by Theresa May
Director’s Notes: In September 2002 an estimated 70, 000 salmon died on the banks of the Lower Klamath River. At the time I was assistant professor at Humboldt State University, located about 40 minutes south of the mouth of the Klamath, on California’s north coast. The fish kill, as locals called the event, impacted Native fisheries, as well as commercial fishing, in ways that are still being studied. For Native people, the loss of the salmon signified an ongoing loss of traditional cultural ways of life.
As a theatre artist with some faith in the vital role of the arts in democratic processes, I found myself asking, “what can theatre do?” After many discussions with Native colleagues in our Indian Teacher Education, and Native Studies programs, the Klamath Theatre Project emerged. Over two years I worked with Native students, staff and faculty, and many community members, to write a play about the events of 2002, in particular to express the experiences and viewpoints of Native people who share a unique relationship with the salmon. This play was developed from interviews with Lower Klamath tribal members, as well as reflective and creative writing done by myself and my students. Additional research and stakeholder meeting transcripts allowed us to weave in the voices of Upper Klamath tribes, ranchers, and other constituents of the Klamath watershed. Over two years, we read various versions of script at community meetings and then listened to and gathered suggestions from the community for how to develop the play further. The final script, Salmon Is Everything (the title taken from an elder’s description of the salmon’s central place) premiered in spring 2006, performed by a cast of twelve Native and five non-Native members (like the cast you see tonight, many had never acted before).
What had been contentious and impossible in mediation rooms and courtrooms became possible in the theatre. In the community discussions held after every performance, an audience of the real-world counterparts of the fictional characters found themselves listening to one another’s stories. Elders remarked that the play spoke about their experience and in the manner of traditional storytelling, and young people said, “this is the only way we’re going to solve these issues, by listening to one another’s stories; not through governments and lawyers, but through people.”
Over time a play changes position, moving from a documentation of current events to a record of collective memory. Community dialogue and policy assessment is ongoing in the Klamath watershed, but he fish kill of 2002 marks a turning point that has lead to serious consideration of dam removal, and the significance of salmon populations to indigenous ways of life. When that play is re-staged, it allows the past to live with, and participate in, the critical present. Salmon Is Everything now serves to locate the fish kill of 2002 as a turning point in the politics of the watershed, to mark and call attention to the grief experienced by members of the Lower Klamath tribal communities, and to illuminate the current and ongoing debates about dam removal, species preservation, indigenous rights, and the sustainable use of resources.
The story of the 2002 fish kill is part of a larger story, and a larger healing. The Klamath Theatre Project and the process of developing Salmon Is Everything provides a model for the ways in which theatre can give voice to collective memory and contribute to healing historical trauma.
In the theatre, empathy is a way of knowing. The empathy that may emerge from participating in or witnessing a community-based performance can lead to deeper, more complex understandings, form new relationships across difference, and lay the groundwork for socially responsible action.