and was terribly lonely, she said the older girls took care of her and treated her alright. She learned a lot of housekeeping skills at the school and caught on very quickly. The teachers taught the girls how to keep things clean, set tables, wash and iron and fold white linen, things like that. They were being trained for domestic service, to work in the houses of white people. But my mom would use all those skills running her own home after she married.
When my mom finished at Chemawa, she went back to Requa. Shortly after that, at age seventeen, she met my dad, Emery Mattz. He was twenty-one. They met in a dance hall that used to be just down from the Requa Inn. There were a lot of dance halls in the area. They played popular music.
Everyone from Klamath came on the weekends. It was very social.
My grandmother said that if a man really likes you, he’ll swim the Klamath River for you. My dad didn’t have to do that. But he did ride a horse part way from Crescent and walked the rest. Mom loved to dance, and she liked him despite the fact that he wasn’t a very good dancer. He danced like a stick — with stiff arms and legs.
Between them, Mama and Daddy had ten children. The first five were mostly grown up when I came along.
Life upriver was wonderful for us kids. Mom had a flower garden — a huge garden — nothing but roses. She had a catalogue and sent away for every kind of rose you could find. She had a vegetable garden, too, and she and my daddy grew everything. Tomatoes, corn, string beans, bush beans. I remember they picked the bush beans and laid them out on a big tarp, dried them, shelled them, and gave huge amounts away to relatives at the end of the summer, in big mason jars. Dad used to say he was like Henny Penny, giving it all away and doing all the work.
I remember we had to water the garden when it was hot. Each plant got a little bucketful. But we didn’t have running water. We packed it in from a stream. Daddy carried four buckets with one of those carriers that went over his shoulders. Mama carried two buckets. Each of us kids had a bucket. Sometimes, we’d take the horse and the sled and carry water back in a barrel.
We raised pigs. My sister and I used to visit the pigs and kind of made pets of them. So we didn’t eat any of the pork until later in the year, after we forgot the meat used to be our friends. We also had a couple of cows and a horse. We had everything we needed.
Our shelves were always plumb full. So many good things, it’s hard to remember it all.
The only thing I didn’t like growing up was taking my cod liver oil. I used to take a big spoonful every morning. Mama would give us a very small piece of orange and a very small piece of apple to take with it. That was the only thing I can complain about. Otherwise, life was so good. Mama took us swimming every day in the summer. We always had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time every day. When Dad came home, she always put dinner right on the table.
My dad worked across the river cutting trees. When the road was being built, he worked on that as a powder monkey, doing the blasting. Mama worked hard, too. Mondays we packed all the dirty clothes up and she scrubbed them with a washing board up at the stream. I remember it so clearly because we played at the stream. Tuesdays she ironed. She ironed everything. I don’t know why she did — we lived up there all by ourselves. No one ever saw us! Wednesdays she baked. Every week it was like that. Once a month maybe, they went to town.
I don’t remember going to town very much. Indian people were mostly all I knew. We came out Christmas times and other holidays.
We visited my Grandma, Agnes Mattz. Sometimes we went to her sister’s in Trinidad. She was a wonderful woman. Her dad’s brother, who married a Hoopa woman, would come. It was all our own family out at Elk Valley and other places. I really felt like I belonged, sitting at a big table outside, eating together with all those relations.
The first white man I remember seeing was here at Requa. Red Knutzson was the owner of a little store down here. My mom always shopped there. I went in with her one time — I was maybe
Five — and I saw some gum. My mother had never bought me any, and so you know what I did? I just took it and came out of the store. My mother saw it and asked me about it. When I told her the truth, she marched me right back in that store and I had to tell Mr. Knutzson that I’d taken it. I don’t know how I knew to be embarrassed at so young an age, but my face got so hot.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you for bringing this back in.”
“My mama made me bring it back,” I told him.
“Then thank your mama,” he said. He added, “Someday I will give you a piece of gum. But not today.”
For years and years, because of that, I had the feeling I should never steal. I was with a bunch of girls in town one time trying to steal something, and I told them I could never do it. I don’t remember Mr. Knutson ever giving me a piece of gum, though!
My childhood really was very good, even though there were some sad parts. We moved to Grants Pass when my older sister came down with tuberculosis. They said the hot weather would be good for her, but she died there, at seventeen. After that, instead of moving back to the river, we moved to Crescent City.
