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Coastal Voices: Crucial partnership between state, tribe

As the holidays near, many Americans start planning how and where they will travel to meet up with family all around the U.S.  It is a foreign concept to me.

As an indigenous person, I cannot separate myself and my family from the lifeline of our redwood forests, the Pacific Ocean and the Smith River; we are from and of the land and waters of Northern California. I am a part of the Tolowa Dee-ni’, of the Smith River Rancheria. We have fished and gathered and lived among the redwoods and on the shores of the Pacific since our genesis, and our stewardship of ocean resources like seals, salmon and seaweed resulted in the abundance Europeans found when they came to our land.

Prior to contact, my people numbered upward of 10,000 and within one generation we were left with less than 200 survivors. As the people who cared for the land and sea vanished, resources suffered and today, fish stocks and abalone have plummeted. 

The Tolowa Dee-ni’, along with many other Tribes on the North Coast, are holocaust survivors, but we still hold the memories of our ancestors’ knowledge and as we heal as a Tribe, so will the land.

This month, my Tribe was awarded a grant to collect tribal knowledge that will establish a benchmark of cultural keystone species that aid in the understanding of the marine environment as well as indicate marine protected areas’ (MPAs’) performance.

What is traditional ecological knowledge? My uncle, Loren Bommelyn, the cultural leader of my Tribe, likes to tell a story about my great-grandma Laura that exemplifies it.

Laura would take her grandchildren, nieces and nephews to the beach north of the mouth of the Smith River on low tide to clam, because it was important to her to teach the young ones the right way, as she had learned from her elders: take the mature clams and leave the babies.

I can picture her lying on her belly, digging out mature clams. She  put any baby clams she had come across back in the hole and covered them with sand and a rock so they wouldn’t wash away.  

“Why are you doing that, Grandma?” the kids would ask. She’d say, “So your grandkids will have something to eat.”

The concept of making resource decisions based on how it will affect your children’s grandchildren is at the core of traditional stewardship. Through the grant, we will be using my grandma’s story and collecting others like it from Tribes in the region to help inform the state’s management of the marine protected areas.

Simultaneously, we are using it to develop my Tribe’s code for hunting and fishing as Smith River Rancheria moves toward co-management of resources with the state. 

That step toward co-management began a year ago this month. For the first time in California, federally recognized Tribes’ traditional uses of marine resources were formally acknowledged. Under the Marine Life Protection Act, 13 state Marine Conservation Areas were established along the North Coast where Tribes are exempted from the regulations, respecting our right to continue traditional activities. 

The new desire of the state to listen and understand that tribes have an inherent right to govern their people and resources has been a long time coming. The work we are doing with the state will help ensure good stewardship methods. 

I look forward to the day when the knowledge my elders passed on becomes shared and benefits all ocean users. Our grandchildren depend on us working together to ensure that there are healthy ecosystems for the clams and fish and seaweed to flourish. We all have an individual responsibility to be good ancestors.

Briannon Fraley is self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria.

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