War in Weed Country
Native Americans in California are outlawing marijuana in order to save the environment—and themselves.
All photos by Terray Sylvester
This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.
If you are looking for pot growers on the remote southern end of the Yurok Reservation in Humboldt County, California, you might start your search at Pearson's, a cluttered grocery perched above the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers. The shop is in Weitchpec, a village that otherwise contains only a school, a tribal office, and some scattered houses. In June, I wandered the store aisles, taking note of batteries, knives, dog food, tarps, drill bits, liquor, pellet guns, and foot-long candy bars. There were photographs of babies tacked on the walls, and of men with fish bigger than babies and in some cases bigger than themselves. When I came to the magazine rack, I paused at an issue of High Times. I knew by how quiet the proprietor had become that she was watching me. "You sell a lot of these?" I asked.
"That's about all I sell," she replied. "Pot books and porn."
She was short, with small eyes made smaller by round glasses, and smiled in a way that was at once friendly and suspicious. Her name was Karen Pearson; her family had owned the store for 64 years. I wanted to ask about recent raids on pot growers led by the Yurok Tribe, but it was hard to say whose side she was on, so I picked up the magazine and flipped through its pages. "We're all growers around here," she said. I looked up. "Well, I don't grow—not anymore. Just a few plants when I was young." Later, when I asked what she thought of it, she sighed. "I don't mind the smaller grows," she said. "But what the big growers are doing is not right."
Since 1996, California law has allowed cannabis to be cultivated for medical use, but in 2014, the Yurok Tribe embarked on a mission to eliminate it altogether from the reservation. The main reason was water: The drought in California, then in its third year, had dried up domestic water sources and drained the Klamath to such low levels that the salmon population, on which the tribe has long depended, had come to the brink of collapse. Yurok tribal authorities believed marijuana growers were contributing to the crisis by drawing water from Klamath tributaries to irrigate their plants. That summer, the tribe launched Operation Yurok, a sweeping series of raids that enlisted the California National Guard. Since then, the region has become a paradoxical battleground—as many states across the country move to legalize marijuana, authorities in Humboldt County, a place renowned since the 60s for pot, are helping to eradicate it. The tribe's water supply, I had been told, depended on this.
A few days earlier, to understand how dire the situation had become, I had accompanied Carlton Gibbens, a tribe member, as he delivered bottled water to residents. The day was hot and the car's air conditioner broken, and when we turned onto Highway 169, Gibbens's temples were beaded with sweat. The road, a single lane, wound through thick, young forest and opened now and then onto the Klamath, a steely chasm edged with green. Though it was only the beginning of summer, I could see that the drought had taken a toll. The river looked sunken into its bones. Rocks stuck out where normally there were rapids, and algae bloomed in the languid pools. (Scientists suspect these blooms are due, in part, to contamination from marijuana fertilizers.) According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the river was running dangerously low, and if it dropped lower, scientists warned, salmon would seek refuge from the warm shallows in the cool but crowded mouths of tributaries. There, they would rub together and spread deadly parasites. A fish kill would be devastating for the tribe. This people knew, because it had happened before.
Gibbens is a survey technician, but like many tribal employees, his days are filled with "other duties as assigned." Two days a week, he delivers water to homes not connected to community tanks—that is, the majority of them. Since these residents pipe their water directly from springs and creeks, they are more vulnerable to running out. Two summers ago, many creeks dried up, and residents had to haul water from an emergency tank in Weitchpec. Though the drought was mostly to blame, so, too, were pot growers, who Yurok tribal authorities claim are the biggest users of water on the reservation. To irrigate their plants, growers pipe water from the same Klamath tributaries that supply reservation homes and provide refuge for fish, often damming and diverting whole creeks. Without a permit, these significant diversions are illegal, which is one justification for the raids. The tribe estimates that 100,000 marijuana plants grow on the reservation over the course of a year. A single plant, according to government documents, consumes up to six gallons of water a day. Each year, millions of gallons that would otherwise flow through the reservation go, quite literally, up in smoke.
