Environmental Justice
Food & Water
Maya Snyder
Spring 2023

Dismantling Dams for Decolonization

By Sadie Morris, SFS ‘22 & Environmental Educator, Farmer, and Writer

In November of 2022 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave final approval to begin the removal of four dams on the lower Klamath, an area straddling the Oregon-California border. After two decades of tireless struggle by Indigenous communities to undam 400 miles of river and salmon habitat, the final plan includes nearly 200 projects ranging from fish habitat and flow restoration to the actual removal of the dams. 

The first dam on the lower Klamath will be removed the summer of 2023 with the complete removal of the first dam by early 2024. 

The project is already historically unparalleled in scope, but the victory’s implications run deeper than returning the land to its more natural state. It is a direct rebuke of the colonizing forces that have directed the course of U.S. history and in particular US relations with Indigenous nations since the original British colonization.

Colonizers instilled a dualistic perspective of nature in which nature and humans are pitted against one another and humans must subjugate nature.

To understand the full meaning of the Klamath dam removal, it is helpful to examine the relationship between colonization and water infrastructure projects as well as the motives of the Indigenous peoples leading the “un-damming” movement. 

Colonization occurs at both the material and symbolic levels. When the English, Spanish, and French colonized the present-day United States they brought with them certain ideas that underpinned their justification for colonization and implemented cultural colonization of the original peoples of the Americas. Namely, colonizers instilled a dualistic perspective of nature in which nature and humans are pitted against one another and humans must subjugate nature.

Theorists like Val Plumwood root the paradigm in the “technological capacities to direct events in the material environment,” indicating the direct link between the ability to control the environment and emerging worldviews. When colonizers arrived on the shores of the present-day United States, they equated the original peoples with the natural environment: “The inhabitants of untamed, or even unacceptable wildernesses, deserts, and swamps are thrown rhetorically into the class of needing domination or ‘civilizing influences.’” Thus, colonization, displacement, and even mass murder of Indigenous peoples were justified by colonizers in the same breath in which they justified the “taming” of their new natural environment.

Control over water was and continues to be an important aspect of domination in colonizer relations. Since water is both essential for life and fundamentally finite, it plays a particular role in social relations as an impetus for the development of social practices and relationships in order to regulate water access within a community.

Environmental anthropologist Veronica Strang elucidates the relationship between water and society further: “The link between water and power is an expression of material relations. No exercise of power is possible unless it can be expressed in material form, in this instance through the physical control of water bodies or the capacity to determine (from whatever distance) whose interests will benefit from the flow of water.” 

Dams as regulators of water flow and access to water are key manifestations of material control over water. It should come as little surprise then that dams have played a unique and prominent role in colonization. 

Control over water was and continues to be an important aspect of domination in colonizer relations.

In the United States, the majority of dam projects fall under the purview of the Bureau of Reclamation which was established in 1902 under the Department of the Interior. Uncoincidentally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (and its various precursors) is also housed in the Department–a material embodiment of the continued naturalization of Native bodies in the U.S..

Jane Griffith is a communications scholar who focuses on settler colonialism. She conducted an analysis of the magazine published by the Bureau of Reclamation from 1907 to 1983 in order to explicate the connection between infrastructure projects–particularly dams–and the continuation of U.S. colonizing practices. Her use of written narrative further underscores the connection between material and symbolic forms of colonization, as she writes: “[I] demonstrate how dams are built with more than engineering equipment—their tools also include narratives, language, rhetoric, and image that recast Indigenous waterways for settler audiences.” In language parallel to earlier justifications for the occupation of Indigenous land, the Bureau “painted land in the West as arid and otherwise useless without Reclamation, ‘a desert solitude’ home only to ‘sand and cactus desolation,” and ‘infertile, nonirrigable, seeped or otherwise unproductive.’” 

The Bureau even utilized “before and after” reclamation spreads, so “readers could view water unfold over time from original water source to white settlement” with Native stewardship but one step in a march towards modernization. 

In actuality, what the Bureau painted as “reclamation” was occupation funded by theft of Indigenous lands. Beth Rose Middleton, Chair of Native American Studies at U.C. Davis, explains that “Federal water projects in the American West were funded by the seizure and sale of Indian lands to non-Indians” by order of the 1901 Reclamation Act. In the same way in which the Dawes Act had allowed the partitioning of Native land into parcels for sale to settlers, the Reclamation Act sold unceded Native land in order to provide areas for water infrastructure projects that “tamed” the wild, arid lands of the West. 

As a result, Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of resistance to dams globally in opposition to colonization. 

While the U.S. led the way in 21st-century major infrastructure projects, the rest of the world readily followed suit. By 2003, $2 trillion dollars globally had been spent on dam construction and geophysicists believe “The world’s dams have shifted so much weight that…they have slightly altered the speed of the earth’s rotation, the title of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational field.” At the height of the neoliberal hegemonic heyday in the late 1980s and 90s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund regularly pursued water infrastructure projects across the Global South as a means of implementing capitalistic economic models. These incursions became a rallying point for Indigenous groups who readily classified dam project schematics as a new form of colonization for the modern age. 

Dams have played a unique and prominent role in colonization.

Dam construction slowed down in 1997 after Indigenous resistance prompted the World Commission on Dams that supported Indigenous claims that dam profits did not clearly outweigh the environmental and social costs of dams. Nonetheless, construction in the Global South continues at a slower pace–and Indigenous resistance continues.

In the U.S. context, Indigenous response to dam construction in the 21st century was largely quashed by overwhelming government suppression; nonetheless, Indigenous resistance has found renewed expression in the openings created by the post-industrial nature of U.S. capitalist society. As Western science catches up with Indigenous understandings of water relations, Indigenous people are leading an un-damming movement as a way of “(re)activating water as an agent of decolonization, as well as the very terrain of struggle over which the meaning and configuration of power is determined.” 

The Klamath River dam removal project is the embodiment of how the removal of dams operates as a decolonizer on both the material and symbolic levels.

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Four Native American tribes – the Yurok, Hupa, Klamath, and Kurok – are the original and present-day inhabitants of the Klamath Basin where 6 dams currently control the flow of the river. Each of their cultures has a unique relationship with the surrounding waterways and in particular with the salmon who populated the rivers before the dams. For example, the Yurok Tribe embeds their cultural practices in the lifecycle of the salmon which they view as their kin. As anadromous fish, salmon complete a multi-year lifecycle in which they breed in the freshwater rivers, travel downstream to the ocean and eventually return to rivers where they hatched in order to lay their own eggs. The Yurok Tribe accompanies the salmon during their return home and roots their value system of sharing and care around what provides for the health of the salmon. 

Dams have devastated the salmon life cycle because they have altered the temperature of the water in the rivers, allowed the proliferation of diseases, and literally blocked the return of salmon to their nesting grounds. Since the installation of dams, humans have tried to manage the salmon populations–which are now on the Endangered Species list–by building hatcheries and fish ladders, but efforts have proved unable to restore or even sustain population levels. 

The Yurok, Hupa, and Kurok tribes have sued multiple times in court, claiming “the dams were hurting the river, the fish and its culture.” In 2002, “60,000 [salmon] died after the Bush Administration limited water releases for fish in favor of agricultural water deliveries.”  The incident galvanized the four Indigenous tribes to band together and demand that the dams be removed entirely. 

The effort to remove the dam is happening at both the material and symbolic levels. As Yurok Tribe chair Joseph James relates, “‘This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down, it’s a new day and new era for California tribes…we are connected with our hearts and prayers to these creeks, lands, animals, and our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.’” James references both the symbolic connection between the Yurok cosmological relationship to the river–his heart connection to the river– and the material ability for the Tribe to practice their traditions. Frankie Myers, vice-chairman of the Yurok Tribe is even more direct: “For the Yurok, Myers says the dams are seen as ‘monuments to colonialism’ and compares them to statues of Confederate generals. ‘These dams are statues of the war that we fought here on the Klamath River. And these statues destroy our river, the landscape, our culture. We have to deal with them every single day.’”

Emboldened by the stakes of their actions, Tribal leaders and allies went on to lead a series of attacks on PacifiCorp, the company in charge of operating the dams. On one front, the tribes participated in direct action; for instance, in 2004, a group picketed at Scottish Power (a parent company of PacifiCorp) company’s annual shareholders meeting, and in 2007, tribal members embarked on a caravan from California to Nebraska to protest outside an additional parent company. On another front, the tribes took the company to court using the federal licensing renewal process which brought both the state and federal governments to the table. 

An initial agreement was reached in 2010 to decommission four of the dams but quickly was bounced between different lawsuits and eventually different presidential administrations. Nonetheless, the tribes have persisted and in 2020 a new agreement was reached between the tribe, state governments, and PacifiCorp, cutting out the federal government entirely. The 2022 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling was the final piece needed before removal could begin. 

This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down, it’s a new day and new era for California tribes

Joseph James, Yurok Tribe chair

The Indigenous victory in the Klamath River Basin is a major boon to a movement sweeping the U.S.. One thousand seven hundred dams have been removed in the U.S. overall and 69 in 2020 alone. Elizabeth Grossman, who has documented the undamming movement across the U.S., identifies how the movement positions itself in opposition to the colonized, capitalist norm: “Reconsidering the use of our rivers means examining our priorities as a nation. It forces us to rethink our patterns of consumption and growth and may well be key to reclaiming a vital part of America’s future.”

The future is exactly what Indigenous leaders within the movement are looking to: Indigenous leadership pointedly rejects that Indigenous ways are those of the past, meant to be dammed over by modern means of environmental control. Rather, un-damming demonstrates that Indigenous ways of relating to water are actually a living lesson, “a glimpse of an alternative form of sovereignty.” 

Un-damming should not be viewed as a regression to a time before the “civilizing” force of colonization but rather an embrace of an alternative, decolonized way of being. Like Franz Fanon reminds us, “No, there is no question of a return to Nature. It is simply a very concrete question of not dragging men towards mutilation, of not imposing upon the brain rhythms which very quickly obliterate it and wreck it.” 

Un-damming should not be viewed as a regression to a time before the “civilizing” force of colonization but rather an embrace of an alternative, decolonized way of being.

When Indigenous peoples today tear down dams, they are not only freeing the waters and living creatures caged behind dams but breaking the cultural trap of the colonized mindset. 


Sadie Morris graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2022 with a bachelor’s in Culture and Politics. She continues to engage in issues of the environment, water, and the West as a farmer in Montana. She is a former editor of Common Home.

Tagged
decolonization
environmental justice
water rights