Laws and climate change are harming this tribe's foodways. Here's how they survive.

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation are keeping traditional foodways alive in the face of climate change and human impact.

As the sun falls and rain clouds linger, Jaytuk Steinruck drives an ATV up a northwest corner of California's shore.

His goal? To gather duuma (sea anemone) from tide pools near Setlhxat (Prince Island) for a feast made from traditional Tolowa tribal foods.

As he gathers the spongy, green anemone that will later be breaded and fried like calamari, Steinruck also talks about smelt, an important part of the tribe's diet that is disappearing. The small, silver feeder fish that the Tolowa Dee-ni' once relied heavily upon has become scarce.


"We used to get a 100-pound dip," said Steinruck, a specialist with the tribe's Natural Resource Department, describing how nets attached to a handheld wooden frame are dipped into the ocean shores for the catch. "Now, we are lucky if we can harvest one five-gallon bucket full."

Tolowa elder Vicki Luuk'vm naaghe' Bommelyn with dried surf fish. All photos by Adam Sings In The Timber, used with permission.

Tolowa food traditions have been difficult to maintain in the face of destruction and loss.

But these people are strong: Despite the more than 164-year assault on the North Coast’s native people and their indigenous foodways — from outright persecution and slaughter in the 1800s to policies today that restrict indigenous rights to a slew of acute environmental transformations — the Tolowa Dee-ni' continue to practice their traditions today.

"My grandmother and other full-blooded Native women had to stand up for our gathering rights at Prince Island," Steinruck's cousin, Marva Jones, recalls. "They were straight-up warriors. And, therefore, my family never gave it up."

Changes in tribal food systems and lifeways began in 1853 as the California Gold Rush brought a mass incursion of white settlers.

Making way for the newcomers and addressing the "Indian problem," California paid a bounty for Indian scalps, which proved to be more lucrative than panning gold. The first session of the California state legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians in 1850, which legalized removing Native people from their land and separating Native families.

Ceremonies were ambushed and villages were burned. In 1856, the U.S. government forcibly removed 1,834 Tolowa to coastal concentration camps. By 1910, like many California tribes, the Tolowa population had dwindled — from more than 10,000 to just 504. Despite the 14th Amendment, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was not fully repealed until 1937.

Suntayea Steinruck (left) and Cyndi Ford, cooking acorn sand bread over hot pebbles.

Relying on the few families who refused to give up their traditional ways, the Tolowa have, incredibly, managed to persevere.

"My family managed to hold tight to our food, language, ceremony, songs, beliefs, and protocols," Jones says. "We fought to keep connected. We purposefully protected and passed along this way of being so it didn’t die."

Despite shrinking harvests, the family continues to fish for smelt near the mouth of the Smith River. Even if the fish aren't running, the Tolowa presence reminds nearby landowners of the tribe's inherent right to these waterways.

But the tribe is bound by both state and federal laws preventing them from fishing salmon with traditional nets. State and federal blanket hunting and fishing bans have been applied without discretion and have affected natives disproportionately. Now, some tribes, the Tolowa included, must reclaim their rights in court.

"We can only fish for salmon with a hook and line, like everybody else," Steinruck said. "We don't have open salmon-fishing rights like our neighboring tribes, but we're in the process of working on it."

Guylish Bommelyn roasting salmon on the fire.

In addition to smelt and salmon, the Tolowa revere the Roosevelt elk as important food. But because the elk are currently under federal protection as a response to past over-hunting by white settlers, the Tolowa are denied the right to hunt and instead are only permitted to harvest meat by salvaging roadkill — even though a recent population increase has made the elk a nuisance to farmers as well as a highway hazard.

In search of better solutions, the tribe is developing a harvest code based on a study combining traditional ecological knowledge and scientific data.

"It is possible to sustainably harvest wild game with better management of the forest, prescribed burning, and responsible harvest," says Guylish Bommelyn, a hunter and language teacher at the Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation.

The Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation and most of the surrounding areas are classified as food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Outlying communities, including tribal communities, rely on small convenience-type stores with limited offerings of whole foods. In general, Native Americans in the U.S. have high diabetes and obesity rates: 17% of adult Native Americans have diabetes, and 43% are obese as opposed to 6% and 28% respectively for non-Hispanic whites.

Marva Jones rolls bread for a feast.

Bommelyn's goal to help keep his family healthy entails relying on the land for food.

"We've always been stewards of the land," Bommelyn says. "We have a deep connection with our food and our connection with animals is strong. They are sacred. They give their lives to provide for us."

Today, the Tolowa continue to hold fast to their food traditions — despite how difficult regulations have made it to do so.

While watching deer steaks roast on skewers next to salmon, Guylish explains how the hunting grounds have been parceled and sold to timber companies. Logging has also impacted elk and deer habitat, destroying prairie and grasslands. Tribal members now buy hunting tags and hunt according to state law, which limits their take to two deer per year.

