KLAMATH, Calif. — From a forested bluff, Willard Carlson Jr. stands watch over Blue Creek where its indigo eddies meet the gray-green riffles of the Klamath River. The creek is sacred to Yurok Indians like himself: it flows into high country, a pilgrimage point and a source of curative power for tribal healers. The Yurok consider it their “golden stairway” and weave its stepped pattern into their basketry.
This is a California few outsiders know, where remote villages still await electricity, and the river is a liquid neighborhood. For the state’s largest tribe, with about 5,000 members, well-publicized battles over fishing rights and hydroelectric dams are perhaps less pressing day to day than the question “What part of the river are you from?”
Five years ago, Mr. Carlson was rebounding from alcohol and drug abuse when he felt the need to return here, to his family’s ancestral ground. One night, cooking salmon and eel over an alder fire, he vowed to do something that had not been tried here for at least 150 years: to build a traditional Yurok village from scratch, a ceremonial place that will “bring people home to reconnect with the old ways,” he said.
Mr. Carlson, now 59, his salt-and-pepper hair heavy on the salt, named the village now rising in a clearing Ah Pah, or “the beginning of the stairway.” He views it as a place of healing for “the many people who have lost their way.”
Aided by foundation grants, the project is part of a broad resurgence in traditional tribal culture that began in tandem with the American Indian civil rights movement and aims to foster community resilience and identity. The Yurok villages that once existed by the hundreds on the banks of the Klamath, now reservation land, were homesteads for extended families. Ah Pah will be a ceremonial rather than a residential gathering place — “a college of knowledge,” Mr. Carlson said on a foggy, chilly morning, sipping tea made from wild coastal vines.