Fighting to keep Indigenous diets alive in Northern California

This story was originally posted on Civilian eats.


As the sun sets and the rain clouds linger, Jaytuk Steinruck drives an all-terrain vehicle to a northwest corner of the California coast to congregate duuma (sea anemone) near tidal pools Setlhxat (Prince’s Island) for a feast based on traditional foods from the Tolowa tribe.

About halfway up, Steinruck points to his family’s fishing camp. They are one of only two families in Tolowa that continue to dry in the sun. lhvmsr (smell) on sand or grass beds like their ancestors had done. This beach at the tip of the redwood forest is also where inflict (clams), a food that was also part of the coastal diet, was abundant until the 1970s, when the Tolowas began to see the elongated seashells marked by a tongue-shaped body disappear.

While he collects the green and spongy anemone which will later be breaded and fried like squid, Steinruck also evokes the disappearance of another important element of the tribe’s diet: the smelt. The little silver feed fish that the Tolowa Dee-ni ‘ once widely used has become rare.

“We used to have a 100-pound dive,” said Steinruck, a specialist in the tribe’s natural resources department, describing how nets attached to a portable wooden A-frame are dipped into the banks of the river. the ocean for capture. “Now we’re in luck if we can harvest a full five gallon bucket. “

As many Americans settle into their version of a Thanksgiving feast this week, the Tolowans are grateful that they have kept their traditional eating habits in the face of the destruction and loss caused by the invasion and onslaught of the early Californian settlers.

Party organizer Marva Jones is rolling Indian bread.

Despite the over 164-year assault on the indigenous peoples of the North Coast and their indigenous diets – from outright persecution and massacre in the 19th century to today’s policies that restrict indigenous rights – along with a series of acute environmental transformations, the Tolowa Deeni ‘, which currently comprises 1,609 tribal members, continue to practice their traditions today.

“My grandmother and other full-blooded Aboriginal women had to stand up for our harvesting rights on Prince Island,” recalls Steinruck’s cousin, Marva Jones. “They were outright warriors. And, as a result, my family never gave up.

Fight for tradition

In early November, gathered at their Smith River Cultural Center one mile from the Oregon border, the Tolowa and Yurok families celebrated a meal of traditional foods including salmon, acorns, deer, elk, smelt, seaweed, sea anemones, clam chowder, sand bread, lamprey and blackberry pie.

Steinruck, who brings his duuma harvest from the day before, pull the chinook from the vacuum-sealed bags. Carefully slicing the fillets into three- to four-inch-wide steaks before sliding them onto large skewers carved from redwood, he smiles a little as the meat begins to sizzle.

Guylish Bommelyn roasting salmon on the fire.

He gets grim as he talks about the dwindling of these ancestral staple foods due to climate change – as well as policies that prohibit the Tolowans from managing their natural resources. A tribe’s access to its resources depends on whether the rights have been negotiated with the state or the federal government. Tribes like the Tolowa, who were dissolved by the US government during the 1950s and 1960s, and restored decades later, often encountered serious legal obstacles in attempting to secure these rights.

Changes in food systems and tribal lifestyles began in 1853 when the California Gold Rush resulted in a massive incursion of white settlers. Make way for newcomers and tackle the “Indian problem”, California paid a premium for Indian scalps, which turned out to be more lucrative than gold panning. The First Session of the California State Legislature passed the Government and Indian Protection Act in 1850, which legalized the withdrawal of indigenous people from their lands and the separation of indigenous families.

Ceremonies were ambushed and villages were set on fire. In 1856, the US government forcibly expelled 1,834 Tolowa to the coastal concentration camps. By 1910, like many Californian tribes, Tolowa’s population had declined – by more than 10,000 to only 504. Despite the 14th Amendment, the Government and Indian Protection Act was not fully repealed until 1937.

Relying on the knowledge held by the few families who refused to give up their traditional customs, the Tolowa persevered.

“My family has been successful in sticking to our food, our language, our ceremonies, our songs, our beliefs and our protocols,” says Jones. “We fought to stay connected. We have deliberately protected and transmitted this way of being so that it does not die.

