California’s tribal harvesting imbroglio


Frankie Myers’s tribe, the Yuroks, have gathered and harvested everything from mussels to seaweed on the Northern California coast since “the beginning of time,” as he puts it.

The myriad coastal resources are of important cultural value to many Pacific tribes, and recent studies have shown that pre-contact hunter-gatherers were extremely adept at harvesting in sustainable and ecologically conscious ways.

It’s, thus, ironic that a California measure to protect coastal ecosystems could have rendered traditional tribal gathering illegal if it had not been for the protests of activists such as Myers.

“The legislators who wrote the law simply didn’t remember Native Americans and tribal harvesting,” Myers said. “They failed to see us as distinct political entities, and this is something that happens on many occasions.”

The Northern California coast, near the Yurok Coastal Loop trail. Photo courtesy Wing-Chi Poon,

The Marine Life Protect Act (MLPA) was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 1999, and it calls for the creation of a network of marine protected areas along the California coast. It’s intent is to protect threatened marine life and preserve relatively pristine coastal areas for research and study.

As written, the law stipulates that regulated “taking” should be allowed within certain parts of the marine protected areas but only for commercial or recreational purposes. Nowhere in the law are the needs and rights of tribal communities identified or accounted for.

Tribal concerns about the MLPA were amplified in late 2009 after Governor Scharwzenegger’s administration named a Blue Ribbon Task Force to help implement the MLPA. It included local politicians and representatives from the marine and oil industries but no tribal members. This July some 500 protestors from the Yuroks, Hoopa, and Karuks other tribes swarmed a task force meeting in Fort Bragg to air their objections.

The task force eventually created a unified proposal that ensured tribal gathering rights would be protected.  The proposal is scheduled to be submitted to the Department of Fish and Game Feb. 2, but controversy fomented again this October when the task force revealed new language in the proposal that would have banned any uses that didn’t provide a “moderate” benefit to conservation. Traditional gathering most likely would be considered of low benefit, and would thus be illegal.

In response to more howls of protest from coastal tribes, MLPA officials said they were doing their best within the limitations of the law and didn’t intend to permanently restrict gathering.

“There could be a break in access if the legislation isn’t there, but there is an incentive to get it there,” MLPA Initiative Director Ken Wiseman told a local newspaper.

Later during a Dec. 9 teleconference, members of the task force backed away from the amendment and asserted their commitment to maintaining tribal rights, and for now Myers and other critics are satisfied.

Yet the MLPA polemics are emblematic of a ubiquitous problem in Indian Country: many Western laws are either ignorant of tribal communities or completely incongruent with their cultures and religions.

The abalone shell is culturally important to many California tribes. Winnemem dancers wear a shell over their heart as protection during ceremonies.

Tribal basketweavers here in California also struggle to ensure they have safe access to weaving materials that are often classified as weeds and sprayed with dangerous pesticides.

The California Depart of Transportation, for instance, has a standard procedure of spraying for weeds 600-feet from either side of the middle of the roadway, which often unintentionally kills weaving plants, said Diana Caudell of the California Indian Basket Weaving Association.

Statewide, she helps educate state agencies and private landowners about traditional gathering practices: when the gathering seasons are so they’ll know not to spray, how to identify important traditional plants from the weeds and other tips. The EPA also has a Tribal Pesticide Program Council to help educate both tribes and land managers about pesticide use and its effect on traditional gathering.

The spring I traveled with the small Winnemem Wintu tribe to New Zealand where their ceremonial regalia was confiscated by Biosecurity to be treated for bacteria and funghi. Many of their feathers were returned to them damaged and torn, a serious desecration and an infringement of their religious freedom.

New Zealand officials have legitimate concerns about invasive species, but their laws were so rigid and inflexible that they couldn’t accommodate the Winnemem’s unique religious beliefs.

In filing its first ever human rights report to the U.N., the U.S. has admitted to having a less than perfect human rights record and regular victims of this continue to be American Indian tribes.

Until lawmakers and government agencies start respecting tribes as sovereign people and account for the unique nature of their cultures, controversies like the MLPA faced are unlikely to cease any time soon.

Marc Dadigan is a freelance journalist based in Redding, California. He's currently living with the Winnemem Wintu tribe and writing a book about their spiritually guide salmon restoration project.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.