Gibbens offered to show me a community where growers had allegedly deprived residents of drinking water, so we turned onto Mitchell Hill Road and stopped at a double-wide set in a carpet of ferns. The owner wasn't home, but Gibbens had heard that she was running low on water. He left a crate in her yard.
A mile on, we came to a clearing and an old wooden house covered in climbing roses. A woman was shaking out a rug on the porch. She went inside as we approached, and a man emerged in a tank top and shorts. He introduced himself as Edward Mays.* Last summer, he said, the creek by his house had nearly dried up, but after the raids, it started flowing again. He had been changing a tire when the raids came, he later told me. "I could see them go past from under my truck," he said. "Fifteen or a dozen cars. Didn't come out, because I didn't want to be run over." That evening, he thought he heard water, and when he went to the creek, he told me, it was running again. (Tribal scientists confirmed that his story was likely.) I asked Mays what he thought of the raids. "Didn't hurt my feelings a damn bit," he said. The growers "just come up here, make their big dollars, and go. Never liked them anyway. They take and break and leave, and smile while they're doing it." Was he ever scared of them? "I ain't scared. They better be scared of me."
Most people I met that day were unwilling to talk about the growers, or to talk at all. One woman waved at us from a second-floor window but never came outside. This was the nature of the reservation—people kept to themselves.
But I also suspected that many were quiet out of fear. The week before my visit, a rumor had spread that several young Yurok members were threatened at gunpoint when they strayed too close to a grow site on Mitchell Hill. Others would tell me tales of disappearances never resolved and of murders disguised as accidents. Then there was the risk of being called a hypocrite; everyone had family or friends who grew if they did not grow themselves. Such intimacy was at the heart of the tension caused by the raids: The tribe was busting its own people. And it was because of this, perhaps, that most people who did speak with me condemned neither the growers nor the tribe but instead parsed delicately through a mess of relativities.
Even Gibbens hedged: "If you're a local, you want to have your fifty plants or whatever, I don't care, but I don't like outsiders coming in here and blocking off a whole water system." When I asked if he knew of any other tribal members who were certain their water had been taken for pot, he told me about a man who lived near the top of Mitchell Hill and often confronted the growers above him. Every year, said Gibbens, "it's a new group of guys. They come in and take the water all over again." Later, I went up the hill to find the man but stopped at a cable slung between two trees. On the first tree hung a sign that read, I'M ALL FOR GUN CONTROL... I USE BOTH HANDS. On the second: THERE IS NOTHING HERE WORTH DYING FOR.
The story of how pot came to the reservation begins with timber. In the century following the establishment of the Klamath River Indian Reservation, in 1855, most Yurok land was sold to white settlers and timber companies. (By 1988, when the reservation was restructured and renamed, and the Yurok were granted permission to form their own tribal government, 90 percent of the reservation had been sold.) The timber industry boomed throughout much of the 20th century, but in the 1970s, plagued by a poor housing market and international competition, it dwindled. Many timber fallers, out of work and loath to leave the region, turned to marijuana. A popular bumper sticker at the time read: another logger gone to pot. As far as anyone remembers, a white timber faller named Noble Niles was the first to do so on the reservation. Niles had married a Yurok woman and bought land near the village of Pecwan. Pot fetched a good price at the time, and Niles was good at growing it. His obituary would call him a "master gardener," though this may have been an understatement. "He was famous," Leonard Masten, the Yurok Tribe's police chief, told me. "Everyone else's was all scraggly, but Noble had these big, tall plants."
Other Indian families took on the trade, though most kept their operations small. In general, plants were enough to pay the bills, to buy Christmas gifts and school clothes. Still, the Yurok's primary source of sustenance was, and always had been, fish. Traditionally, the Yurok divided their fishing grounds among families and governed access by an intricate set of laws, but in the 19th century, commercial fisheries, dams, and federal action nipped at their rights. In 1934, the Yurok were banned altogether from fishing commercially or with gill nets, and for 38 years, until the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the people's legal right to fish, many Yurok were jailed and their catches confiscated. The tribe, state, and federal government continued to tussle over fishing rights until 1994, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US Fish and Wildlife Service transferred management of the river's commercial fishery to the Yurok Tribe. Now, many tribal members are certified commercial fisherman, and others are employed to monitor and administer the fishery. It is the only industry, aside from pot, alive on the reservation.
