The Klamath and Modoc creation stories Paul Wilson learned as a child are old: They stretch further back in time than the formation of Giiwas (Crater Lake) 7,700 years ago. Learning and carrying on those stories deepened his relationship to the Klamath Basin, the place his relatives have inhabited for thousands of years.
The more he explored his landscape, the more Wilson found that words fell short. So he picked up a camera. “My journey with photography was inspired by the relationships that my dad and family and elders have shown me we can hold with these landscapes,” Wilson says.
What began as a desire to capture and share his surroundings with family grew into something broader as his skills developed. Wilson’s photography turned into an expression of visual sovereignty — an Indigenous person’s own story of their relationship to place.
For Wilson that’s the Klamath Basin, where Indigenous people thrived in what were rich marshland ecosystems for thousands of years before a century of hydroelectric projects traded the health of a watershed for power and irrigation. Now the dams are being removed and a new chapter of the story starts.
Rekindling Lost Connections
The Klamath Basin is rugged country. Windy expanses of volcanic rock and ponderosa pine fill a landscape anchored by the massive caldera of Giiwas. Alpine streams flowing down the mountain grow into great rivers that fan out into flat expanses of marshland, such as the 40,646-acre Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, key habitat for migratory waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway.
Wilson recalls riding in a canoe as a youth as his father paddled the same waterways his ancestors used for travel and food harvest. (Many of those same routes are open to visitors today.) His father and uncle taught him the food systems of the Klamath waterways and how to live off the land. Yet after a century of dams, the stories of resource abundance didn’t match Wilson’s reality, in which first foods like lamprey and c’waam were instead on the endangered-species list.
But the Klamath and Modoc people are still there and are bringing traditions back, such as the carving of the first tribal dugout canoe in recent memory. “It’s exciting because it’s this energy, it’s this continuation of us returning to our relationship with this land and water,” says Wilson.
The water of the marshes is what draws Wilson and his camera lens the most. Minutes from his house are the grassy banks and blue waters of the Wood River, which has accessible day-use access. The marshlands in the Klamath Basin are renowned for their biodiversity and offer excellent bird-watching opportunities in places such as Putnam’s Point Park and the Link River Trail near Klamath Falls. These places are all open to visitors.
As his photography skills grew, Wilson discovered his images could rekindle a lost connection to place for others in his community. When he showed images to tribal elders of remote places they were no longer able to visit, he said they lit up with pride for the relationship they have to the land.
He hopes his work has a similar effect on his own family. “My hope is that my images represent and celebrate and honor the relationships I saw growing up that my aunts, my mom and my sisters have with these waters and the ways in which they’ve taken care of us,” Wilson says.
Telling Our Own Stories
Historical imagery from the Klamath Basin abounds. Broad, black-and-white landscapes shot by photographers in the early 1900s captured natural beauty with Indigenous people posed in formal dress. But those images froze the landscape and people in a past before European contact and misconstrued the reality of the area’s original inhabitants.
In 1954 an act of Congress terminated the federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes and dissolved the 1864 treaty the tribes signed with the federal government. This original agreement gave the Klamath people rights to live and hunt on millions of acres of their traditional homelands in south Central Oregon. Although federal recognition was restored in 1986, Wilson explains, the image of the Klamath Tribes as a vanishing people persisted.
The reclamation of the narrative is what Wilson found in photographing his people in the pine forests, mountains and marshlands they never left. “Imagery was used to make us into this dying breed, and that has never been accurate,” says Wilson. “My people are here, we are modern. And we’ve lacked that representation.”
Wilson initially expressed this visual sovereignty through social media, where he didn’t need anyone’s approval to give worldwide access to his images documenting the natural-resource management policies that were impacting traditional Klamath land. Eventually his story spread beyond social media to national publications.
Now, through global nonprofit organizations such as Rios to Rivers, where Wilson holds the title of Chief Storyteller, he uses his photographs to document Indigenous communities like his own and advocate for the lifeways the people have with the land and water.
“These lands, these marshes, these rivers, these creeks, these mountains, they’ve sustained my people since time immemorial,” Wilson says. “My work is tied to them.”
A River Revival
In November 2022, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to remove four hydroelectric dams in Klamath County as well as Siskiyou County in California. It is believed to be the largest dam removal in the history of the world.
The oldest of the dams first captured the waters of the Lower Klamath River in 1903. “I’ve never known a river here that wasn’t dammed,” Wilson says. “I’ve never known these lakes or marshes as they once were, before they were depleted.”
The dams on the Klamath severely impact fish populations that rely on spawning sites upstream from the dams. They also flood fishing and cultural sites important to Indigenous people, and create stagnant reservoir waters that breed a toxic algae-like bacteria, poisoning the water for people and wildlife. For decades, tribal leaders in Oregon and California have fought for removing the dams, the first in a long series of steps to restore the health of the massive Klamath watershed.
The dam removal brings hope to many different communities that rely on the Klamath watershed for economics and recreation. For the area’s original inhabitants, it means something more. “It means a reconciliation and, hopefully, a renaissance of our lifeways,” says Wilson. “It means an entire world change.”