I was eight years old when I started at Crescent Elk. My teacher there was Bessie Maxwell. She was a big woman with a very pink tongue that seemed to stick out a lot when she talked. I can’t say she was a prejudiced teacher because she never said anything to me, but I can’t say I either liked or disliked her. I don’t think she paid much attention to me, actually.
I do remember she was very hard on a white boy named Lester Cook and an Indian boy named Eddie John. She would hit them over and over again on the sides of their head. Poor kids. They would flinch as she said, “I’ll give you something to duck for!”
I was shocked when I moved home later as an adult that they’d named a school after her. I didn’t think of her as a particularly kind or good teacher.
One thing I remember was how around sixth grade, the white kids started separating themselves from us. It’s like that was when they figured we were different. Girls I used to be friends with stopped socializing with me. It was very hurtful.
A lot of the Indian kids left for Chemawa then, too. Some of them went there because they didn’t like the way they were being treated in the Del Norte schools. But my brothers and sisters never went there. My mom never said why she didn’t send us, but I think she didn’t want us to be lonely. So we stayed in the school system even though there weren’t so many other Indians left.
My classmates called us “black” and “squaw” and used other derogatory words and expressions. But mostly, they just stopped talking to us. I think they were taking their cues from the adults in town. White grown-ups never talked to us in public. The shop workers would watch us in stores as if we were criminals and wait on us last if any white people were in there, but otherwise we were invisible. They mostly just ignored us.
I was very shy as a child. I almost never talked. I think it had something to do with the way I was treated and the way I saw other people treated. It made me feel so bad. Yes, this was something that made me feel like I didn’t belong.
I had a girlfriend in my class named Katie Pleasant, and we were close for a while. But one day, I got a letter in typing class, just left on my desk. It was nearly a page long, and it described all the reasons you shouldn’t trust Indians and shouldn’t be friends with them. Things like that. I cried all the way home. I showed it to Mama, and she told me to show it to the typing teacher, so I did.
The typing teacher had a plan. She told our class we were going to do something different that day. She would speak, and we would type her words. So we did. She used the word “friend” a couple of times, and we all typed it.
Afterwards, the typing teacher showed me that in the letter I’d received, the “f ” in the word “friend” was out of place. The person who’d written the letter used a typewriter where the “f ” was a little off. It turned out the typewriter used was Katie Pleasant’s. I thought she was my friend, but she’d written it. I was heartbroken. We didn’t really talk after that, of course.
Another girlfriend, Dee Spanz, also stopped speaking to me. Recently, my daughter Sue met her and asked her what she remembered about me. Dee recalled that we were good friends, but she forgot about how she stopped talking to me. Sue made me go visit Dee and talk to her about it. I told her how she’d treated me. I also reminded her that her mother didn’t like Indians, and would say so. Her mother had even written several letters to the paper, saying ugly things about Indians. Dee didn’t know about that, and she had no memory of how she’d abandoned our friendship.
Some people easily forget the things they’ve said and done. But you know, the people they hurt don’t forget so easily. Maybe that’s why so many white people don’t think there is any racism here in Del Norte County, but so many brown people can tell you they’ve experienced it.
Overall, I don’t think life for my siblings and me was quite as rough as it was for other Indians, though, because of who my mama and daddy were. We were known as good people. My dad was Portuguese, Yurok, and Smith River Indian, so he wasn’t as dark as others, and my mother always dressed well. My parents had a lot of white friends who came to our house. The man who owned the Benbow Inn, Principal Thuning, and some others visited. But we almost never went to their houses. We weren’t invited.
When I was twelve, I made up my mind to marry a white man. That way, I thought, I wouldn’t get treated so bad.
And you know, I did marry a white man. When I was in high school, I met an Air Force guy who worked at the base at the top of Requa. He was shipping out and asked me to go with him. I said I didn’t know if Mama and Daddy would let me go since I’d have to drop out of school, but he went up the hill and talked to them. We had a fast wedding.
We moved up to Prince George, British Columbia. It was only the second time I’d been out of the county. I was so lonely for my family. And pretty soon I wasn’t even sure if I liked the guy.
The first time my brother called me up there, I was so upset, I couldn’t even speak. I could only sob. On the other end of the line, I heard him say, “I can hear sound but she’s not saying anything. It must be the telephone,” and he hung up.
Probably three or four hours later, they called again, and we got to talk. They said, “What can we send you up there?” I said, “Send me a Three Musketeers bar.” I didn’t know what I was saying. I tried it after I came home, and I didn’t even like it.