Pot boomed in Yurok territory after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. According to Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, the possibility of larger profits attracted a new sort of grower—not "mom and pops" but transient entrepreneurs keen to exploit Yurok resources. Most were white Americans, but many were immigrants from Laos, Vietnam, and Central America. Instead of a few hundred plants, they were now growing thousands for medical dispensaries across the state as well as illegal markets nationally. By some estimates, two-thirds of the marijuana consumed in the US is grown in California, and the best of it in Humboldt County.
The boom loosely coincided with the worst drought in California in more than a millennium. Humboldt County is, on the whole, wetter than most of the state, but in the Klamath Basin, the lack of precipitation has still been damaging. The summer of 2002 was a precursor to the drought that began in 2011. That September, following a particularly dry winter, parasites flourished in the Klamath's warm shallows and killed 70,000 Chinook salmon on their way upriver to spawn. The kill, made worse by upriver dams and large diversions from the Trinity River to farmers in California's Central Valley, was devastating for the Yurok and their commercial fishery, and it pushed the tribe to take dramatic measures to ensure that more water would remain in the river to avert future kills. Among these measures were agreements to release more cold water from reservoirs on the Trinity River, as well as a deal with Oregon farmers to remove dams on the upper Klamath. Also among them was a ban on marijuana.
In February 2014, before the height of the latest drought, the Yurok Tribal Council passed an ordinance to enforce a zero-tolerance policy, threatening growers with fines and seizures of property. According to Fletcher, the council approved the ordinance because it recognized that the business of cultivation—and the stakes—had changed. "It has nothing to do with medical use," Fletcher told me. "It has nothing to do with recreation. It's industry—runaway industry." Other councilmen confirmed this sentiment. Only one councilwoman, Mindy Natt—a granddaughter of Noble Niles—abstained from the vote, recognizing that families, like her own, have relied on pot to remain in a community where, in some places, unemployment is as high as 80 percent. But even she sympathized with the council's position that "there were some big people that come in, and they're not from around here, and we wanted them out." She added, "Our fish are more important than marijuana right now."
The tribe did not have the capacity to enforce the ordinance itself and struggled at first to find support among state and federal agencies. The US Attorney's office allegedly told Fletcher that it would not prosecute growers who had fewer than a thousand plants. Then, in April 2014, just three months after Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency across California due to the worsening drought, the tribe begged the state to help them clear the reservation of growers. Brown urged the California National Guard to step in. That July, joined by the Guard, the Humboldt County sheriff, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribal police force raided 43 grow sites and cut more than 15,000 plants. It was a small number relative to the new scale of industry on the reservation, but tribal officials seemed emboldened by their success. Afterward, Susan Masten, a Yurok councilwoman and the police chief's wife, declared: "We will be going after the growers again next year and every year after, until they've stopped stealing water from the Klamath."
The tribe estimates that 100,000 marijuana plants grow on the reservation over the course of a year. A single plant, according to government documents, consumes up to six gallons of water a day.
Ask anyone on the reservation, and he or she will tell you that the biggest growers are the Littlefields. Sylvia Littlefield—a Yurok member until last year, when she disenrolled in protest of the tribe's marijuana ban—and her husband, Roscoe, are now in their 80s; their son, Timothy, still a Yurok member, allegedly runs the family enterprise. No one—not even the officers who had raided them in the past—knew how many plants the family grew, though most assumed it was many thousands. My merely mentioning the name Littlefield conjured in locals a mixture of laughter, fear, and envy. "Wear your boots, 'cause the shit gets deep," a woman said when I asked about Roscoe. I was advised never to go near Timothy, because "he'll shoot." People told stories about how wealthy the family was, about their houses and pools and flat-screen TVs, or their appearance two years ago on an episode of Pot Cops, a show on the Discovery Channel. I had seen this episode and, I admit, felt some pity for Timothy—an eccentric hermit minding his own business until some narcs came hacking at his "medicine." Those I met did not share my sympathy. To their critics, the Littlefields embodied all that had gone wrong with marijuana: family enterprise turned to industry, survival to excess. "They took it too far," I heard more than once. Fletcher put it this way: "There's big fields, and then there's Littlefields."
