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'A Piece of Your Spirit': Feeding Each Other in Yurok Country

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'A Piece of Your Spirit': Feeding Each Other in Yurok Country

Picture of Jessica Cejnar
The Gensaws cook Klamath River salmon the Yurok way, on redwood sticks over an alderwood fire, at this year's Klamath Salmon Fes
Photo: Jessica Cejnar
Wild Rivers Outpost
Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Marilyn Lunsford lives by a simple rule when it comes to guests. She calls it an Indian custom — “if you refuse to eat from an Indian, it’ll cost you 5 bucks.”

Most eat, she says.

Lunsford, a Yurok Indian and member of the Resighini Rancheria, lives in tribal housing alongside the Klamath River, across the street from where she grew up. The 65-year-old and her husband Ken, 67, are two of a seven-member household, but Lunsford says she often feeds as many as 10 people.

“Right now I have me and my husband, my granddaughter, her boyfriend, my grandson and my granddaughter’s two kids,” she said. “And then people come and go. If they need food, I give them whatever I have.”

Lunsford isn’t an anomaly. With the nearest supermarket 20 miles away over a windy two-lane road prone to landslides, toppled redwoods, the occasional slip out and summer tourist traffic, most Klamath residents share what they have with each other. They also hunt, garden, gather, fish and preserve more than others — though it’s becoming increasingly difficult.

Lunsford and her husband will harvest a deer once a year and an occasional bear — pests, she calls them. She’ll make jams and jellies with huckleberries and salmon berries, while the river and ocean provide salmon, lamprey and seaweed. 

Though she’s a Resighini Rancheria member, Lunsford and her family also receive commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Yurok Tribe’s nutrition assistance program. The 150 pounds of food she and her husband receive monthly — 75 pounds per person — go toward stews, breads, gravies and cookies.

“The beef we get from (commodities), if it’s a roast, I’ll cut it up into pieces and can them in jars and have that for stew [or] breakfasts with gravy, cause we get canned milk and we get flour to make the gravy,” she said. “You can make all kinds of stuff. You got to know how to utilize it.”

Out of the 

28,610 people who call Del Norte County home, 22 percent of adults experienced poverty in 2016, according to statistics from the California Center for Rural Policy at Humboldt State University. The statewide poverty rate in 2016 was 14.7 percent.

In a draft food systems analysis of the county, CCRP reported that 16.8 percent of the population is food insecure. In 2014, 29.7 percent of households with children struggled to get enough to eat.

According to Angela Glore, former food programs director for the Community Food Council of Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a food survey to determine a household's food security. Those who struggle to get food but always have something to eat are considered "food insecure," Glore said. Households in which the adults skip meals so children can eat or say they don't know where their next meal is coming from have "very low food security," Glore said.

"The USDA puts 'hunger' in parenthesis after 'very low food security,'" she said. "Or they will say food security with hunger. It means somebody is missing meals."

There is also a USDA definition for an area where the options for purchasing food are limited even for those who can afford it. A "food desert" has limited or no access to fresh produce within a one-mile radius in a city and a 10-mile radius in rural areas. This applies to most Del Norte County residents, but in Klamath -- where the only places to shop for food are Pem Mey Fuel Mart and Woodland Villa -- there’s little question the area qualifies.

Meanwhile, among Del Norte County children, between 68 and 70 percent of those attending local public schools are eligible for free and reduced meals, said Deborah Kravitz, nutrition services director for Del Norte Unified School District. 

Last year the school district began taking part in a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that allows all students to eat breakfast and lunch for free, based on the high proportion of children who receive services through CalFresh, CalWorks, MediCal and Temporary Assistance For Needy Families. 

Prior to that, youngsters eating district-provided meals varied by campus. Margaret Keating Elementary School had the highest level of participation at 88 percent, Kravitz said. 

When asked about food insecurity, Kravitz said she was comfortable addressing it in a school setting.

“Students are also our community,” she said. “Just the simple fact that seven out of 10 of our students qualify for free and reduced price meals … are they food-insecure? I can’t necessarily say that. I can assume that they may be. I only have anecdotal stories and scenarios that sort of support the fact that kids are hungry.”

In a survey conducted by the Wild Rivers Outpost titled “Where do you get your food where you live in Klamath?”, out of 30 people, 83.3 percent agreed that Klamath is a food desert. When it comes to ways to address the issue, answers ranged from once-a-week farmers markets to investing in small farms. Most respondents called for a grocery store.

“Tribal commodities offer a decent array of food, but it’s only meant to be a supplement,” one respondent said. “If people are without transportation and money to purchase quality food, most rely on Pem Mey food.”

One person who took the survey pointed out that electricity outages, flooding and road problems are common in winter, so they keep more food on hand than they would otherwise. They also have a large generator and propane stove and oven.

“People who have no car or have one that breaks down, shopping becomes extremely difficult, especially for those that live in the Glen or out near Requa or Dad’s Camp,” the respondent said. “Getting out to the freeway to catch a bus can become a trial in itself.”

