Sammy Gensaw III considers it an enormous privilege to have grown up on the same piece of Northern California land as his earliest ancestors. He hunts, fishes and gathers food from the land of his great-great-great-great-grandparents, but says it's "not the same world" his ancestors lived in. "The earth is a living organism and we are making it sick," he says.
Gensaw, a member of the Yurok tribe, is the co-founder and director of Ancestral Guard, an indigenous organizing network that teaches traditional hunting, gathering and preparation of local foods. By teaching skills like traditional canoe building and drum making, Gensaw and other leaders hope indigenous tribes will build networks that revolve around the land and its resources.
"We have the power to heal the land," Gensaw says. "Traditional ecological knowledge is what's going to save our way of life."
During a recent Ancestral Guard program, Gensaw took a group of indigenous youth on trails near the Klamath River. After pausing for a moment as a group to respect the trail and their footsteps on it with a few words in his native tongue, he then introduced them to some of the plants and foods he grew up harvesting, such as the wild salmonberry bush.
Gensaw and his Yurok ancestors are native to the Klamath River area, so the coastal area is a familiar spot to Gensaw. After giving the group an opportunity to taste the green shoots—and reminding them that eating should revolve around what's in season—he took them to a mussel bed that his tribe has been protecting for hundreds of years.
"The Yurok tribe is indigenous to this region," he told the group. "We come to the coast to harvest salmon, seaweed, mussels, clams and other foods. It's like going to your favorite picnic spot, but also like going to see your family. This area of the coast is part of our family, and we wouldn't want to disrespect it any more than we would want someone to disrespect our family."
Gensaw has spent most of his life trying to protect this land and waterway. Growing up on the Yurok Indian Reservation, he expected to become a fisherman like the generations before him. But dwindling salmon populations have made it impossible for Gensaw and his fellow tribesmen to make a living as fishermen. Many out-of-work fishermen have turned to other jobs; Gensaw balances work off the reservation with leading Ancestral Guard programs that he hopes will preserve some traditional ways of life for his tribe and others in northern California.
While Gensaw and his family practice sustainable harvesting methods, not everyone has treated this mussel bed with the same respect. Patches of mussels have been scraped completely off the rock in places, prompting Gensaw to show his group how to take just the top layer of mussels, leaving the rest to regenerate.
"We've been affected by the depletion of natural resources," he explains. "We don't have the same opportunities to take care of our families. There are people who are super unhealthy and living in pain every day because of their diets."
The Yurok approach to hunting and gathering looks to preserve the health of the land so that it will, in turn, feed its people. "It's important to not take more than you need," Gensaw says. "If you take and take, there won't be enough for the next generation."
The Yurok people aim to harvest a different species every month of the year to help diversify their diet and to lighten their impact on the land. One of the species critical to a traditional Yurok diet is the eel-like Pacific lamprey, a long, thin fish that Gensaw notes has been "part of our diet for thousands of years, and part of our traditions and stories. They're highly nutritious and have a lot of oils that are good for your brain and body," he says. "These are the things we lean on for survival, and to feed our families."
He demonstrates the proper technique to catch a lamprey—allow it to swim up alongside you, hook it, then swing it above your head to keep it on the hook—then enlists members of the group to help season and smoke the catch. Today, the eels are destined to go to an elder in the community named Marvin, fulfilling another critical part of the Ancestral Guard mission: providing traditional foods to those in the community who can't fish, forage or hunt for it themselves.
"We have a list of elders depending on us to provide some of the traditional foods," Gensaw says. "Maybe they're too old to get them, or maybe they're disabled and can't, or maybe they don't have grandchildren who know how to harvest traditional foods for them."
Gensaw and his Ancestral Guard groups prepare the food however the elder likes it, and deliver it to their doorstep. "We want to expand healthy food options for people living within our ancestral territory," he says.
As Marvin accepts the gift of the smoked eels—"better than candy!" he says with a smile—Gensaw asks the elder to say a few words to the Ancestral Guard group assembled in his living room. This sharing of cultural information is hugely important to the mission of Ancestral Guard. "This is what it's all about—making the delivery to the elders and seeing them happy and wanting to share information with us," Gensaw says.
By teaching traditional ways of harvesting food through Ancestral Guard, Gensaw hopes to forge connections between indigenous people and the land.
"Through Ancestral Guard, we help each other heal," he says. "We keep going, we keep pushing to find that good life. We have fought for the past 100 years to maintain sovereignty and our traditional way of life. If we give up or stop, the next generation won't have same opportunities to be connected to this beautiful place. If you show love for the land and have reciprocity between you and the environment you're harvesting, it'll take care of you and your families forever."
Ancestral Guard is an indigenous organizing network that operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Nature Rights Council. Its programs combine traditional ecological knowledge, science and the values of world renewal through projects such as canoe and drum-making, the gathering and processing of local traditional foods, and victory gardens. www.naturerightscouncil.org/ancestral-guard