One morning, I asked for Timothy's number at Pearson's and made the call. The man who answered was hurried but cheerful. Had I seen him on Pot Cops? "Oh, good!" he exclaimed when I said I had. "I'll show you my plants. I've got beautiful plants."
The way up the mountain was leafy and coated in dust. The road wound like a corkscrew, and soon, high above the river, I came to a gate slightly ajar and, beyond this, a cabin—a shack, really—perched on a terrace above two yellow school busses. A dog came out, barking, and then Timothy, in his 60s, with a white beard and tinted round glasses. He wore only camouflage. His shirt was belted tight around his stomach, and there was a can of Mountain Dew open in his breast pocket. "You want to see something beautiful?" he said, not wasting any time. I followed him to a greenhouse on an upper terrace. A fan hummed. The dog took a piss. Timothy drew back the sheets of plastic and inhaled. Fecundity billowed out like a cloud of heat. "You like that?" he said. I had stepped back to take a breath. I looked at Timothy. I thought I had never seen anyone so pleased with himself.
The tour went on like this. Timothy would stroke a plant, beam at it with fatherly affection, and then we would move on. "I think you'll like this Girl Scout Cookie. Oh, it's Deadly Diesel! New York Diesel crossed with Afghani. Beautiful, isn't it?" I hardly knew the difference but sniffed the plants when he told me to sniff them. I had begun to wonder about his eagerness. What was he doing showing his plants to a stranger? He was not as crazy as I had imagined, or perhaps it was that his madness did not strike me as genuine. When I asked, for example, why he thought the tribe had banned pot, he said, first, "They're communists," but then he added that the tribe did not want growers to drive up land values, because it hoped to buy back the land it had lost to white settlers. This sounded like a reasonable explanation, like one the tribe itself might give. ("Not really," Troy said later, when I asked if this was the case.) I wondered if Timothy's eccentricity was a cozy disguise for his real acumen, in the way, perhaps, that his shack and outbuildings, in various states beyond repair, were disguises for his alleged wealth. That was another thing: Where had the money gone? Where were the televisions and swimming pools?
When we finished on the terraces, Timothy led me across the hill to his parents' house. It was dark and cramped, with family portraits on the walls and shelves and a coffee table cluttered with medications. Sylvia was in the living room, eating cereal with milk and berries. She looked well kept in a sweater, jeans, and bright sneakers. Roscoe, on the other hand, looked ill. He emerged from the bedroom on a walker, with wisps of white hair pointed statically toward the ceiling. Sylvia did most of the talking.
Her husband had been born in Oklahoma to ranchers who fled to Bakersfield, California, during the Dust Bowl. Sylvia was from the reservation. In the 50s, after she and Roscoe married, they made their first attempt at living there, but they struggled to piece together an income and soon left for the Alaska oil fields. In the 70s, they returned to the reservation to graze cattle and pigs. Around this time, at a party by the river, they had their first encounter with marijuana. "We only knew what we had been told," Sylvia recalled, "that marijuana was bad. I don't remember who was at the party. I didn't want to really look or make eye contact. I felt so out of place." They did not eat the cake, fearful of what it contained, but as the night wore on, Sylvia was struck by the party's calm. "It was on a real steep hillside, and they laid back on their jackets like in easy chairs. I'll never forget it. I can see them right now—just laying back, enjoying themselves. It was a beautiful night. One of the best parties I've ever been to."
Roscoe consulted the host about growing marijuana. She suggested he try 40 plants; he planted 400. When officers raided him that summer, in 1978, the community sided with the police. "People said, 'Shame on you. You were growing too much,'" Sylvia said. "If we had just planted forty, the police wouldn't have bothered us, but Roscoe got overly ambitious."
To their critics, the Littlefields embodied all that had gone wrong with marijuana: family enterprise turned to industry, survival to excess.
