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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.

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

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.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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