HAPPY CAMP, Calif. -- Centuries before federal nutritional guidelines told Americans how to eat healthfully, the Karuk Indians had figured it out.
They ate wild salmon at every meal -- about 1.2 pounds of fish per person per day. Isolated here in the Klamath River valley in the rugged mountains of northwest California, the Karuk stuck with their low-carb, low-cholesterol, salmon-centered diet longer than perhaps any Indians in the Pacific Northwest. It was not until the late 1960s and the 1970s, when dams and irrigation ruined one of the world's great salmon fisheries, that fish mostly disappeared from their diet.
In October, Ron Reed fished in the Klamath River. The tribe's catch last fall was fewer than 100 chinook salmon.
Salmon are now too scarce to catch and too pricey to buy. The tribe caught about 100 chinook salmon last fall, a record low. Eating mostly processed food, some of it federal food aid, many Karuks are obese, with unusually high rates of heart disease and diabetes.
"You name them, I got them all," said Harold Tripp, 54, a traditional fisherman for the tribe. "I got heart problems. I got the diabetes. I got high cholesterol. I need to lose weight."
On his first day as a fisherman for the tribe in 1966, Tripp remembers catching 86 salmon. Last fall, he caught one. "I mostly eat hamburger now," he said.
To reclaim their salmon -- and their health -- the Karuks are using the tribe's epidemic of obesity-related illness as a lever in a dam re-licensing pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In what legal experts say is an unprecedented use of the regulatory process, the tribe is trying to shame a major utility company and the federal government into agreeing that at least three dams on the Klamath River should be knocked down.
The dams are quite literally killing Indians, according to a tribe-commissioned report that was written by Kari Marie Norgaard, a sociologist from the University of California at Davis. The report links the disappearance of salmon to increases in poverty, unemployment, suicide and social dissolution.
"We can't exist without our fish," said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk, whose 3,300 members make up the second-largest Indian tribe in California. "We can only hope that this will be one of those rare instances where a true look at the cost and benefits of those dams will be a compelling argument."
The tribe's demand for nutritional justice presents a prickly new problem to federal regulators at a time of major upheaval in the hydropower industry.
Federal licenses for private dams, valid for 30 to 50 years, are expiring in droves, especially in the Northwest, where hydropower accounts for about 80 percent of the electricity supply. In the next decade or so, licenses are due to expire at more than half of the country's non-federal dams -- 296 projects that provide electricity to 30 million homes in 37 states.
The Karuks "have raised something that is novel, and FERC commissioners will have to grapple with it," said Mary Morton, a legal adviser to Nora Mead Brownell, one of President Bush's four appointees to the commission that rules on license renewals for private dams.
Politically, it is hardly a propitious moment for Native Americans to demand that dams come tumbling down. Power rates have soared in California and across the Northwest in recent years. Bush has repeatedly spoken out against the breaching of federal dams on the nearby Snake River, saying it would be bad for the economy. His appointees as FERC commissioners are considered unlikely to force any utility to remove a dam, and his administration recently granted dam owners a special right -- denied Indian tribes, environmental groups and local governments -- to appeal Interior Department rulings about how dams should be operated.
Still, the aging dams on the Klamath River are, at best, marginal producers of power. They were built without fish ladders (unlike most major dams in the Northwest), and there is widespread scientific agreement that their removal would revive several salmon runs.
California, which could block a renewed federal license for the dams under provisions of the Clean Water Act, seems decidedly unenthusiastic about keeping the dams in the river. The state Energy Commission has said removing them "would not have significant impact" on the regional supply of electricity and that replacement power is readily available.