Tradition preserved

August 11, 2007 12:00 am

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Even before she was born, Eunice Bommelyn came to Yaa-ghii~-'a~ when the smelt ran.

The 82-year-old woman has been at the beach near Smith River for two weeks this summer, helping her family catch, clean, dry and pack away the small fish that help sustain the Tolowa during the long winter months.

Two days ago the family estimated the 10 and 1/2 sand rows of drying fish, 14 to a row, at 4,080.

Not only do the fish ensure that the family is fed, they are a type of currency.

"You ask how long they'll last?" said Sheryl Steinruck. "These surf fish are a good bartering tool with the other tribes. The inland tribes have flint, and we don't, but they like these fish."

Bommelyn, Sheryl's mother, grew up near the Yaa-ghii~-'a~ at the village of Nii-liichvn-dun (Place of the Riffle), not far from Smith River. Her ancestors have lived in the area since time immemorial.

Their beach camp is known for its fish because of the pea-sized gravel that washes in with the surf. The smelt run there because they spawn in the gravel.

The family's fishing rights are legally recognized by the state of California.

The family matriarch remembers that "as a kid there used to be people camping all along here."

The Bommelyn/Steinruck family is one of the two remaining Tolowa families that still fish there.

"This is one of our staples," Eunice said between bites of the fish she kept sampling. "We store it, dried. Our ancestors used to keep it in baskets in the rafters of redwood plank houses."

The group uses triangular nets made of poles lashed together with strips of an inner tube. A curved handle gives the fishers better leverage as the scoop-shaped net fills with smelt.

Standing in water about two to three feet deep, the fishers wade out to the farthest breaking wave. They lower their nets to let the wave break into their nets, quickly raise them so the fish slide toward them, then hold the bag of fish closed and repeat the process until the load is too heavy to maneuver the net.

"We pour the fish into a galvanized tub for cleaning," Sheryl said.

On top of a layer of beach grass, the fish begin drying in the sun. The ever-watchful family members keep their wrist rockets, BBs and rocks close by to ward off gulls that can swoop and snatch them in a heartbeat.

"I use .177 BBs and rocks," she said. "We've hit a couple and killed a couple; they figured it out pretty fast."

After two weeks in the sun, the second stage of drying begins. The fish are taken up, the beach grass removed and the fish are laid out on each row's sandy surface.

When they're dry, family members hold each fish by the tail to shake the sand off.

"Their tails come off then," Don Steinruck said.

The food is packed away for the family to eat or trade, and canning season begins as their gardens bear heavily.

"We catch and dry salmon, too," Eunice said. "The steelhead come in the winter, but you can't can steelhead; we get deer in the fall."

Sheryl and Don, her husband, are heavily involved in their tribe's push to retain its culture. They teach their language to the younger members of their immediate family, and to their wider, tribal family.

"What matters is the little kids learning this," Sheryl said. "My mom and dad have always taught me in this culture."

Of her mother, she added, "There's a lot of knowledge in her head.

The first time she brought Don, her husband of 33 years, to the camp, she spotted him writing lots of notes in a notebook he'd brought. When she inquired why, he explained that he wanted to ensure that he knew what to do when the oldest generation was gone.

Sheryl is involved in the Tolowa's Language Immersion and Basket Weaving classes. She's also Program Manager of the tribe's day-care program.

She recently arranged to receive her "111" — the traditional chin tattoo Tolowa women are allowed to wear now. The mark signifies young girls' entry into womanhood.

"In 1922 the government outlawed tattooing in all the California tribes," she said. "When I was growing up I always said I would get one when I became a grandmother."

She readied herself mentally and received her tattoo in October.

As the family works together to preserve its food, involving the younger ones in the process, it returns to its roots.

The young ones will remember the summer days as they grow into adults and start their own families, passing their parents' and grandparents' knowledge to the newest generation.

So are the ways of the Dee'ni~ Wee-ya', some of Del Norte County's oldest residents preserved as they preserve their food.