Rediscovered identity: Karuk man turned forced assimilation into mentoring mission

Jessica Skropanic Redding Record SearchlightPublished 10:00 AM EDT Aug 1, 2020The life of entrepreneur and Kar

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The life of entrepreneur and Karuk tribesman Robert Cabitto turned a few corners over the past decade.

His memoir, “The Fractured Life of 3743,” (his tribal roll number) hit bookstore shelves in 2011.He sold his company 9 Mile Communications and took a consultant job at Accenture in Folsom. And he created a mentoring program for people who feel disconnected from their roots while pondering ways to help boost the economy in McCloud where he grew up.

Cabitto’s current life is far from the one in which he grew up: One of foster homes and adoption into a family that denied him contact with his Native American roots. By age 20, he was caught up in an unhealthy lifestyle to help dull his emotional pain and loss of identity.  

"I chose friends who were on drugs. I chose keggers instead of the library,” he said.

The crisis that followed was the catharsis needed to inspire Cabitto to search for his Karuk identity, and help others do likewise.

Born in 1965 to a Native American and Irish family in Yreka, Cabitto felt closest to Karuk culture. He and his 11 siblings spent their early years visiting the reservation along the Klamath River in and around Happy Camp, Yreka and Fort Jones.

His home life was tumultuous, he said. His parents were drug addicts and alcoholics.

He was placed in foster care after his father beat his mother and threatened to kill Cabitto, 5. “My dad took me to the river's edge, poured gasoline on me and attempted to set me on fire." His teenage brother, Gary, ran at his father and knocked him into the river before he could do so.

After foster care, Cabitto was adopted into an Italian family in McCloud. They were devout Catholics whose beliefs “didn’t feel authentic” to him, he said. He refers to that period of confusion and loss as walking between two worlds.

“The intent in those days was to put Native American children in adoption with parents who would help facilitate the governmental assimilation program — a way to take the traditional Indian upbringing out of each child," he said. "I was so young, I didn't really understand what was going on. (But) it was strange being told that things like song, dance and drumming were all activities out of a book, not real events I experienced personally.”

Cabitto’s life changed again when he was 9. His adopted father had a heatstroke.  Cabitto was handed off and circulated among family members while his adopted mother was a caregiver.

Feeling disconnected from a secure life again, Cabitto threw himself into school sports where he found community with his peers. It looked like he would have a promising career in professional baseball, but at age 18, injuries from a car accident benched him, he said. His youth became a series of medical appointments and dealing with his mother’s depression. 

His life hit its nadir when he was in his 20s, he said. He spent years “exploring the world, drinking and drugging." He couldn't keep a job and his relationships were unstable. Most important, Cabitto said he didn't have a purpose-driven life or a spiritual path that worked for him.

That changed when Cabitto, then 28, was invited to a Native American ceremony in Tucson, Arizona. The experience inspired a search for his Native American identity.

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He sought out other indigenous people willing to help him find what he called "his authentic self," he said. “I sun danced with the Lakota, was a spiritual guide at an Ojibwe jingle dance, sweated with the Navajo and vision quested with the Zuni. These experiences forever changed me, connected me to the source and provided me peace and comfort in difficult times.”

His favorite North State spots also gave Cabitto solace, he said. They still do. He visits Redding often and refers to Whiskeytown as his “golden pond,” referring to its color when the sun sets.

Now 54, he mentors others through workshops, retreats and one-on-one sessions, seeking to help people reconnect and redirect their lives.

Also an entrepreneur, Cabitto's future plans include building a technical school in McCloud. It would include machine shops and an apprenticeship program connected to a car, boat and motorcycle restoration business. 

“McCloud is a beautiful town that got lost in the changing job market,” Cabitto said. “We can bring an industry and technology to it (using) resources that are already readily available.”

For more information on Cabitto’s projects, go to

Jessica Skropanic is features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers lifestyle and entertainment stories, and weekly arts feature d.a.t.e.  Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.
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