Last weekend, Chook-Chook Hillman of the Karuk Tribe got in line outside of the 30,000-seat Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., at 1 o'clock in the morning and waited. The 23-year-old wasn't hoping to catch a glimpse of his favorite rock star. He had a higher mission. He wanted to secure a spot in front of one of the arena's 12 microphones at Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders' meeting to get the chance to tell Warren Buffet, the world's richest man, that dams, operated by one of his subsidiary companies — PacifiCorp — are negatively impacting the Indian tribes whose livelihoods depend on the Klamath River.
Hillman was in Omaha last year for the shareholders' meeting as well, and he promised himself he'd never go back. He was too discouraged, he said in a phone interview on Monday. He was sniffling because he'd caught a cold, presumably from camping outside of the Qwest Center all night, compounded, no doubt, by the surge of emotions he experienced standing up to the billionaire Goliath the following day.
Needless to say, Hillman changed his mind about going back to Omaha. And he's glad he did.
Standing in front of the microphone in an arena jammed with more people than he'd ever seen in one place, Hillman said he was so tired he felt like he was going pass out, but he managed to gather the strength to speak.
After introducing himself to Buffet in Karuk, Hillman switched to English: "As a European-American you are the visitor in our country," he said. "Will you not meet with the native people impacted by your fish killing dams? You say you want to address poverty and disease in the Third World. But you are creating those same Third World conditions right here in America. We want to meet and resolve the issue in a way that saves you money and saves our culture!"
"It was the most liberating thing I've done in my life," Hillman reflected Monday, "telling the richest human on the planet that he's a guest in this country."
Hillman then presented Buffet with a copy of the Restoration Agreement, a draft document written by the 26 stakeholders involved in the Klamath settlement talks, which was recently unveiled for public vetting after two years of closed-door negotiations, and which Buffet has not signed. Hillman capped it off by calling the Berkshire Hathaway CEO a son-of-a-bitch, but the billionaire didn't bat an eye since Hillman had switched back to Karuk.
Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign director for the Karuk Tribe, recalled on Monday that when Hillman spoke his voice never wavered. "I've never been so proud of the people I work with," he said via cell phone on his way home from Sacramento after returning from the Midwest.
Still, he said Buffet seemed unfazed by the small contingent of tribal members and fishermen who made the trip to Omaha to protest.
"[Buffet] gave lame answers that were evasive," Tucker said. "That guy owns so much stuff. ... These dams are nothing but a grain of sand on the beach for him. [Saturday] that grain of sand was a giant boulder."
Georgiana Myers, a Yurok tribal member who unfurled a banner while Hillman spoke that read, "Klamath Dams Equal Cultural Genocide," said on Monday from her home in Weitchpec that she went to Omaha to make her voice heard. An unlikely activist, the 24-year-old elementary school teacher felt that women of her generation had yet to be represented at an important event like the shareholders' meeting.
"It's not that we're against Warren Buffet," she said. "It was about educating his shareholders. As long as there's not business as usual on the Klamath River, there' won't be business as usual for Berkshire Hathaway."
The Karuk Tribe and Klamath Riverkeeper have set up a website to educate Berkshire Hathaway shareholders about the Klamath River: berkshireshareholders.com.