The Canada Indians had it even worse up there than here, if you can imagine. The kids there couldn’t go to school with white kids.
My husband and I talked about moving somewhere like Japan, but by then, I was having a baby every year. So we stayed, but I made it so that I could come home once or twice a year with the kids to be with my family.
Eventually, we moved to Corvallis, Oregon, where we raised our kids. After I had my children, I learned to get over my fear of talking, and soon I could communicate with just about anybody.
Their teachers needed to know I was going to help my kids in school when they needed it, and that I would be an advocate for them. So I sort of came out of my shell.
I changed. I became more of a talker. My husband used to say, “I liked her the way she used to be, when she didn’t talk so much.”
We stayed married twenty-three years. He drank a lot, and he gambled. I always seemed to have an upset stomach and a headache, but I focused on the kids. I worked two jobs, including the late shift, so I wasn’t home all day, but I made sure all those kids were taken care of and all went to college.
In 1972, my daddy had a heart attack. The kids were grown and out of the house, so I moved back to Klamath without my husband.
The time I came home, I remember it was beautiful weather. I hadn’t remembered it being so warm. People were wearing shorts. We’d never done that when I was a kid. I said to everyone, “It’s so beautiful!” I knew I was home, then. I felt like I really belonged. They laughed at me and said, “We’re in the middle of a drought, Lavina!”
You know, I stopped having those stomach problems and headaches when I came home. I filed for divorce a few years later.
You asked about things that were fair and unfair. One thing that was unfair was how Indians were treated, and a big example of that relates to traditional fishing, or gill netting. It was something that Yurok people had always done. It was how we survived. It was who we were. Who we are even now.
But there were many ways white people tried to take this right away from us, many times over. In my family, my mother remembered a time when a judge came to see my great-grandpa Brooks.
My great-grandpa had sold the timber on his land up the hill here in Requa. After he’d signed the papers and sold the timber, this judge named Bowie came to my dad’s house with another white man. My mom didn’t know who he was.
Judge Bowie said, “You know, Mr. Brooks, you sold timber to the white man. That means you’re no longer an Indian.”
My mama said she saw the muscles on grandpa’s jaw go back and forth.
“What do you mean, I’m no longer an Indian?” he said.
“You took money for your timber. That means you’re not an Indian.
You can no longer fish on the river like Indians do,” the judge said, meaning he no longer had fishing rights.
They had words then. My great-grandpa used to work for Mr. DeMartin — who came from somewhere else and had an accent from wherever he came from — and great-grandpa learned to swear from DeMartin — and so he swore with an accent then.
“You, Mr. Bowie, and you, Mr. Whiteman, you get off of my land. I’m going to fish no matter what you say. Get off of my land, and don’t ever come back.”
One way to stop us from fishing was to try to tell us we weren’t Indians. Another was in 1934, when recreational fishermen got the state of California to ban all commercial and subsistence fishing on the Klamath River. We weren’t supposed to fish after that. As a result of that, my father never did fish.
But my brothers fished. I remember when I was little, they fished a lot. In fact, the game warden knew our family and told my dad to make sure my brothers pulled their nets out of the water every time he came by in the boat so he wouldn’t catch them. One time, my brothers were fishing and heard a boat coming up the river. They didn’t want to take their nets out. I remember hiding under a blanket with some of the other small kids. It turned out not to be the warden, but we were scared anyway.
Things got very scary during the Fish Wars here, around 1978 and 1979. People you never thought would be ugly turned ugly. But we believed in our right to fish, and we had to fight for it.
At that time, lots of Indian people defied the game wardens and fished. We have several traditional fishing holes in our family — one down here at the mouth of the Klamath and one upriver at the cabin. My brothers were fishing at night up at the mouth, and they weren’t alone. Other men were with them. They all had smaller nets. When the game wardens came, the other men took their nets out of the water. They didn’t want to go to jail. But my brothers agreed that they wanted to fight for their rights, and so they didn’t cooperate. They went to jail to test the law used to confiscate their nets.
It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won in a case called Mattz vs. Arnett (1973). The court said that Yurok people, as Indians, did have rights, and that our tribe had never been disbanded.
But even after that, we still had to fight many battles when the government tried to regulate us out of fishing.
These were the Fish Wars. Federal officers closed off fishing for the whole river, but our people defied them again and kept fishing.
