Preserving Tradition

July 26, 2001 11:00 pm
Cherry Villacana lays out fish for drying on grasses spread on the sand. The drying method is a traditional one used for many generations of Tolowa on the North Coast. The drying site is north of Smith River. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Merrill Corley).
Cherry Villacana lays out fish for drying on grasses spread on the sand. The drying method is a traditional one used for many generations of Tolowa on the North Coast. The drying site is north of Smith River. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Merrill Corley).

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Green and yellow strands of beach grass are carefully laid on six long beds of sand.

With straw hats keeping the sun off their faces, two Tolowa women place hundreds of small fish on the beds to dry on an ocean beach north of Smith River.

And theyll keep at it, not for just one day, but almost every day for two weeks.

This is a tradition the Tolowa have carried out every year for centuries, according to elder Jim Bommelyn whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come together to participate and learn about their culture.

Theyre pure protein. You break the heads off, split em down the back to clean the bones out, then dip them in butter, Bommelyn said.

Nearby a campfire burning since 7 a.m. heats a pile of pebbles to be used as a sand bread oven.

They call this spot hole in the ground. Its used today as it has been for centuries by the Tolowa to catch and horde the spawning smelt for their winter food supply.

This ground is very sacred to us. Its part of our stories and our culture, said Vicki Bommelyn, who stressed that this yearly event not only provides her extended family with traditional food, but brings her family together in a sense of history and community.

There is an actual hole or cave in the bluff which extends below Highway 101 and inland to the hills just beyond.

A Tolowa legend explains that a huge serpent emerged from the sea and entered the hole to make its way to the hills where it would test the resolve of Tolowa medicine men in training.

The serpent would go up and breathe on the back of their necks. If they didnt get scared, it proved they had the skill, said Vicki Bommelyn.

Stories like this connect the people to the place, according to the Bommelyns, making this particular campsite just as important as the act of gathering the smelt for winter nourishment.

Smelt drying is just one food gathering camp tradition for local Native Americans.

Tolowa Sheryl Steinruck said family groups had permanent plank house villages as a base, but at different parts of the year set up temporary camps to take advantage of a certain food source.

Though summer is smelt season, fall is deer season. Steinruck said camps would be set up in Big Flat to hunt and process the deer for their meet and leather.

Indians had to work hard all year long to keep a food supply. But its always a community thing. Everyone works, from the toddlers to the old supervisors, said Bommelyns niece Pam Davis.

If you were lazy, you were banished, Jim Bommelyn said.

The group of four Tolowa families will be in camp for another week or so at the beach.

They willingly share their story and explain the process to curious passersby. To get there, take Highway 101 to the beach access just south of Clifford Kamph Memorial Park.

Were all grateful to the Bommelyn family for setting up this camp, so all of us can come and be a part of it, Davis said.