I’d like to share a story of near destruction, survival, perseverance, and ultimately healing and restoration. This is my story; a story of my people, the Yurok Tribe; the story of the California Condor—and how we intertwine.
As Yurok people, our foundational reason for being is “hlkelonah ‘ue-mey-ge-tohl-kwoh,” which means we care for the whole world and strive to keep it healthy and well. We care for not only humans and other living beings, but for the earth itself, its soil, air, and waters, and the spirit that imbues them. In turn, the world cares for us, in balance.
Yurok tribal wildlife biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen is leading the effort to reintroduce California Condors to her people’s ancestral lands. Photo by Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe.
Since long before non-indigenous exploration and settlement in our area, the Yurok people have lived in the northwest corner of what is now California, with villages stretching along the lower portion of the Klamath River and extending along the Pacific coastline to the north and south. Yurok lands were once home to a trackless expanse of old-growth redwoods, pristine rivers passing through mountainous terrain, and extensive prairie systems maintained through traditional fire. Our world supported an incredible diversity of species, including immeasurable salmon runs; abundant elk, deer, mountain lion, and bear populations; and the magnificent Prey-go-neesh (California Condor).
Tragically, our world was almost torn apart post-American contact. The California Gold Rush ignited a wildfire of greed that nearly consumed our home. A surge of new people arrived, overharvesting wildlife for food and profit, razing old-growth redwoods, scarring the land, diverting and draining the water, and laying waste to the carefully balanced ecosystem of which we were a part. Some of the largest massacres in American history occurred locally, and stories told of the atrocities committed against tribal people, including children, reverberate throughout and impact our community still today.
One casualty of the upheaval was the Prey-go-neesh—the largest land-based bird in North America, majestic with a wingspan of more than nine feet. The last documented condor in our region was killed at the turn of the 20th century. Prey-go-neesh is of deep cultural importance to many tribes throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. For the Yurok, this is due to his relationship with world renewal and our reason for being. Many families, my own included, taught that the condor was a sacred creature, not to be harmed. Prey-go-neesh was amongst the first spirits of the world, and helped teach us how to establish and maintain balance, and to live in a good way. Considered a kind-hearted spirit, and one of renewal, he helped establish our world-renewal ceremonies, providing a song and a prayer that we continue to sing today, and carrying our prayers to the heavens when asking for the world to be in balance. Any condor feathers that we received, which we use in our regalia and which carry the spirit of Prey-go-neesh, were considered gifts. The loss of Prey-go-neesh was devastating.
California Condors likewise disappeared from most of western North America in the 20th century. Prehistorically they ranged from British Columbia to northern Mexico. By the 1950s, their range had contracted to a small wishbone-shaped area in central and southern California. California Condor was among the first animals listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. By the 1980s there were only 22 condors left in the entire world, and the last wild, free-flying condors were captured for their own protection. In a valiant effort to save the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led a coalition of conservation partners in starting a controversial but successful captive-breeding program. Since the early 1990s, this coalition has been reintroducing condors into the wild at three release areas in California and one near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There is another release site in Baja California, managed in coordination with the Mexican government.
In 2003, the Yurok Tribal Park Taskforce—a panel of elders and knowledgeable tribal members formed to prioritize the natural and cultural restoration needs of our tribe’s people and land—chose Prey-go-neesh as the single most important land-based species to restore. At the time, I had just graduated from high school, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea that I would be part of bringing Prey-go-neesh back home to the Yurok ancestral territory.