Over time theirs grew to an even larger operation, the details of which neither Timothy nor his parents wanted to discuss. When I asked how many plants Timothy had, he said, without pause, "Ninety-nine." (Humboldt County permits each grower up to 99 plants a year, to be consumed solely by oneself or by another medical marijuana licensee for whom the grower is a "primary caregiver.") This was after I had seen the greenhouse, the terraces, and the two school buses installed with grow lights, which altogether looked like they contained several hundred plants. (Timothy would later claim that all but the legally permitted 99 marijuana plants on his property were, in fact, tobacco plants.) When I asked Timothy how he sold his pot, he insisted that he grew it for only himself, his family, and anyone working with him who had a license. I asked Sylvia who their buyers were, and she replied, "I don't know. We had people all over the country!" For some years, she said, a man flew a plane from Ukiah, in Mendocino County, and they delivered their crop to him by truck. Sylvia paused after she mentioned this. "I don't want to incriminate myself," she said.
I asked Sylvia why she thought the tribe had banned pot, and she explained that everything had changed in 1988, when the tribe was permitted to form a government: "It went to their heads," she said, referring to the tribal council. "They just got militant against their own people." By then I had heard other tribal members question the Yurok's strategy, but none so eagerly as the Littlefields. They believed that the ban was a calculated maneuver to keep people in poverty and dependent on government. They hardly mentioned water. "The water?" Sylvia repeated when I asked. "Oh, I don't know. We seem to have an endless supply."
In the middle of June, I attended a meeting at the bright, airy tribal offices in the town of Klamath, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean, 22 miles north of Weitchpec. Tribal administrators and scientists discussed whether to ration reservation drinking water as the summer progressed or let community water tanks run empty. The first option, they concluded, was not good; rationing required that the tribe turn tanks on and off every day, which they did not have the personnel to do, and the frequent changes in pressure could cause peoples' pipes to backflow into the tanks, possibly contaminating whole supplies. So they decided on the second. They wondered if the water would last until a new series of marijuana raids were to begin, which were still a few weeks off. It was hard to say. A man suggested in the meantime that they walk the creeks and remove growers' illegal pipes. "Um, do you want to do that?" asked Dara Zimmerman, a water engineer for the Indian Health Service.
"It's not like we can have you go out into the woods where these guys are packing guns," Dean Baker, the Yurok public works director, assured the team. "You didn't sign up for that."
After the meeting, I met Fletcher in his office. A sober, willful man in a T-shirt and slacks, he told me that while the drought was a primary motivating factor for the ban on marijuana, so was the industry's effect on the culture of the tribe. "People are scared," he said. "They've gone out to gather acorns and basket materials, or to ceremonial sites, and been approached and stalked by heavily armed individuals."
I had trouble imagining the Littlefields pulling guns on fellow tribal members—they seemed so unthreatening—but Sylvia had suggested otherwise. "Roscoe and I are of an age where people know we can't hurt them," she said. "Of course our family might." Other growers were keener to shoot than the Littlefields. Carlton Gibbens, who often wandered the ridges above the Klamath on his quad, had told me a story about taking a shortcut through a friend's property. He heard warning shots and realized that his friend had leased the land to growers. "You cannot travel the woods as freely as you used to," Gibbens had said.
The first summer of raids had not been as effective as Fletcher had hoped. Recently, authorities had flown over sites previously targeted and found them as thickly planted as in years before. Either growers had not taken the raids seriously, or they had sold land or passed leases to new growers who were perhaps unaware of the ban. There were also new clearings and roads, and signs that growers were building facilities underground. Fletcher did not seem deterred, however. He said that the tribe would carry out the raids for as many years as it would take, until the growers stopped planting or left. Otherwise, growers would amass large fines, risking forfeiture of their land.
I asked Fletcher if the tribe had priorities for the type of grower they would target. "The strategy is, go get everything you can," he said. After all, their policy was zero tolerance. "It's not like our members aren't involved," he conceded. "Some of them are involved, and if they get caught, they have to be ready to accept the consequences. But at the end of the day, the benefits of having some economic opportunities are outweighed by the environmental and cultural impacts, and the general sense of lawlessness that comes along with those activities. People will say that marijuana isn't the same as meth or heroin—that's true, but those drugs are certainly around a lot of marijuana." (Tribal members told me that marijuana had become a sort of currency on the reservation that people trade for harder drugs.) "We have enough societal hurdles," he continued. "And these healthy activities, like fishing, like gathering acorns, that help people find who they are, that help teach values to our children and grandchildren—when those are impacted, it's a greater harm because of all the harm that's already been heaped upon our community for generations."
