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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.

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.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Upworthy is sharing this letter from Myra Sack on the anniversary of the passing of her daughter Havi Lev Goldstein. Loss affects everyone differently and nothing can prepare us for the loss of a young child. But as this letter beautifully demonstrates, grief is not something to be ignored or denied. We hope the honest words and feelings shared below can help you or someone you know who is processing grief of their own. The original letter begins below:


Dear Beauty,

Time is crawling to January 20th, the one-year anniversary of the day you took your final breath on my chest in our bed. We had a dance party the night before. Your posse came over. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, closest friends, and your loving nanny Tia. We sat in the warm kitchen with music on and passed you from one set of arms to another. Everyone wanted one last dance with you. We didn’t mess around with only slow songs. You danced to Havana and Danza Kuduro, too. Somehow, you mustered the energy to sway and rock with each of us, despite not having had anything to eat or drink for six days. That night, January 19th, we laughed and cried and sang and danced. And we held each other. We let our snot and our tears rest on each other’s shoulders; we didn’t wipe any of them away. We ate ice cream after dinner, as we do every night. And on this night, we rubbed a little bit of fresh mint chocolate chip against your lips. Maybe you’d taste the sweetness.

Reggaeton and country music. Blueberry pancakes and ice cream. Deep, long sobs and outbursts of real, raw laughter. Conversations about what our relationships mean to each other and why we are on this earth.


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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Cellist Cremaine Booker's performance of Faure's "Pavane" is as impressive as it is beautiful.

Music might be the closest thing the world has to real magic. Music has the ability to transform any atmosphere in seconds, simply with the sounds of a few notes. It can be simple—one instrument playing single notes like raindrops—or a complex symphony of melodies and harmonies, swirling and crashing like waves from dozens of instruments. Certain rhythms can make us spontaneously dance and certain chord progressions can make us cry.

Music is an art, a science, a language and a decidedly human endeavor. People have made music throughout history, in every culture on every continent. Over time, people have perfected the crafting of instruments and passed along the knowledge of how to play them, so every time we see someone playing music, we're seeing the history of humanity culminated in their craft. It's truly an amazing thing.

The pandemic threw a wrench into seeing live musicians for a good chunk of time, and even now, live performances are limited. Thankfully, we have technology that makes it easier for musicians to collaborate and perform with one another virtually—and also makes it easier for people to create "group" performances all by themselves.

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Freya from Maya Higa's YouTube video.

Ever wonder what an ideal date for a lemur would be? Or a lizard’s favorite Disney princess?

Thanks to one YouTube poster with a passion for animals and an endearing sense of humor, all questions shall be answered. Well, maybe not all questions. But at the very least, you’ll have eight minutes of insanely cute footage.

In a series titled “Tiny Mic Interviews,” Maya Higa approaches little beasties with a microphone so small she has to hold it with just her thumb and forefinger. And yes, 99% of the animals try to eat it.

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