The Yurok Tribe is one of two tribal governments that are headquartered in the Klamath area. The other is the Resighini Rancheria, consisting of 228 acres of tribal land on the south side of the Klamath River.

Food security is a concern for the Resighini Rancheria, said Executive Director Megan Van Pelt. But with such a small land base, accessing enough resources to meet its members’ needs is challenging, she said.

One way the tribe addressed that is by partnering with United Indian Health Services to build a community garden, Van Pelt said. About 30 people use the garden regularly, distributing their harvest to the tribe’s elders, including those who live in Crescent City, she said.

In addition to strawberries, pumpkins, squash and zucchini, those who use the Resighini Rancheria’s garden have access to herbs as well as a fruit orchard, Van Pelt said. Tribal members also fish for salmon and eels, and harvest mussels and seaweed, she said.

“In terms of purchasing from a store, it’s the same sort of limitations and barriers that many people in Klamath have,” she said.

United Indian Health Services staff sell produce from their Potawot Health Village in Arcata to the Klamath Salmon Festival. Photo: Jessica Cejnar

“The store’s so far away and transportation’s a concern for people. Being able to make it to the store and having to be more self sufficient in terms of canning, doing more food preservation, so you’re not having to worry about food, accessing it on a daily basis. It’s similar concerns to other folks in town.”

According to Susan Masten, Janet Wortman and Margaret Caldwell, members of a group of elder women called the Wisdom Keepers, Klamath’s isolation means many residents spend their whole day shopping for food. For some, that means going to town twice a week to get fruit and vegetables, Masten said.

Masten said she, Caldwell and Wortman, who is Masten’s younger sister and owns the Requa Inn, were discussing what they think their community needs the most. One solution they came up with was a community kitchen that would hold workshops and have the equipment necessary for people to preserve their food.

“We were talking about how our grandparents had huge gardens and they did all their canning and you always had access to fresh vegetables and fruit. And they shared because they always had such a large garden,” Masten said. “The (United Indian Health Services) clinic has a community garden now and they come once a month up here. It’s really limited. And then if we have snow or we have a slide or we have any of that, then we don’t get to town for a week.”

For Klamath residents, traveling to Crescent City to go grocery shopping means driving over Last Chance Grade, a slide-prone area of U.S. 101 about 10 miles north of their community. Caltrans is in the environmental phase of a project to re-route the highway around the slide. A full environmental document on the project is expected to be finished by 2026, while construction on a bypass is expected to be completed by 2039, according to Project Manager Jaime Matteoli.

Wortman said a slide on Requa Road cut her and several other residents off from the rest of the community about four years ago. Requa Inn became a Red Cross emergency shelter where people could get food and other supplies. She said the American Red Cross later reimbursed her and her husband.

This year, Wortman said, her husband was stuck for about four hours when a landslide shut down U.S. 101 in February.

Caldwell said she didn’t realize how isolated Klamath is until she sat through a Del Norte Office of Emergency Services meeting.

“If anything happens on the main road here, we are on our own,” she said. “Are we prepared for this? We are not prepared.”

Transportation and distance are significant barriers for many Klamath residents to get the market, but Brigette Norris, the Community Food Council's former food programs coordinator, says people shouldn’t discount wild foods. Wild foods, she noted, were a staple of the Yurok diet. Anything purchased at a grocery store or obtained through the USDA commodities program was a supplement, she said.

Norris lives in Yurok Tribal Housing in Crescent City with her husband, Hop, and their children, but much of their food comes from what the river, forests and ocean provide.

“Acorns, that was a staple just a couple generations ago,” she said, adding that acorns help regulate blood sugar in local indigenous peoples. “And now you’ve got these high rates of diabetes and morbid obesity. The Yurok diet has changed so rapidly and so dramatically, not only did that get taken away from most of our people’s diet as a daily staple, but now we’ve got all this refined added sugar that our people weren’t used to eating. We got to bring that back.”

Though tracking diabetes rates is difficult in a small community, Dr. Terry Raymer, diabetes manager for United Indian Health Services, said out of a total of 10,000 American Indian patients in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, about 570 are in the organization’s Diabetes Prevention Program.

“We can see children, seniors or both,” Raymer said. “The most people (we see) have diabetes and have an issue, or they have pre-diabetes and we’re doing prevention with them, or it’s a teenager, a young pre-teen, with a very significant elevated body mass index.”

In general, Raymer said, of all ethnic groups across the U.S., American Indians have the highest rates of diabetes. Historical and generational trauma may play a role. Raymer said an anthropologist came to Humboldt and Del Norte counties and noted that diabetes was common in families whose elders were sent to boarding school where they were forbidden from speaking their language and emotionally abused. This, he said, tore the family, culture and community structure apart, resulting in perpetual chronic stress.

Raymer also spoke to the issue of food insecurity, saying the sedentary nature of western civilization has taken away the natural way of gathering and getting food.

“There are some communities where there’s sufficient calories, but the nutritious nature of food is not there,” he said. “There are a lot of processed foods, but there may not be a lot of fresh foods.”

