Norene Darnell and Tsinte Steinruck drying smelt on beach grasses. | Photo by Cynthia Ford.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Local food management practices of the Tolowa Dee-ni, Yurok and other indigenous peoples.
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Local food management practices of the Tolowa Dee-ni, Yurok and other indigenous peoples.

*Editor’s note: A source in this story, Cynthia Ford, is the aunt of the Lumberjack writer of this story, Walker B. True*

When colonizers landed on the North American continent, they were greeted with a land of plenty where deer roamed huge open pastures and wild fruits and vegetables grew in plenty. Colonizers viewed this landscape as a wild, untamed, underutilized and untouched landscape of economic opportunity.

In fact, ecosystems across North America were meticulously managed by Indigenous peoples across the continent. Their traditional resource management practices have come to be known as a stewardship model.

As defined by the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, the Lakota Ecology Stewardship model states that “All beings, both living and nonliving, were related in that all shared and depended on Mother Earth for survival. The Lakota believe that humans were the newest nation on Earth, and as such were instructed to learn from the older nations: the rocks, animals, and plants. Thus, natural laws and relationships were carefully observed and emulated.”

Locally, the Tolowa Dee-ni nation as well as the Yurok tribe made use of practices like prescribed burning to treat pests and to create better habitats for deer and elk to graze on.

This form of management was used throughout the continent and began to die out as the land upon which they were practiced was colonized. These colonized lands were stripped of their resources and left in the hands of private landowners or The US government who had little to no understanding or care over the complexity of the ecological systems at play.

The stewardship model and the food practices of Indigenous people have been limited by land acquisition programs and environmental devastation since the colonizers first set foot in America. Through the fight for their food sovereignty, Indigenous people are also fighting for tribal sovereignty.

Cynthia Boshell is a program specialist working with the Rights of Mother Earth initiative through the Northern California Tribal Court Coalition. Since 2015, she is continuing to do work advocating for tribal food sovereignty.

“When we are talking about food sovereignty what we are really doing is saying we are reclaiming our relationship to the foods,” Boshell said. “Not just the foods but if you are going to reclaim your relationship to the food you also have to reclaim your relationship to the land.”

In the past the The Rights of Mother Earth initiative has helped enact ordinances and other regulations in order to protect the natural resources of the tribes a part of the NCTCC (Yurok Tribe, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Karuk Tribe, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Trinidad Rancheria and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria).

Recently, the NCTCC received a grant from the Native American Agricultural Fund to do an assessment of tribal food systems under the stress of COVID-19 and fires. The project will be performed by the Rights of Mother Earth initiative spending the next year surveying tribal communities and their food system in order to understand how tribal food producers can be better supported.

Boshell sees food sovereignty as a vehicle and process of bringing Indigenous communities where they want to be in regards to their food systems. Whether that be entirely reliant on local Indigenous food systems, or only partially, each tribe should have the agency to choose that for themselves.

“Food sovereignty is not really a native concept,” Boshell said. “It’s more of a description of how we are reacting to a colonial system.”

Cynthia Ford is a Habitat and Wildlife Manager for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation in Del Norte County. Ford is responsible for educating community members and advocating for tribal food sovereignty.

“We work with agencies and partners locally, like the forest service and the parks and local landowners to help come up with strategies to protect and perpetuate our resources.” Ford said.

Alongside her vocational responsibilities to the tribe, she is also the wife of a Tolowa tribe member and the mother of three Tolowa children. She supports traditional, locally harvested foods like acorns in the fall, berries in the spring, a variety of seafoods like smelt, seaweed and salmon, as well as deer and elk.

“The Tolowa people were rich, very food rich,” Ford said. “There was a large variety and great diversity of foods year round to eat from.”

For Ford, food sovereignty means having the ability to access her own healthy, and sustainable foods.

“That food security is really important for the tribe because that’s the basis for making us a healthy community,” Ford said.

Without the ability to access these local food sources that, historically speaking, have always been available to them, tribe members are left without access to any healthy foods.

“Our ancestral territory goes well into Oregon and covers a vast coastal area and into the Applegate watershed,” Ford said. “But here right now in Smith River where our modern day reservation lies, we have the Dollar General and a Fuel Mart, we don’t even have a grocery store.”

Alongside poor access to healthy foods from local stores, traditional food practices like fishing have been impacted by commercial farming practices that threaten the Smith river’s estuaries with pollution from pesticides.

According to the California Water Board, “the Regional Water Board’s water quality monitoring documented the presence of several pesticides used in lily bulb cultivation in some of the coastal tributaries of the Smith river during storm events.”

Ford ends by speaking to the interconnected nature of land and how dependent people have to be one another in order to live in harmonious comfort and success.

“’You got your 10 acres and your mule and you’re gonna harvest your land right?’” Ford said. “But it doesn’t work that way because what you do on your land affects what I do on my land”

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