A Native Community Preserves its Food Traditions

As the sun falls and rain clouds linger, Jaytuk Steinruck drives an ATV up a northwest corner of California’s shore to gather duuma (sea anemone) from tide pools near Setlhxat (Prince Island) for a feast made from traditional Tolowa tribal foods.

About halfway up, Steinruck points to his family’s fish camp. They are one of only two Tolowa families that continue to sun-dry lhvmsr (smelt) on sand or beds of grass as their ancestors had done. This beach at the tip of the redwood forest is also where met’e (razor clams), a food also long part of the coastal diet, had been plentiful until the 1970s when the Tolowa began to see the disappearance of the elongated shellfish marked by a tongue-like body.

As he gathers the spongy, green anemone that will later be breaded and fried like calamari, Steinruck also talks about the disappearance of another important part of the tribe’s diet: smelt. 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 A-frame made of wood are dipped into the ocean shores for the catch. “Now, we are lucky if we can harvest one five-gallon bucket full.”

As many Americans settle down to their version of a Thanksgiving feast this week, the Tolowa are thankful they have maintained their traditional foodways in the face of the destruction and loss caused by the invasion and onslaught of California’s early settlers.

The feast’s convener, Marva Jones, rolling Indian Bread.

Despite the more than 164-year assault on the North Coast’s native peoples and their indigenous foodways—from outright persecution and slaughter in the 19th Century to policies today that restrict indigenous rights—as well as a slew of acute environmental transformations, the Tolowa Dee-ni’, which currently include 1,609 tribal members, continue to…

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