Leaf Hillman: The Tribe Leader is Now a Department Director

The story of Mount Shasta becomes the central point of focus in Netflix’s ‘Files of the Unexplained’ episode named ‘Mysteries of Mt. Shasta’. One of the aspects that the episode covers is its consideration as a sacred site by many Native American tribes, including the Karuk tribe. For them, Mount Shasta holds cultural, spiritual, and historical significance, serving as a symbol of their ancestral connection to the land and the natural world. Leaf Hillman, who introduces himself as the vice-chairman of the Karuk Tribal Council, also features in the episode and shares his understanding of what the mountain is for the Karuk tribe.

Leaf Hillman Explained the Karuk’s Connection to Mount Shasta

Leaf Hillman, born on the Klamath River within the traditional Karuk homeland, grew up immersed in the rich cultural heritage of his tribe, deeply connected to the land and its traditions. Raised with a profound awareness of his heritage, Hillman dedicated his life to preserving the cultural resources of the Karuk people. In the episode, he shed light on some of these sacred practices, such as the Karuk tradition of facing Mount Shasta when they pray, emphasizing the mountain’s spiritual significance to his tribe.

In recounting the origin story of the Karuk people, Hillman explained their belief that before life began on Earth, spirit beings roamed the land. Some of these spirits transformed into human beings, while others became rivers, mountains, and animals. According to Hillman, this belief is integral to fostering a relationship of coexistence between humans and the natural world. It underscores the value of recognizing that humans are not superior to the environment that sustains them, promoting harmony and respect for the interconnectedness of all life forms.

Hillman acknowledged hearing various theories about Mount Shasta, including claims of physical or spiritual vortexes and connections to the mythical land of Lemuria inhabited by higher spirits. While he initially dismissed these ideas as “New Age stuff,” he expressed tolerance for diverse beliefs. He noted that the Karuk people also have legends about “Big People” and “Small People,” emphasizing that such narratives should serve as reminders to respect other species and the natural world.

Explaining what he thought Mount Shasta was to him, he said, “It is the great mystery and we don’t know everything about what goes on all around us. I don’t spend my time trying to understand things that just are. Some of those things aren’t meant for us to understand.”

Where is Leaf Hillman Now?

Leaf Hillman has held various influential positions within the administrative departments of the Karuk Tribe. His service extends beyond tribal affairs, as evidenced by his tenure on the American Red Cross of Humboldt County Board of Directors from 1983 to 1986 and his position on the United Way of Humboldt County Board of Directors until 1988. However, his most notable achievement lies in his founding of the Karuk Tribe’s Fisheries Department in 1990, where he served as director until 1994. Under his leadership, the department expanded and evolved into the Department of Natural Resources, leaving a lasting legacy of environmental stewardship within the tribe.

Image Credit: klamathmedia/YouTube

During his tenure as director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department, Leaf Hillman collaborated closely with researchers from UC Davis to conduct a comprehensive study on diet-related illnesses prevalent among the Karuk Tribe, including heart-related issues and diabetes. This research revealed a correlation between these health problems and the loss of the tribe’s traditional salmon-based diet, which had been disrupted by inadequate river management practices in the region. In 2003, Hillman transitioned to the role of Vice-Chairman of the Karuk Tribal Council, where he served until 2009. Subsequently, he resumed his position as Director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department.

He has held the position of Chairman of the Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission and played a pivotal role in advocating for the removal of Klamath River dams. His leadership was instrumental in the development of both the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Basin Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, initiatives aimed at addressing environmental challenges and promoting sustainable management practices in the Klamath Basin region. Hillman’s persistent advocacy efforts culminated in a landmark settlement agreement and plans for the removal of dams in 2021.

Presently, he holds the position of Director of the National Resources & Environmental Policy for the Karuk tribe and resides in Orleans, California. As a descendant of a Karuk dance-owning family, Hillman fulfills the role of ceremonial leader during Piky’avish, the Karuk World Renewal Ceremonies. Additionally, he is an enrolled member of the Karuk-UC Berkeley Collaborative, demonstrating his commitment to preserving and restoring his tribe’s language by teaching it across various public education platforms and institutions. Through his multifaceted involvement and dedication, Hillman continues to uphold and advance the cultural heritage and environmental interests of the Karuk tribe.

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