‘You May Be a Task Force, But … We’re A Nation’

by Will Parrish, August 4, 2010

Since 1775, when the Spanish vessels Santiago and Sonora anchored in Trinidad Bay, the surviving Ameri­can Indian nations of California's northcoast have with­stood violent conquest, systematic land expropriation, kidnapping and forced indoctrination of their children via a residential school system that persisted for nearly a century, destruction of their languages and spiritual tra­ditions, New Age commercialization of their lifestyles wrought in no small part by recent waves of settlers beginning with the Back to the Land movement of the '60s and '70s, and various other facets of a campaign of cultural genocide, still ongoing.

Throughout this time, the thin margins of cultural and physical survival maintained by nations such as the Yurok, Karok, Pomo, Hoopa, Wiyot, Tolowa, and other native people of the Russian, Eel, Trinity, and Klamath River watersheds have been assured largely by one factor: their ability to harvest seafood in the coastal waters of the Pacific and the tributaries that feed it, with all of the profound cultural meanings these practices entail. So, as the State of California's privately-funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative's planning process has lurched toward the criminalization of small-scale sea food harvesting via a series of so-called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) — often located in the primary subsistence areas these native people have used from, in the words of many, “time immemorial” — a new pan-Indian movement has steadily been gathering in resistance to it.

That opposition swept like a tidal wave through Fort Bragg on July 21st, as roughly 300 people — perhaps three-fourths of them American Indians — stormed the CV Starr Center on South Lincoln St., where the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force was meeting to formulate rec­ommendations on the next series of local MPAs to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The protest was undoubtedly the largest American Indians have ever staged in Mendocino County. Those on hand included representatives from as many as 30 native nations, ranging from those here in NorCal to more distant territories such as those of the Choktaw and Navajo. The day started with a rally in the empty lot on the southeast corner of Oak and Main. At one point, as the group marched up Maple St., it stretched four-to-five wide across the four blocks reaching from South Whip­ple St. to Main St. Upon reaching the C.V. Starr Center, the protesters seized a microphone and kicked off an unscheduled “public comment” session. Despite repeated attempts by Task Force Chairperson Cindy Gustafson, general manager of the Lake Tahoe Public Utilities Dis­trict, to restore order and assure the Indians she feels their pain (“I hear that this is hugely painful for each and every one of you”), a succession of native people lam­basted the MLPA process, with most of them neatly framing their words in defiant anti-colonialist rhetoric, in an inconvenience that Gustafson and the other Task Force members “tolerated” for nearly two hours.

That inconvenience has left an indelible mark on the MLPA process.

The architects of the Initiative have a huge problem on their hands: A large and well-organized portion of the American Indians who the MLPA Phase IV process would affect violently oppose the idea that the State of California has the authority to govern their lives, let alone “protect” the coastal waters from the traditional uses passed down to them by their ancestors. Several speakers vowed, in terms neither delicate nor subtle, to defend their nations' harvesting and gathering rights with physical force, should they deem it necessary.

The speakers almost unanimously vowed to continue harvesting the ocean regardless of what any piece of paper written under the authority of the California Leg­islature says, raising the specter that the MPAs will emerge as unenforceable farces, unless the Department of Fish and Game grants specific exemptions to native people.

At one point, as Gustafson attempted to forestall fur­ther comments by the Indians, she was countered by Yurok Nation member and protest organizer Frankie Joe Myers. “We're stopping your process that you're trying to do here for one day. You're trying to stop a process that has been going on for thousands of years,” Myers said. “So at the inconvenience of you for one day, we're gonna keep talking. Just like we're gonna keep gathering.”

The words of those who spoke during the disruption of the Blue Ribbon Task Force are crucial to under­standing the dynamics of this movement for environ­mental justice and cultural survival. What follows is an imperfect selection of those words, privileging the repre­sentatives who spoke on behalf of the North Coast's native nations. It excludes words from those who trav­eled from other regions.

Walt Lara, Sr., Yurok Nation: “My grandmother comes from Chapek, that's Gold Bluff in Stone Lagoon. I was born in 1935. I lived on the beach at Orick. When I was growing up, we gathered seaweed, mussels, sword­fish — caught nine fish. We dried 'em, and people came from all over the country to get the fish so they'd have their diet. And in turn they'd bring us other types of food that were dried and prepared on the inland, and so we made the trade. That's my history as a child growing up, living on the beach and doing these type of things [...]