In Klamath, however, Raymer said there are families that do fish for salmon and lamprey. UIHS’s gardening program also helps, though it’s only able to visit Klamath about twice a month during the summer, he said.

“Those foods are all protective and healthy for people and can do things to mitigate some of the risk factors that got (them) diabetes,” Raymer said. “Not just because of the food itself, but you have to work to get salmon. It takes effort. People who gather food to get food or even gardening, right, that’s a physical activity and it’s protective against diabetes.”

Norris noted that indigenous people once cared for the huckleberries, tan oaks, hazel and other plants that grow on land, much of which is now within National Park Service boundaries.

“It was like this great big garden the creator had already planted, and we tended to it,” she said.

Many indigenous people in the area burned to manage the plants they depended on, whether it was acorns for food or hazel for basket weaving, according to Norris. But that knowledge went dormant for a time, she said.

“I won’t say it was lost, but it was certainly outlawed,” Norris said. “There’s all these wildfires and they're wondering why. It’s not just about the drought. It’s about how you haven’t been managing it the way indigenous people already knew how. You didn’t ask us.”

Another basic staple of the Yurok diet -- salmon -- declined so significantly that in 2016 and 2017 the Yurok Tribe closed its commercial fishery. In a 2017 news release, the Yurok Tribe attributed the decreased salmon runs to poor ocean health, diminished river conditions and elevated disease levels in juvenile fish. In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Commerce declared the 2016 Yurok fishery a disaster.

In the Wild Rivers Outpost survey, when we asked if respondents supplement their diet through fishing, gardening, gathering or hunting, one respondent brought up the salmon decline.

“Due to the decline in salmon runs, it’s been hard to store and keep salmon because most of the fish we catch we sell for other food, gas, etc.,” they said, adding that harvesting mussels is risky because of red tide blooms. “The four main dams on the Klamath River made the population in salmon go down drastically. For the past four or five years, commercial salmon fishing on the Klamath River has been non-existent.”

Tears gathered at the corners of Hop Norris’s eyes and trickled down his face when he described being unable to bring fish back to his family in 2016 and 2017.

“There’s a saying within our culture that if a Yurok man cannot fish, he’s not a complete man,” he said. “For three years, going and not bringing home any fish ever, I understand that now. It’s devastating.”

Hop’s name is short for "Hoppow," the village alongside the Klamath River where he was born in 1978. He said he and his 11-year-old nephew are the only two individuals born in Klamath in the last 100 years.

Though his people are known for their basket weaving, food is a central element of Yurok culture, Norris said. Declining someone’s offer of food is considered a personal insult. It’s equally disrespectful for a Yurok person not to offer food to his or her guest.

“When we prepare our meals, you’re putting a piece of you into that,” he said. “You’re putting a part of your spirit into that.”

Norris noted that the foodstuffs basic to the Yurok diet — mussels, clams, seaweed, salmon — are considered superfoods. The Yurok people are blessed in where they live, he said, yet existing laws often make it difficult for them to access their traditional foods. People are suffering as a result, he said.

“A good example: Our daughter went through a bout of addiction and she was really lost,” Norris said. “And somehow, some way, I don’t know how I did it, but I kept finding jars of fish. We didn’t have anymore fish. It was like the Bible story. That he took that one fish and he turned it into all these fish. It was like that here. We had a couple jars of fish. Every few days there were more fish and we were able to save our daughter and bring her back.”

Brigette Norris said her daughter was drinking, smoking cigarettes, was addicted to pills and methamphetamine and had an awakening. Her daughter quit cold turkey, came home and asked for help.

“I would say she did it on her own,” Brigette Norris said. “It was her choice. She did do it on her own, but she certainly had our support. And it took some of that good food to help heal her.”

Though they live in Crescent City, much of the food that sustains the Norris family comes from the Klamath River — the community's heart and namesake. Hop Norris, who grew up in a tent on the river until he was 12, says if the river is healthy his people will be healthy.

"If the river dies, we die," he says. "As long as we take care of the river, the river will take care of us."

In coming days, the Wild Rivers Outpost will explore how periodic floods, clashes with government and non-native factions over fishing rights, and the closure of timber mills shaped how Klamath residents access their food today. The Outpost will look at the difficulties of running a food store in Klamath that meets the needs of its residents while being able to sustain itself.

Finally, the Outpost will explore how, despite living 20 miles from a grocery store, Klamath residents are addressing these issues themselves.

For Marilyn Lunsford, and her husband, Ken, though they haven’t got much, they’ll feed anyone who needs it.

“People come in all hours of the day and night. They come off the street,” she said. “Even people from Alaska come off the highway and we feed them and let them sleep and they just head out the next day.

Lunsford said both she and her husband come from big families whose moms and dads would feed the neighborhood children when they came over. She said her daughter’s the same way.

“That’s just what we learned and that’s the way we are,” she said.


Jessica Cejnar reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship. The Center’s interim engagement editor, Danielle Fox, contributed engagement support to this article.

[This article was originally published by Wild Rivers Outpost.]