Trailblazer: Amy Cordalis

This Californian is fighting for her community and a river as the Yurok Tribe's general counsel.

amy cordalis
Amy Kumer

The majestic Klamath River runs through Northern California and parts of Oregon. “You knew you were going to see a lot of fish,” says Amy Cordalis, a member of the Yurok Tribe who grew up fishing there. “You knew you were going to fill up your smokehouse [and] freezer.” The Yurok are the largest tribe in California; fishing the Klamath is essential to their way of life—economically, culturally, and spiritually.

But decades of agricultural runoff, climate change, and restricted waterways have seriously jeopardized the health of the river. Cordalis was a junior in college, in 2002, when locals began observing tens of thousands of dead or dying salmon along the river. That fish kill, unprecedented in tribal memory, inspired Cordalis to attend law school, with the goal of protecting the area’s natural resources.

“That same year, we had a suicide crisis on the reservation,” she says. “There’s a direct correlation between our health and the fish’s health.” Now, as the first Yurok person to serve as her tribe’s general counsel, Cordalis has dedicated her life to advocating for her community, including fighting for the removal of dams and suing the federal government for violating the Endangered Species Act.

“We employ the second-highest amount of scientists [and] fisheries biologists in the whole state of California. We have not only modern science but also thousands of years of traditional knowledge of how salmon work.”

Cordalis is optimistic that her efforts will enable her to someday teach her three young sons to fish on the Klamath. “[The Yurok] will always be here,” she says. “We have to hope that whoever else is here with us is going to learn to live with us. It’s time we move toward a more sustainable, inclusive, equitable West. You do that through first, acknowledging; second, reconciling; and third, empowering the rights of Indigenous peoples. When we do that, we will see vast improvements to our climate.”•

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