Pin It

'To Celebrate Our Sovereignty' 

Yurok Tribe to host gathering honoring 'ultimate river warrior' on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that changed everything

click to enlarge Aawok Raymond Mattz protests at a Berkshire Hathaway event in Omaha, Nebraska, calling for the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River.


Aawok Raymond Mattz protests at a Berkshire Hathaway event in Omaha, Nebraska, calling for the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River.

To hear former Yurok Tribe General Counsel Amy Cordalis tell it, her tribe's path to reclaiming its full sovereignty and right to self-governance began with one woman's simple desire for fish cheeks, a Yurok delicacy.

Geneva Brooks Mattz loved to eat fish, Cordalis says, and the whole family's way of life revolved around catching, preparing and eating salmon. So when the desire for fish cheeks hit Sept. 24, 1969, Geneva Brooks Mattz sent her boys fishing down on the Klamath River but all her son Aawok Raymond Mattz would catch that day was a case. A California Fish and Game warden cited Cordalis' great uncle for fishing illegally under state law and confiscated his five gill nets.

The citation wasn't a new experience for Mattz — he'd been cited and even arrested for gill netting before, Cordalis say — but this time he decided to fight the case. And when then California Fish and Game Director Raymond Arnett initiated forfeiture proceedings for his gill nets, Mattz intervened.

"The family knew that we had what Uncle Ray would call Indian rights," Cordalis says. "We had rights under federal law, Indian rights, that essentially allowed us to continue our fishing way of life and the state just didn't have jurisdiction on the reservation."

Thus launched what would become a monumental United States Supreme Court case for not just the Yurok Tribe but Indian country generally. On June 11, the 50th anniversary of the court's ruling in the case, the Yurok Tribe will host a celebration at the Requa Resort to commemorate what Tribal Chair Joseph L. James calls "one of the most pivotal moments in the tribe's modern history."

The ruling reaffirmed that the Yurok Reservation is "Indian Country," a legal term indicating that its land under the inherent sovereignty of a tribe with federally protected rights, an idea that had been contentiously disputed for decades as the state sought to exercise more authority over Yurok land and, particularly, the Klamath River.

In 1892, pursuant to the Dawes Act, Congress passed legislation allowing for "surplus" unoccupied land on Native reservations to be sold to the general public, which precipitated the loss of nearly 40 million acres of tribal property across the United States, according to the Yurok Tribe. When it came to Yurok territory, California interpreted the legislation to have terminated the portion of what was then a joint Hoopa-Yurok reservation around the lower Klamath River and, as such, the state Fish and Game Department and law enforcement agencies began seeking to enforce state laws — particularly those prohibiting gill netting and setting take limits on salmon — on tribal lands.

But that never sat well with Mattz's family, Cordalis says, which includes "a long line of people who had fought for Indian rights," stretching back to the mid 1800s, when one of their relatives had been a part of a tribal delegation that negotiated and signed a treaty with the federal government.

When Mattz was arrested or cited for gill netting or exceeding the take limit of two salmon per year, he'd always assert that the state laws didn't apply to him, that he had Indian rights the state couldn't infringe upon, Cordalis says. And by 1969, he was ready to take that argument to court. He also would get some help.

California Indian Legal Services had been launched as a distinct program of California Rural Legal Services in 1967 by George Duke and Hoopa activist David Risling, who'd been inspired by the role the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People played in providing legal services that helped advance the civil rights movement. The fledgling program agreed to represent Mattz.

When Mattz and his attorney appeared before a Humboldt County judge for the forfeiture hearing shortly after the citation, Cordalis says the judge proposed a fine of $1 in exchange for the return of Mattz' nets, a seemingly sweetheart offer intended to just put the cast to rest.

"Uncle Ray pounds the table and says, 'No, I have Indian rights and I'm going to push this all the way through,'" Cordalis recalls with a chuckle, recounting the family story she heard countless times growing up.

Court after court rejected Mattz' argument until he appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case in March of 1973 and issued its ruling in June, finding that there was no act of Congress that had terminated the reservation, so it remained legally Indian country, meaning the tribe's fishing rights and sovereignty were intact.

"That essentially laid the legal groundwork for the rise of the modern Yurok Tribe as we know it today," Cordalis says.

The ruling paved the way for so much of what has followed, from other rulings upholding the tribe's fishing rights to passage of the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, which paved the way for the Yurok Tribe adopting its constitution in 1993, formalizing its traditional form of government.

The impact of Mattz v. Arnett is so far reaching, according to former Yurok Tribal Council Chair Sue Masten, Mattz' niece, that when the community gathers June 11, it won't just be celebrating the case or the man behind it.

"We are organizing this event to celebrate our sovereignty, our resilience and our rights as Yurok people," she said in the release.

The case and its aftermath took a heavy toll on Mattz, who died in September at the age of 79. He became a target of state and local police, game wardens and federal agents, but never wavered in his efforts to protect tribal fishing rights and sovereignty, going on to be an elected member of the Yurok Tribal Council.

Cordalis also credits her Uncle Ray and great grandma Geneva Brooks Mattz with inspiring her to become a lawyer. She says she was a junior in college back in Klamath working as a fisheries technician for the tribe in 2002 when poor water quality in the Klamath River caused a massive fish kill, with more than 35,000 adult salmon killed in the river.

"I thought about all my family had done to protect our rights, and now the fish were dying," Cordalis says. "I thought, 'I have to do something about this.' The previous generation of my family fought for confirmation of the legal right to fish ... my generation's fight is conservation of the resource on which the right is based, the fish."

Cordalis says it's fitting that Mattz will be celebrated on the anniversary of his court case as construction crews actively prepare to remove the four hydroelectric dams that choke the lower Klamath River, the culmination of a decades-long tribally led effort to bring the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history to fruition.

"Ray is the ultimate river warrior," she says. "He knew how to gill net on the Klamath better than anyone. And he was fierce. He was extremely fierce. He had fire in his belly. I would even call it lava in the belly. It was beyond fire. And he was extremely smart and strategic and brave."

But Cordalis says there have been — and are — many river warriors within the Yurok Tribe and the June 11 gathering is a chance to celebrate them all, and a chance to continue to heal old wounds and right old wrongs. She says she hopes the entire community — "Indian and non-Indian, alike" — will come out to celebrate the river.

"This is a celebration of our collective river warriors and that way of life, so we encourage everyone to come celebrate with us," she says of the event slated to start at noon June 11 at the Requa Resort. "We'll feed you and tell you some really good fish stories."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

Pin It



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

more from the author

Latest in News

Readers also liked…


Facebook | Twitter

© 2023 North Coast Journal

Website powered by Foundation