As we spoke, I noticed how often Fletcher repeated a certain phrase: Marijuana, he said, was "a threat to the health and welfare of the community." He did this, I assumed, because the tribe is treading on some narrow legal ground. Most of the land on which marijuana is grown is called "fee land." While it is within the boundaries of the reservation, it is private, and the tribe cannot regulate its use—unless, according to a 1981 Supreme Court decision, Montana v. United States, "conduct threatens or has some direct effect on... the health and welfare of the tribe."
The tribe has yet to meet any significant resistance—many growers plant more than the legal limit anyway, and a certain secrecy still clings to the industry—but the little protest that has come has struck at the "Montana exception." Not long ago, the tribal court received a letter quoting this very case. It came from an anonymous organization of non-Indian growers who said they lived in an area of the reservation called the Iron Gate. Before the raids, "the Iron Gate was a big mystery," Leonard Masten, the Yurok police chief, told me, because residents kept the gate locked.
I found my way there by accident one day. Terray Sylvester, the photographer I was traveling with, had met a young white man in the parking lot of Pearson's who invited us to his place. We were to meet him "at the Iron Gate," the man had said. So, one afternoon, we waited at a rather simple brown gate until he appeared riding a quad through a gale of dust.
His name was C. J., and he had arranged for us to meet Stormy Menning, who, as it happened, had sent the letter. Menning lived a mile up the mountain, in a rustic, two-story house he had built himself. He had moved to Iron Gate in 1979 to work as a timber faller, after returning from Vietnam with a bad case of PTSD. Years later, he bought land. He raised three kids, who are now adults, though I gathered that he was a father figure to several young growers, including C. J., who had lived on the mountain for nearly ten years. C. J. had been recruited by his cousin Tommy, who was a friend and growing partner of Menning's son. Then Tommy committed suicide—he had recently returned from Iraq—and Menning's son could not stand to stay. Now, it was just Menning, C. J., and C. J.'s girlfriend on the mountain, along with a few other growers scattered about.
Menning was gentle, if a bit nervous, and presented us with a black briefcase containing a nine-page analysis of the ban, prepared by someone with specialized knowledge of Indian law. On July 29, 2014, the day Menning was raided, he was riding his motorcycle to a rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. A friend called, and Menning cut his trip short. He found his house hardly touched—a testament, he believed, to his role in the community, as he employed many tribal members—but his 37 plants had been cut. "After they busted me," he recalled, "I didn't hear anything about it. I sent a couple letters, saying, basically, 'What is the tribe doing on my land?' I never got a response." That October, Menning attended a Humboldt County board of supervisors meeting, coincidentally on the day that the tribe was to discuss the raids. "The CEO got so pissed off he actually threatened me: 'You can count on us being back at your house next year.'" (Fletcher's exact words, according to a video tape of the meeting: "I don't care how many people may say they are growing marijuana in the appropriate way for medical purposes... We're going to continue to stop by this gentleman's house if he continues to grow.")
A few things confused me about Menning's story, such as his claim that he grew only 37 plants and yet employed quite a few people. And when I asked about water, he explained, convolutedly, that his came from a spring but he piped the excess into a creek, and so he was "donating to the fish." Details aside, I could see why he was frustrated. He had lived on the mountain for 30 years and had never been bothered until now. He did not strike me as a menace to the community, nor did he defend bigger growers. "They just come here to exploit the land in the summertime," he explained. "They're the ones who are sucking creeks dry and lousing it up for the rest of us." It was the same argument—good grower versus bad—that I had heard from so many tribal members. Menning believed that the tribe should leave it to the county to enforce marijuana laws and drive the bigger growers out. The problem with this argument, as Fletcher had stressed at the board meeting, was that even off the reservation, the county did not have the capacity to raid all large grows alone. "If you tell us that marijuana can be grown responsibly," Fletcher said, "we're going to say, 'Who's going to enforce? No one ever has.'"
