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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.

via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

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via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."