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 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 Despite the 14th Amendment, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was not fully repealed until 1937.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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