“Every fish and every [inaudible] that growed there we have a name for, and only one name that I can't say in Indian, and that's the horseneck barnacle — I forgot how to say that, somehow along the line. But we ate those too. So, all of that is food for our people, and it never, never hurt us to eat it. […]

“In the '20s and the '30s, they had what they call the California Settlement Act where they paid and negoti­ated with our ancestors, our forefathers, an agreement where they settled for — I think it ended up like .27 cents an acre with California. Also, [the Act] included our fishing, hunting, and gathering rights that we con­tinue to keep, okay? So, this is what I think we need to look at: the legality of what you're doing to take from us what we already got agreements to keep and to have. It's just like when the White Man first came to this country, and he got up in the northern part of the state of Califor­nia (which at that time was still Indian country), and he threw his gold pans away to start cutting and stealing our timber, which looked so beautiful because of how it growed, because the Indians had managed that. We'd managed it for the tree's lifestyle as well as for the food the animals ate and to get food themselves. And so, the ocean is the same way. We have managed that so that it has the most beautiful stands of mussels, seaweed, surffish, on and on I could go — sea trout, cabezones — just a continuance of good food for our people. And in our prayers, it talks about how we're supposed to only take what we need and we're supposed to share with oth­ers. No one should go hungry because there's a lot of food, and no one should be cold because there's a lot of wood, and nobody should be lonely because there's a lot of people to visit 'em.

“And that's how our lifestyle is, it's still the same way. We still have the White Deer Skin Dance of World Renewal, that's what takes care of what we have in oceans and the mountains as well as the whole world — it's the world renewal ceremony that we have. We're starting up on the 27th of next month with that cere­mony. Tomorrow we're starting a ceremony where a young lady becomes a woman. We still have those cere­monies and we still live that lifestyle. We have the jump dance called Health, Education, and Welfare — it's still in existence, it's coming up on the 14th of October, somewhere in that time, okay? So we still live the same way that we did 150, 200, 300, 400, 500 years ago, and my knowledge of this is by being raised by my grand­mother who lived to be 91 years old, who learned from her grandmother who lived to be pretty much the same age, who learned from her parents. I feel like I have 500 years of knowledge of the things hat happened here including even the massacres that [happened] in the 1800s. So we don't need any more problems with the State of California.' […]”

David Gensaw Sr., Yurok Tribal Councilman: “This is our future that we are here to protect. You know, our elders and our ancestors fought and died for us to be here, fought and died for us to have [sea food] to gather. We've had this since the beginning of time. They taught us how to gather, when to gather, so we wouldn't take too much and wouldn't deplete. We are the stewards of this land, and we always have been. And now you're comin' in and telling us that you wanna' protect this from us? You know, ever since the treaties and executive orders, the one thing that they assured us, and that we assured that we were going to keep, was our hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. And we will continue to fight for that. [...]

“You know, we have our ceremonies that balance the earth, that renew the earth, and without these subsidies that were given to us by creator, we can't do that. Our ancestors told us that when these things are gone, then so are the Yurok people. That's how important it is to us. And as tribes we come together, all along the coast, to stand in solidarity. And you heard that we aren't afraid to fight for what it ours. We're not gonna stand down one inch to protect what is ours for our future generations. It's our job. Our ancestors, like I said, fought and died for us to be here, and we gotta' do the same for these young people and the children not yet born. That's who we are and who we'll be — will continue to be.”

Thomas O'Rourke, Chairman, Yurok Tribe: “It's good to see all our fellow nations stand beside us in a time of need, that is, a time once again to stand up for our rights — which are once again being challenged. [...] We have participated, I should say “attended,” these MLPA meetings for a while now, and actually several people here that I've seen at the meetings, our tribal staff has attended the meetings, and we keep voicing our con­cerns, and they keep failing to hear our voices.

“They keep saying we can't treat you any different, that you're a California citizen. But I can look back here, and I can see flags that I know other California citizens don't have. We are nations. We are not just citizens, we are nations. […] I don't never remember giving away [our] jurisdiction to the State of California, or the authority to govern us, in any way, manner, or form. Our rights are non-negotiable. You can try to pull us in and make us negotiate for a little zone there, a little array there, but we have no part in that. We as Indians have the ability to manage ourselves, and if our neighbor needs help, we have the ability to help our neighbors. “What I see is that the people [who] have been caretaking in these past couple hundred years haven't done such a good job both along the coast and deep into the ocean, into the seas. [...] I think it would be wise to listen from masters, people who have taken care of these waters for thou­sands and thousands of years — not hundreds, thousands — and you might try learning from us. I think we all agree on one thing, which is protecting the species of the waters and the shorelines, and I think that we can work together, but we cannot work with someone who will not listen us. [...] We know when to gather, and we know when something is endangered and how to protect what's endangered. “Our people are endangered, our rights are endangered, and we're going to continue to exercise our rights. We're going to continue to fish, we're going to continue to gather. One after another, we will go to jail until either you go broke or you fix the law.”

