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Soul of the Mattole

Nestled deep in the valleys of the King Range runs the Mattole River. The Indigenous Mattole people lived along the Mattole River, anchored to their main food source, salmon. The river ran thick with fish, supporting family groups peppered throughout the watershed. The Mattole held a reverence for water. Water was alive, it watched you, had thoughts and feelings, and became rough if you spoke in its presence. Only when water knows you may you look upon it and speak in its company. Their reverence carried through to their name, the word Mattole meaning ‘clear water’, you need only to visit the river to know why.

White settlers arrived brazenly in 1857, spreading into the valley and imposing their presence upon the Mattole. The Mattole resisted the invasion and were met with violence. By 1864 the settlers had viciously diminished the tribe’s number to almost zero, and took the Mattole homeland for themselves. However, this land is not theirs. It never will be.


Today the Mattole tribe lives on as part of the Bear River Band. The band was formed in the early 1900s to bring together the descendants of Mattole, Wailaki and Wiyot people. The Mattole have found a home here and a space to conserve their sacred cultural identity and practices.

As days shorten and leaves alight with color, salmon gather at the coasts, waiting to swim upriver to their natal spawning grounds. The Bear River Band gather at the mouth of the Mattole River, and for the first time in 100 years, these Mattole bound salmon will hear a welcoming call from the shore. Pieced together from memory and myth, the Bear River Band will perform their Salmon Dance Ceremony.

Over time, the same greed that saw the Mattole people pushed out of their ancestral homeland took its toll on the river. Intensive timber harvesting between the 1940s and 1970s coupled with other land-use changes redefined the geomorphology of the river. Deep pools that had provided refuge for adult salmon were filled with sediment, and the river spread, losing its complexity. The salmon runs were reduced to a shadow of their former bounty.

Despite this voracity, the Mattole Valley still maintained remnants of a community that was bound together by salmon. Born out of the desire to see the native Mattole salmon run restored, community members banded together to form some of the first citizen-led watershed restoration groups in the West. The Mattole Salmon Group was formed in 1980, quickly followed by the Mattole Restoration Council in 1983. These groups envision a time when the Mattole has healthy, self-sustaining forests, meadows, and creeks. A time when salmon have no longer need human help. A time when the soul of the Mattole runs strong again.  

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