Before leaving the Iron Gate, we dropped by C. J.'s. He had been waiting for us in a plywood outbuilding he called the "clubhouse." The place appeared spotless despite all its graffiti, and on the stereo was something cheerfully punk. There were couches, and a bar, and a wall covered in photographs. C. J. rooted around the bar while I studied the wall. Most of the people were in their 20s—trimmers, I guessed—and looked like they were having a good time. Then I noticed a dark braid tacked among the photos. Whose was it? "Tommy's," C. J. said, holding up a bottle of rum. "Sailor Jerry's?" He poured us each a shot and then took two himself.
"People are scared," said Troy Fletcher, a leader of the Yurok tribe. "They've gone out to gather acorns and basket materials, or to ceremonial sites, and been approached and stalked by heavily armed individuals."
Some hours later, as the sun set, we headed for the gate. C. J. ran ahead, howling, his limbs splaying gleefully from his body. There was something sad about the whole thing, I thought. Maybe it was Tommy, or the empty liquor bottle waving about in C. J.'s hand. Or was it loneliness I sensed, creeping up the ridge with the night's shadow? I thought about these things—about war, about drugs, about drought, about land taken and livelihoods lost—and it struck me that here, on this mountain, injustices collide, and if it were not for water, for the diminished band of river arching out toward the sea, it would be hard to say who was right and who was wrong. C. J. undid the gate and let us through. Then he said, "Make sure those Natives know who the fuck they're fucking with."
It was a chilly Tuesday morning in July when I arrived at the Tulley Creek fire station, northwest of Weitchpec, to attend the raids. Sixty-or-so guardsmen, county deputies, and tribal officers were sipping coffee and eating fry bread at fold-out tables—a festive gathering despite the guns and bulletproof vests. The raids had begun the day before, on Mitchell Hill. Among the first growers raided was Edward Mays, the tribal member I'd met with Carlton Gibbens. Behind his house, an officer recalled, they had found a field of marijuana stumps, freshly cut, and buds strung up to dry in the woods. The grow was small—a few hundred plants—compared with another site found earlier near the top of the hill, where officers had destroyed 10,000.
At 8 AM, our convoy assembled and departed for a wooded ridge to the south. There were 14 vehicles; I rode with the environmental enforcement officers. The sites we would visit that day were on the edge of Yurok territory, tucked between the reservation and national forest, so county authorities took charge. They led us in from the north, torching gates when they found them locked, to the top of the ridge, where we stopped, suddenly, at a large trench dug by growers to slow our progress. The morning was dark, and mist sifted through the trees like ghosts. The officers stood quietly at the edge of the trench, and then one climbed in and found it twice his height. Beyond the line of men was a second trench, and then a third, both as deep as the first. We waited—for what, I wasn't sure—and then, single file, the men cut through the brush above the trenches and continued down the road on foot.
The site was the most impressive I had ever seen. There were nine rows, impeccably gridded, each framed with plastic pipe and strung with wire and lights. There were 5,000 plants in all. No one was on site, though in a small encampment officers found a warm pot of coffee and wet towels hung to dry. The irrigation system had been pulled up, as if to obscure its source, but a state biologist, Scott Bauer, spotted some pipe in the leaves. This led to a water tank, and then a small stream, dammed to form a pond. Farther up the ridge, Bauer found what he was looking for—the headwater of Miners Creek, a main Klamath tributary, and black pipes, not wider than his forearm, drawing, by his estimate, a fifth of the flow. "It may not look like a big deal," he later told me, "but when you walk down that creek, it's boom, boom, boom. Pipe after pipe, for pot. You see that, and it's like, 'That's where the water's gone.'"
We did not go anywhere I recognized until the third day. That morning, as we gathered, I overheard an officer ask if we needed a backhoe. "Are we going past the Littlefields?" his commander said. We were. "We'll need chainsaws out, then."