Wally Obie, Yurok Nation: “How would you like us to come to your place and say, 'This is ours — we want our land back'? Come to your house and say, 'Hey, my ancestors lived here before you were born, your house is on my property — get off!' That's what you're doing to us: You're coming to us and saying 'Get out of the way!' We're not gonna do that anymore. We're tired of that. We've been doing that for 500 years. We should have had better immigration laws! Pretty soon you're gonna put an oil well out there and we're gonna end up like Louisiana. Then, everyone will lose!”

Reno Franklin, Kashia Pomo Tribal Chairman: “As you know, with Kashia, we weren't even considered. The Blue Ribbon Task Force met, discussed what they had to discuss, and then basically trampled over the top of us as we were asking to still meet with people. And then, as you all are aware, we filed an emergency action so that we could get the amendment we needed so that we could continue to gather in one of our most sacred places, and where our creation story is at. So, it was kind of backwards. It's not the way we do things, it's not the way Indian Country does things, I think it's other people who do things backwards. But we were successful, and Indians from all our areas can come to our land to gather and not have to worry about going to jail, which I think is the scariest thing. [...]

We've always gone out to our coast, we've always gone out to our prayer spots, we've always gathered. When we were faced with either have your ceremony or go to jail on July 1st, there were a lot of Indians going out and being, you know, slick about the way that we gathered. But we shouldn't be put in that position. Nobody should be in the position if they go to gather for their families. [...]

If you do this, you will kill Indian people. Period. In a good way I was coming here as a Kashia man to bring our message and show solidarity with all the tribes you see here, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”

Sandra Lowry, Yurok Nation: “I've read your MLPA document and have the following comments to make. Under Section A in the Legislative Findings and Declarations, it discusses that California MPAs were established 'on a piecemeal basis rather than according to a cohesive plan and on sound scientific guidelines.' Why are you following that very same path? What you're doing is 'merely giving the illusion of protection while failing far short of any potential to protect and preserve marine life and habitat.' Under section 2B, it states that 'the diversity and ecosystems of the ocean's water are important to the public's health and well-being.' Are native people not a part of the public? Isn't our health just as important as any other? And what of my well-being? When I heard that I wouldn't be able to gather traditional foods, my well-being was shattered. First the white man took away our land, million upon millions upon millions of board feet of redwood, doug fir, and cedar. You took away our homes and family life by sending us to board schools. You took away our language. Now you want to take away my food? Shame on you!

If you take away my gathering rights, I will only have memories left, and that is psychological damage beyond repair. You will be cheating my grandchildren and all future familial generations of a life-connection to the earth and their ancestors that only traditional activi­ties can maintain. Who gives you that right? I certainly don't.

Under Section C, it's mentioned that 'human activities threaten the health of marine habitat and biological diversity found in the ocean.' I remember when I picked seaweed with my mother and grandmother. We har­vested ten pounds for a year of subsistence. I would not call this 'altering an ecosystem at an alarming rate.' I have to say that an oil well spewing hundreds of millions of gallons into the ocean would certainly fall into that category. What good would it do to protect the three mile area extending from the land when external atrocities can come in from 3.1 miles out? Don't the waves wash from the ocean toward the land? I think that's where this task force should be looking, not at the coast line where minimal traditional harvesting is done. In fact, we did do just fine with traditional harvest management and pro­tecting the ecosystem before the white man came and started abusing the areas with technology. Section F promotes 'providing a reference point which scientists can measure against.' What research have you done as a task force in reviewing documents where MPAs are established? What are those results? Did aboriginal har­vesting make any significant negative impact? I would argue that they didn't, and in fact probably helped the ecosystem remain as a thriving area because annual har­vesting ensures better, healthier, and sustainable crop production.

And, finally, I agree with Section H in that it is neces­sary to modify existing MPAs. However, leave tra­ditional native harvesting out of the entire guideline. The dominant white society has taken enough from us. How can you even think that traditional harvesting can com­pare with the for-profit entities that rape the land and pollute the waters of our planet? It's a no-brainer, if you have a brain.”

Susan Tree Burdick, Yurok Nation: “When I went to that science meeting, when I looked at that table, you people looked like to me that you were members of the K-K-K. The only thing that was missing was your heads weren't covered. Don't turn away, I see you over there turning your head! He was the same guy who didn't show respect at the other meeting! And you do need to listen to the people here, because we are not going to stop what we've been doing for generations and genera­tions and generations! We have people who are going to march to every goddamn place you are at. And we're not going to stop! If you don't want to work with the people, if you want to do something, then maybe go to Louisiana and start cleaning up the beaches if you guys are such science people. Do something positive, not negative. What is your real purpose? Is your real purpose that you want to start drilling for oil off the coast?”