Despite the decline in harvests, the family continues to fish for smelt near the mouth of the Smith River. Even if the fish aren’t running around, Tolowa’s presence reminds neighboring landowners of the tribe’s inherent right to these waterways.

Tolowa elder Vicki Luuk’vm naaghe ‘Bommelyn with dried surf fish.

Their ancestral land is located in both California and Oregon. Surrounded by salmon-producing rivers that flow into the ocean, the Tolowa are bound by federal and state laws preventing them from fishing for salmon with traditional nets. State and federal hunting and fishing bans have been enforced indiscriminately and have disproportionately affected Indigenous people. Now, some tribes, such as the Tolowa Dee-ni ‘, must claim their rights in court.

“We can only fish salmon with a hook and a line like everyone else,” said Steinruck. “We don’t have open salmon fishing rights like our neighboring tribes, but we are working on it. “

Policies having a negative impact on indigenous diets

In addition to smelt and salmon, the Tolowa Dee-ni ‘revere Roosevelt’s elk as an important food, although it is also hampered by politics. Because elk are currently under federal protection in response to past excessive hunting by white settlers, the Tolowa are denied the right to hunt and are only allowed to harvest meat by recovering from traffic accidents, although a recent increase in population has made the elk a nuisance to farmers as well as a hazard to the road.

In search of better solutions, the tribe develops a study-based harvesting code that combines traditional ecological knowledge and scientific data. This code will facilitate the management of subsistence food sources and provide guidance to state and federal regulators.

“It is possible to harvest game sustainably through better forest management, prescribed burning and responsible harvesting,” says Guylish Bommelyn, hunter and language teacher at Tolowa Dee-ni ‘Nation.

The Tolowa Dee-ni ‘Nation, most of Del Norte County and the neighboring tribal lands of the Elk Valley Rancheria and Yurok reserve are all classified as food desserts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Peripheral communities, including tribal communities, depend on small convenience stores with a limited supply of whole foods. In general, Native Americans in the United States suffer from high rates of diabetes and obesity: 17% of Native American adults have diabetes and 43 percent are obese versus 6% and 28% respectively for non-Hispanic whites.

Bommelyn’s goal of helping keep his family healthy involves depending on the land for food.

“We have always been stewards of the land,” says Bommelyn. “We have a deep connection to our food and our connection to animals is strong. They are sacred. They give their lives to provide for our needs.

Traditional and prospective festival

While watching deer steaks roast on skewers alongside salmon, Guylish explains how hunting grounds were broken up and sold to logging companies. Logging has also impacted the habitat of elk and deer, destroying grasslands and meadows. Tribe members now buy hunting tags and hunt according to state law, which limits their harvest to two deer per year.

At a nearby fire, Steinruck’s partner, Cyndi Ford, bakes acorn flour sandbread patties in hot beds of beach gravel while the eels roast over hot coals. A teacher of tribal languages, Ford sprinkles Na-Dene Athabascan words into his conversations.

Suntayea Steinruck (left) and Cyndi Ford (right), baking acorn sand bread on hot pebbles.

As night fell and the last lamprey arrived inside, it started to rain. The aroma of fresh seafood, acorn nut soup and sand bread permeates the cultural center. The group of about 20 people – mostly family members – gather in a circle before the traditional Tolowa meal is served. Steinruck’s sister, Suntayea, and her cousin, Marva, sing a song of thanks and offer a prayer that silences the hungry crowd.

“Yuu-daa-‘e ‘vmlh-te hii wvn gee-naa-ch’ii ~ -‘ [Whatever you want for, pray for that]Jones says. “Day ‘inlh-tr’int srtaa ~ shaa ~ mvn [What you kill shall be used for food only]. “

Seniors eat first, then everyone has fun.

In the Tolowa Dee-ni ‘language, Ford recites a prayer used when collecting or gathering food. “Ch’a ‘xvmne,she said. “You will live again.”


This is the first in a series of articles published by Civil Eats in partnership with BRING TOGETHER, a documentary retracing the movement for Amerindian food sovereignty.

“Migrant Kitchen” aims to show that we cannot separate food from politics [CE]
Sioux chef reclaims Native North American cuisine [CE]

Nohemi M. Moore