The previous summer, the Littlefields had felled trees across the road to stall the raids (Timothy claimed he was just "chopping wood"), but this year, to the officers' surprise, the going was clear. I rode with Leonard Masten, the Yurok police chief, who seemed to regard the whole ordeal with a mix of satisfaction and bemusement. "They're some of the ones who just don't care," he said as we came upon Timothy's cabin.
The gate was open, and a young man I didn't recognize stood watch. We did not go in, however, and continued up the road. The gate we came to instead belonged to a new grower on the mountain named James Looney. A few days earlier, Timothy had urged Looney to give me a tour, and he had done so eagerly. He was in his 30s, tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, dopey voice and tattoos encircling his arms. He was from Stockton, he had said, "the murder capital of California," and "was probably going to go to prison" had a friend not told him about property for lease on the mountain. That was three years ago. Looney, more or less, had stayed out of trouble since. The tribe had not raided him the summer before. "It was kind of embarrassing. I had the smallest plants on the hill," he told me, and admitted he was not a good grower—not like Timothy, whom he called "the fucking godfather of weed." But as Looney had led me around his fields, I had seen that his plants were tall and leafy; he had gotten better.
Now, I listened with Masten to the radio as officers secured the site. One would tell me later that Looney came out first, and then his growing partner, a member of the neighboring Hoopa Tribe; both were ordered to their knees, handcuffed, and brought to wait in the shade. I saw Looney only once, a quick glance as I passed, but he turned away. The bust took no time at all. I watched from an upper terrace as two men leveled a greenhouse in under a minute, and then I followed an environmental enforcement officer to a water tank hidden in the forest above.
Looney had taken me to this tank. "The water here is so good, straight out of the mountain," I remembered he had said. I would think of this moment again, later on, when a Yurok elder told me a story about the spring from which her family used to drink. It was on the same mountain—a little crevasse, elbowdeep. She called it Aunt Daisy's drinking spot, because her aunt had fashioned a trough from a stick of bamboo and propped it in the rocks below the spring. The spring would flow into a cup, and the cup would sweat, because the water was so cold. Looney's tank had been sweating. "Do you feel that?" he had said, dipping a hand in. Then, lowering himself to the ground, he had undone a crimp in a small black hose and let the water fall into his mouth.
In total, the raids eradicated 55,000 plants. One bust was so large and remote that officers had been forced to drop in by helicopter. Masten was certain "it's Littlefields," who he believed had been emboldened by raids the year before and were now growing farther afield. But when I asked Timothy, he insisted the site was not his. It was all very confusing. I was struck by the immensity of the Yurok's task and reminded of something a local narcotics officer told me when I had asked if he thought the raids would make a difference. "In Iowa, the crows get some of the corn," he said. "We're the crows."
If the tribe's goal was solely to keep more water in the Klamath Basin, then the raids have been a success. In the end, though, I sensed that there was something else behind the tribe's crusade that had nothing to do with fish, or land, or even water. It had to do, rather, with the future of the tribe. Thomas Willson, a tribal councilman, had made this point earlier in my trip. For ten years, he said, he had been a growing partner of Noble Niles's. Now his son was a grower. It troubled Willson that this was what children on the reservation had grown up into—that their perception of prosperity was molded by marijuana. "My son thinks he's going to make it big in the pot scene," Willson said. "These young guys say, '[Growers] are paying me twenty bucks an hour!' I say, 'They're using your resource, and your back, and you're only getting twenty an hour?'" Perhaps in the most utopian sense, the raids had arisen from a desire to begin again, to force the community to imagine a reservation without pot. This is difficult to do, more difficult than feeding resinous plants into a chipper. It would not happen anytime soon.
On my last day on the reservation, I noticed James Looney in the parking lot of Pearson's and stopped to say hello. He had spent a few hours in county jail, he said, and then was released without bail. The tribe would fine him, but he did not yet know how much. I wanted to be sure that he knew I hadn't snitched. "My first thought was Littlefield set me up," he admitted, "'cause they didn't hit any of his stuff." But he assured me, "We're all good. Hell, I've still got four hundred plants." Then, explaining that he had work to do, he drove off toward the mountain.
- VICE Magazine
- native americans
- Vice Blog
- Volume 22 Issue 11
- Sierra Crane-Murdoch