Susan, my daughter, came down to take part. My whole family, really. Those federal officers were big, intimidating men. One was a black man. The Indians gave him a very hard time, calling him names, telling him they’d wish the white folks had gotten him in Selma. He didn’t last long. They shipped him out, poor man. They must have made him feel pretty bad. They didn’t need to say those things, but at the time I laughed and thought it was a good thing to say.
I laughed, you know, but we were very scared about what might happen to us and to our family. The federal officers were very rough. They had clubs, and they’d hit people with them. They held people under water. So many mean things. The worse part was, we never knew what they were going to do next.
My brother and his wife and kids went down to the mouth to fish a lot back then. We’d often go with them. My daughter Diane and this lady who lived up the way, Molly, never missed a night.
We had a line with no net on it, and she put her bloomers on it and put it in the water so they could pull it up. So we had our own ways of rebelling.
One night, the federal officers and all the cops from Del Norte came together — so many — forest service people. I wasn’t down there that night, but Diane was. She said boats came into the mouth. Flashlights shone on everyone from shore. Officers crossed our land. My mama told them not to. They didn’t listen. Her dog was barking up a storm, and they told her to put it inside or they were going to shoot it.
They took all the men to jail, including my daddy, who was seventy-four at the time. He had a bad heart, so the girls went up to bail him out. The whole community was divided. The white people were just horrible to us. They had signs that said, “Save a Salmon, Can an Indian.” They dug a big hole and held a sort of ceremony to “burry Klamath.” They got a casket. They played music. I can still see all the people standing around. We drove past that “funeral” in a convertible playing some jazzy Elvis music. I kept thinking, “Why would you want to bury your own town?”
I guess they believed that if we were allowed to fish in our traditional way, there wouldn’t be enough for them. But I didn’t ask them. I probably should have. I’m friends with a lot of them now. I should probably go and ask them.
Now things are totally different. White people are friendly and say hello. I was in the hospital getting some tests early this morning. A white lady saw that I was cold sitting in the waiting room, and she asked me if she could get me a blanket.
Just recently, I went to a meeting with lots of white women — and Indian women, too. It was a meeting to help get more women elected to office in our community. Those white women I met were so kind and caring. They were very interested in helping children, too. Smart, good, precious women. I thought to myself, if I’d have met white women like these growing up, things would have been much better for me.
I know there is still bullying in school, and it may even be worse than it used to be. Indian kids are still Indian kids. They’re brown, and they still get picked on.
What makes it so sad is that some of them don’t have mommies and daddies. Their parents are into drugs and alcohol, and they might not come to school clean, or they might not get enough to eat. A generation of Indian men went to booze. And maybe for the next generation, it was booze and drugs.
But then, a lot of poor white kids are in similar circumstances, and they’re treated badly, too.
Think about it — all over the country where kids are bringing guns to school and shooting each other. You know those boys with the long, black coats and other kids like them? They’re saying that kids like these were all bullied at school and abused. I believe it. We do have to get rid of the guns, but we also need to do something about bullying.
I’ve seen it. When I worked for a van driver for the United Indian Health Services, I transported kids in Klamath at Margaret Keating Elementary, down to the clinic in Trinidad. I used to walk into the school all the time. I saw teachers letting kids be bullied and abused.
I also witnessed police brutality at Margaret Keating. This was probably in the 1990s. One time, I went to the school to pick up somebody. I saw a girl running across a field, with somebody running after her. It turned out to be a police officer. Eventually he caught up to her, brought her into the school, and bent her over a desk and held her arms behind her back. She was just a little girl — maybe in sixth grade. He was being so rough with her, I had to say something.
I said, “What are you doing?”
The principal was right there, and teachers were watching, but nobody was saying anything.
The police officer said, “It’s none of your business.”
I said, “Well, it is my business.”
He threatened to have me arrested if I didn’t leave the school.
Well, I didn’t want to get arrested, so I left. I never did find out what that little girl did, but it can’t have been so bad to get treated like that, could it?
Yes, it does seem like we’re making things better. Or maybe I’m just in a place in my life where it seems like it’s improved. I still know dark people who go through things like we did when we were little, though. I don’t quite know how we can change things.
We do little things — help people here and there, individually. But we’ve got to do something to lift up all the kids, help them to be good people and act right. We live in a wonderful, beautiful county, and to be happy here is good.
“Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” is available on Amazon.