Originally appeared in the SF Chronicle
FORT BRAGG — A cold evening drizzle fell on this Mendocino County town as Aryana Henthorne and her family gathered on a spit of land just off Highway 1.
The group of five arranged camp chairs around a fire as a foghorn sounded and tires whooshed on the wet asphalt. Here, on the last remaining patch of American Indian tribal land in the town, bordered by a cliff and an Arco gas station, they bent over paper plates full of wild abalone, acorn mush and crispy seaweed. It was a traditional Pomo meal that is in danger of disappearing.
Not, however, if Henthorne can help it. A member of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the 22-year-old is part of a young generation of American Indians who are working to reintroduce native food ways to their tribes. Energized by a movement sweeping the country, most notably the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in North and South Dakota, they’re organizing intertribal events to share ideas and reconnect with their culture.
“Indigenous food sovereignty is what I’m really passionate about,” Henthorne said. A graduate student in public health at Washington University in St. Louis with plans to get a medical degree, she wants to reintroduce indigenous foods to her tribe to battle the diet-related illnesses that disproportionately affect Indian populations.
Thanksgiving is the one time of year American Indians are recognized by the wider American society, albeit usually in caricature. To present modern ideas of indigenous food that also recognize precolonial traditions, native chefs from across the continent are flying to New York City over Thanksgiving weekend to participate in a series of pop-up dinners. Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman of Minneapolis is probably the most visible symbol of the current native foods resurgence, with a new cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.”
Despite a growing awareness, Northern California tribal members struggle for the right to gather foods like acorns, mussels and surf fish that have sustained their tribes for thousands of years. Generations have been cut off from ancestral hunting and gathering grounds, and those grounds have compacted as wild salmon and other vital foods dwindle.
For families like Henthorne’s in Fort Bragg, the conflict has become front and center with the ongoing planning of development by a subsidiary of Koch Industries on land that was once designated the Mendocino Indian Reservation, further threatening their culinary heritage.
“It’s near impossible to pass these traditions on,” said Sanjay Rawal, a filmmaker who is working on a documentary about native food sovereignty movements in Northern California, the Southwest and the Plains. “We’ve wrecked their food ways to create our own food ways.”
There are 109 federally recognized tribes left in California and 720,000 people who identify as Native American, according to the 2010 consensus, the highest state population in the country. Yuroks make up the state’s biggest tribe, based near the Oregon border.
Samuel Gensaw III, 23, a Yurok from Requa (Del Norte County) on the Klamath River, has been part of the fight to remove four of the seven dams from the Klamath since he was 14. About five years ago, Gensaw and his younger brother created a youth group called Ancestral Guard to protect and promote traditional food ways.
“It’s something that we have to do to make sure we have decent living opportunities for future generations,” said Gensaw, who teaches kids from Requa — not just native ones — about fishing salmon in a dugout canoe. “This isn’t just something that we love and respect. This is our life.”
Gensaw and Henthorne see themselves as pioneers in their communities, trying to ensure that traditional foods are passed on to future generations. Most Northern California Indians experience such things only at important gatherings like funerals, they said.
Henthorne’s mother, Hillary Renick, 42, a native-food advocate and lawyer at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sacramento, found that friends and relatives used to be surprised when she gathered traditional foods.
“It wasn’t valued so much as it is now,” she said.
It’s only been a generation or two since reservation children could be forcibly sent off to boarding schools by the government or private groups. That practice officially ended only with the 1978 federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
“People were persecuted if they were native,” said Martina Morgan, 40, a member of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in Stewarts Point (Sonoma County). That made following native food traditions less popular, she said. “I was lucky that I was a nosy little kid and my elders taught me.”
The Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians gathers food only within its aboriginal tribal boundaries. Local and state laws restrict or limit access to many traditional gathering places, including several designated marine protected areas.
A few years ago, the city built a coastal access trail next to the tribal members’ homes in Fort Bragg, including fenced-off access to the tidal zone where members can gather mussels, abalone and seaweed. The trail is adjacent to a former lumber-mill site owned by a Koch Industries subsidiary that is in the planning stages for rezoning that would allow for a hotel and commercial, residential and industrial uses, according to city planning documents.
Renick said the tribe has not been consulted enough during the planning of the trail and the mill site, especially considering that both were originally part of the Mendocino Indian Reservation, a 25,000-acre plot that Congress established in 1856. The Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed a lumber mill to set up shop there in 1858, forcing the remaining Indians off the land in 1868.
In addition to its role as a gathering site, the former reservation contains historic burial mounds, which Renick has tried to protect. Such legal fights are expensive and difficult, she said, even when they’re defended by international law such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees “the right to life.”
“The right to life means you have the right to subsist,” Renick said. “You have the right to water; you have the right to gather, even if you don’t have a (legal) right to that land.”
Marie Jones, Fort Bragg’s community development director, said the city has cooperated fully with the tribe. “I would say we have gone way above and beyond what we are required on a legal basis,” she said.
In addition to geographic limitations, tribal members must follow strict state limits for collecting abalone, like everyone else. They also face pushback from a growing commercial seaweed trade, Renick said. She recalled helping an elder from her tribe go down to the beach, with her walker, to collect seaweed. They were confronted by a professional forager in an expensive-looking wetsuit.
“That’s my rock,” he told her. “Can you move on?”
Renick’s daughter, Henthorne, approaches the fight to reclaim native food from a medical rather than legal angle. In the rural areas where most reservations are located, access to healthy groceries has been limited. American Indians have twice the rate of heart disease that the general population has, according to a 2015 study from the National Institutes of Health, which attributed its increase over the past 50 years to changes in diet, decreased physical activity and increased smoking among the population.
Henthorne is writing a grant to lead a weeklong immersion camp on gathering and preparing traditional foods next summer. Her eventual plan is to become a doctor at a clinic that serves her tribe, with the goal of connecting the members back to native foods and lifestyle.
“I’m the one who’s being the driving force for my generation to go do something,” said Henthorne. “If I can be the example that this is what we can do, I hope that more people will be inspired.”
For the dinner in Fort Bragg, the family fried seaweed collected from the coast, and cooked black trumpet mushrooms that had been foraged and dried. A sweet and nutty acorn mush was made from a special stash of acorns that had aged since 2010, a technique that reduces tannins and bitterness. Salmon was cut into large chunks and threaded through redwood spears to prop over the fire for a long, slow smoke.
The menu reflected the way the Pomos traditionally gathered all the food they needed from the shore, in addition to what they hunted and traded with inland tribes. But the meal itself also represented something more — a way for generations to connect with each other.
While growing up, Henthorne would go with her elders to the coast constantly, especially in summer. She learned to use an A-frame net to catch surf fish and how to pluck seaweed, mussels and abalone off the rocks during low tides. Her mother did the same thing before her. Those outings, which led to meals like this, are how memories — and histories — are forged.
“That’s when all the stories come out, around food,” said Renick. “You’re sitting there, and then you get to go through the centuries with them.”