History of the Ceremony and the C’waam – If the Fish Die, the People Die.
Annual Return of C’waam Ceremony
Held each year after the first big Fish-Blanket snow in March, in Chiloquin, Oregon- Held along the banks of the Sprague River.
Each year the c’waam (also known as the Lost River Sucker) swims up the Sprague River to spawn. Snowflakes fall at this time of year heralding the c’waam’s return.
The evening sky also reveals that the fish constellation, (three stars in line making “Orion’s Belt”), begins to appear on the southwestern horizon.
Our traditions state that watchmen or swaso.llalalYampgis were placed along the riverbanks to see exactly when the fish would return. The head “shaman” would then give thanks for their return to the Indian people. The last known shaman to perform the ceremony was Lee Snipes – Captain Sky, perhaps in the early 30’s.
Now, the Tribe has chosen individual Tribal members, along with our Tribal Elders and the Cultural and Heritage Department, to continuing this traditional ceremony. By continuing this ceremony the Klamath Tribes are ensuring the survival of both a species and our Tribal traditions.
We celebrate each year with traditional dancing and drumming, a traditional feed, releasing of a pair of c’waam into the river, and other ceremonial practices. The c’waam are provided by the Tribes own aquatic research center.
Everyone is Welcome! There are no animals allowed at the ceremony and only approved photographers are allowed to film the ceremony -( The cremation segment is closed to all filming and cameras).
Background: C’waam and Qapdo: Mullet, Lost River Suckers, and Shortnose Suckers
“Harvesting C’waam is our heritage and our legal right. These fish are
as much a crop to the Klamath Tribes as potatoes are to the farmers.
We used to harvest thousands of fish. Now we are restricted to two
fish each year for ceremonial purposes.”
Allen Foreman, Former Klamath Tribal Chairman
Fish known to the Klamath Tribes as c’waam and qapdo are called Lost River suckers and shortnose suckers by non-Indians. These fish were a primary food source for the Klamath and Modoc Indians from historic times until the 1980s when severe declines in the fish populations caused the Tribes to close their fishery. Each spring the Tribes hold a “Return of C’waam Ceremony” as they have for hundreds of years. These fish are of enormous importance to the physical and spiritual well being of the Klamath people. The closure of the fishery has worked a great hardship on the Indian people who have lost this food source.
In 1898, pioneer ichthyologist (fish expert) Charles H. Gilbert described the Lost River sucker as “the most important food-fish of the Klamath Lake region.”
For most of the 20th century, these fish were known as mullet. In 1921, the Klamath Evening Herald ran a story headlined, “Mullets are popular with Indians, white men.” It read, “…many people find them delicacies in the truest sense, and prefer them to salmon and trout.” White settlers and farmers used mullet for food, fertilizer and oil.
The Treaty of 1864 protects the Klamath Tribes’ fishery of these species. In 1984 that right was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Adair. That ruling held that the Klamath Tribes own a federally reserved water right, with a time immemorial priority date, to Klamath Basin waters in a sufficient quantity to support treaty hunting, fishing and gathering activities.
The Tribes used to harvest tens of thousands of pounds of these fish. Now they are restricted to a single fish each year for ceremonial purposes.
After hatching in the rivers, the young suckers drift downstream into the lake habitats where they take refuge in shoreline marshes. The Upper Klamath Basin once had more than 350,000 acres of wetlands. Now, fewer than 75,000 acres of wetlands remain in the Basin and the ability of the fish to survive is greatly compromised.
Severe population declines in these fish necessitated the closure of the Tribes’ fishery in 1986, causing a great hardship in the Indian community and rendering empty the solemn promises in the Treaty. Both species of fish were listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1988.
Restoring the c’waam and qapdo
Restoration of abundant populations of c’waam and qapdo is a Tribal goal and one key element of the Klamath Tribes plan for restoring the environment and economy of the Klamath Basin.
Restoration can be achieved if the Tribes’ proposal for repairing the damaged riparian and flood plain habitats of the Upper Klamath Basin is carried out.
Restoring the c’waam and qapdo to their former abundance will benefit everyone in the basin, not just the Klamath Tribes and others who harvest the fish. When the fish are plentiful again, restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act will no longer be necessary.
The habitat restoration and water quality improvements that help the c’waam and qapdo recover will also help restore healthy populations of the threatened coho salmon in downstream Klamath River waters.