Jalea Walker, Smith River Rancheria Tolowa: “My grandfather was a leader of our tribe. My grandpar­ents taught me how to acorn and clam dig. I went clam digging every year with my father since I was little. And if you want to take these rights away from our children, from our people — it's not right. And we will continue to clam dig, we will continue to fish, and we will go to jail for it. We will! So, if you want to challenge us, we will meet you down at the river — is how we say it in our way.”

Georgianna Myers, Yurok Nation: “I read over the MLPA, and I think it's a very scary thing. We keep hearing all afternoon that tribes are sovereign nations, we're people who depend on the food, we need it for ceremonies, our elders need it when they go into the hospitals, our babies need it when they're young, this is not a matter of having pretty shells in our yard or having pretty things in our house, or exotic food on our dinner table. This is everyday real life things, and I think you guys need to consider the fact that we are sovereign nations in the State of California. We are not just average citizens walking around. [...] We have an inherent right to be on the coast and, honestly, whether you say we can or not, we will be there and we will be gathering, so be prepared for that.”

Ted Hernandez, Wiyot Tribe Vice Chairman: “My questions for you: Do you have culture? Do you know what culture is? What would you do if we came and took away your culture? You say you're here to pro­tect the marine life? But what about the big PG&E dams that are taking our water, that are killing our salmon and killing our eels? What about them? Why ain't you doing anything against them? I have four daughters, one son — they're learning the culture, something you took away from us many years ago. It was a massacre. Yet, you still continue to massacre us. Why? Aren't you guys tired of massacring us? We're not going nowhere. We've been here from the beginning and we'll be here 'til the end of time. My people from my council say this: 'We are gonna still gather. You may put us in jail, but we're gonna still gather. You're not gonna take that away from us. It's not your right and it's not Schwarzenegger's. It's the creator's right to give it to us — and take it away from us, not yours.' […]

“You guys say you're scientists, right? From my years of history, scientists have hurt people. They say they try to help us, but they hurt. We were the caretakers of the land. We know when to harvest, we know when to cut, we know when to burn. You guys don't. So, I say this to you: All these children, they're gonna continue to gather as well. And you're not gonna stop 'em, because every single one of us will stop you. You guys are just a task force, but we're a nation.”

Lori Wewa (sp?), enrolled member of Hopland Pomo Tribe: “I was raised on my father's reservation in Point Arena, the Point Arena side of the Manchester Reservation. I, too, believe that Indians need to be exempt from the Marine Life Protection Act, because we are not just special interest groups, we are sovereign nations. Our difference is a legal one, it's not an ethnic one or racial. Our gathering processes are important to us. I've been dancing in the round houses since I could walk. I've been gathering with my father and eating things out of that ocean since I was a little girl, and my kids do too. And they know how to say it in our lan­guage. And I'm gonna keep gathering food. Don't let these acrylic nails fool you, I just picked the other day. And I will continue to pick! And so will my family. This is important to us, this is who I am, and what I'm wear­ing today is my clamshell necklace that my grandmother Bertha Antoine made. And she was a Kashia Pomo woman They're the most important things that I own. And she made these. So, we will continue to gather, and I just wanted you to know that. ”

Melissa Star-Myers, Yurok Nation: “I have a cou­ple of things to say and ask, but really, I wanna look at each one of you. And my question is, 'Maybe it's not your law, but what gives you the right to tell Native American people how to gather off their land, knowing that we are better at it than you ever will be?' Am I right? So, my question to your advisory team that I'm going to look at you and ask is, 'Do you eat seaweed for your life? Do you collect surf fish for your life? Do you eat salmon for your life? Do you eat sturgeon for your life?' Because my answer is, 'Yes.' I don't have McDonalds. I don't eat In 'n' Out. I don't eat fat stakes. I don't have even have a deer. I barely have any fish. My seaweed's getting [inau­dible]. And you wanna' pick on us? How come you guys don't wanna' pick on the Japanese fishermen out there in the ocean? Pick on them. You know, the commercial fishermen. How many Indians are here? We're really making that big of an impact on your marine wildlife? For real? A couple of Indians pickin' some things? I think there's somethin' else going on. So, I was talking to a Pomo outside, and he said you folks came through here a couple of years ago and asked him these questions, and every answer he gave you on that survey, you folks took over and said, 'You can't go there no more.' So, to heck with that. That's not fair. That's not fair what you do the Indians right here in this town. That's not fair what you do to Indians up and down the coast. So I think I'm gonna make it my personal goal to get to know each and every one of you, because it personally affects me. And I'm gonna follow you guys around and see what you have to say, and see what you're telling the public. I want to know if you're representing the Indian people. So, once again, I'm going to look at you and ask you: 'What makes you think that you can take care of my land better than me?'” ¥¥

A full video of the protest is available at cal-span.org. Will Parrish can be reached at wparrish@riseup.net.)

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