As darkness falls and the last of the lamprey eels are brought inside, it starts to rain. The aroma of fresh seafood, nutty acorn soup, and sand bread permeates the cultural center. The group of about 20 people — mostly family — gathers in a circle before the full-course traditional Tolowa meal is served. Steinruck’s sister, Suntayea, and 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]."

In the Tolowa Dee-ni' language, Ford recites a prayer used when gathering or harvesting food.

"Ch'a' xvmne," she says. "You shall live again."

Vicki Luuk'vm naaghe' Bommelyn (left) and Bertha Peters (right) at the Tolowa Dee-ni' feast.

This article was originally published by Civil Eats and is reprinted here with permission. This was the first in a series of articles to be published by Civil Eats in partnership with "Gather," a documentary chronicling the movement for Native American food sovereignty.

Clarification 2/13/2018: The headline was updated.

Most Shared

I'm staring at my screen watching the President of the United States speak before a stadium full of people in North Carolina. He launches into a lie-laced attack on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and the crowd boos. Soon they start chanting, "Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!"

The President does nothing. Says nothing. He just stands there and waits for the crowd to finish their outburst.

WATCH: Trump rally crowd chants 'send her back' after he criticizes Rep. Ilhan Omar www.youtube.com

My mind flashes to another President of the United States speaking to a stadium full of people in North Carolina in 2016. A heckler in the crowd—an old man in uniform holding up a TRUMP sign—starts shouting, disrupting the speech. The crowd boos. Soon they start chanting, "Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!"

Keep Reading Show less
Recommended
via EarthFix / Flickr

What will future generations never believe that we tolerated in 2019?

Dolphin and orca captivity, for sure. They'll probably shake their heads at how people died because they couldn't afford healthcare. And, they'll be completely mystified at the amount of food some people waste while others go starving.

According to Biological Diversity, "An estimated 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted every year, costing households, businesses and farms about $218 billion annually."

There are so many things wrong with this.

First of all it's a waste of money for the households who throw out good food. Second, it's a waste of all of the resources that went into growing the food, including the animals who gave their lives for the meal. Third, there's something very wrong with throwing out food when one in eight Americans struggle with hunger.

Supermarkets are just as guilty of this unnecessary waste as consumers. About 10% of all food waste are supermarket products thrown out before they've reached their expiration date.

Three years ago, France took big steps to combat food waste by making a law that bans grocery stores from throwing away edible food.According to the new ordinance, stores can be fined for up to $4,500 for each infraction.

Previously, the French threw out 7.1 million tons of food. Sixty-seven percent of which was tossed by consumers, 15% by restaurants, and 11% by grocery stores.

This has created a network of over 5,000 charities that accept the food from supermarkets and donate them to charity. The law also struck down agreements between supermarkets and manufacturers that prohibited the stores from donating food to charities.

"There was one food manufacturer that was not authorized to donate the sandwiches it made for a particular supermarket brand. But now, we get 30,000 sandwiches a month from them — sandwiches that used to be thrown away," Jacques Bailet, head of the French network of food banks known as Banques Alimentaires, told NPR.

It's expected that similar laws may spread through Europe, but people are a lot less confident at it happening in the United States. The USDA believes that the biggest barrier to such a program would be cost to the charities and or supermarkets.

"The logistics of getting safe, wholesome, edible food from anywhere to people that can use it is really difficult," the organization said according to Gizmodo. "If you're having to set up a really expensive system to recover marginal amounts of food, that's not good for anybody."

Plus, the idea may seem a little too "socialist" for the average American's appetite.

"The French version is quite socialist, but I would say in a great way because you're providing a way where they [supermarkets] have to do the beneficial things not only for the environment, but from an ethical standpoint of getting healthy food to those who need it and minimizing some of the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that come when food ends up in a landfill," Jonathan Bloom, the author of American Wasteland, told NPR.

However, just because something may be socialist doesn't mean it's wrong. The greater wrong is the insane waste of money, damage to the environment, and devastation caused by hunger that can easily be avoided.

Planet

Policing women's bodies — and by consequence their clothes — is nothing new to women across the globe. But this mother's "legging problem" is particularly ridiculous.

What someone wears, regardless of gender, is a personal choice. Sadly, many folks like Maryann White, mother of four sons, think women's attire — particularly women's leggings are a threat to men.

While sitting in mass at the University of Notre Dame, White was aghast by the spandex attire the young women in front of her were sporting.

Keep Reading Show less
More

Men are sharing examples of how they step up and step in when they see problematic behaviors in their peers, and people are here for it.

Twitter user "feminist next door" posed an inquiry to her followers, asking "good guys" to share times they saw misogyny or predatory behavior and did something about it. "What did you say," she asked. "What are your suggestions for the other other men in this situation?" She added a perfectly fitting hashtag: #NotCoolMan.

Not only did the good guys show up for the thread, but their stories show how men can interrupt situations when they see women being mistreated and help put a stop to it.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture