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Indigenous Wisdom: Don't Take the Baby Clams

As the holidays near, many Americans start planning how and where they will travel to meet up with family all around the U.S. It is a foreign concept to me.

As an indigenous person, I cannot separate myself and my family from the lifeline of our redwood forests, the Pacific Ocean and the Smith River; we are from and of the land and waters of Northern California. I am a part of the Tolowa Dee-ni’, of the Smith River Rancheria. We have fished and gathered and lived among the redwoods and on the shores of the Pacific since our genesis, and it was our stewardship of ocean resources like seals, salmon and seaweed that resulted in the abundance Europeans found when they came to our land.

Prior to contact, my people numbered upward of 10,000 and within one generation we were left with less than two hundred survivors. As the people who cared for the land and sea vanished, resources suffered and today, fish stocks and abalone have plummeted. 

The Tolowa Dee-ni’, along with many other tribes on the north coast, are holocaust survivors, but we still hold the memories of our ancestors’ knowledge and as we heal as a Tribe, so will the land. This month, my Tribe was awarded a grant to collect tribal knowledge that will establish a benchmark of cultural keystone species that aid in the understanding of the marine environment as well as indicate marine protected areas (MPA) performance. It’s a first for the state, and this work will be part of a monitoring effort that will inform resource management of the north coast MPAs. 

What is traditional ecological knowledge? My uncle Loren Bommelyn, the cultural leader of my tribe, likes to tell a story about my great-grandma Laura that exemplifies it.

Laura would take her grandchildren, nieces and nephews to the beach north of the mouth of the Smith River on low tide to clam, because it was important to her to teach the young ones the right way, as she had learned from her elders: take the mature clams and leave the babies. Closing my eyes, I can picture her lying on her belly, digging out a hole in the sand. As she came across a baby clam, she would place it on the rim of the hole. After digging out a fair number of mature clams, she would put any baby clams she had come across back in the hole and cover it with the remaining sand. Then she would put a rock on top of them so they wouldn't get washed away.

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 “Why are you doing that, Grandma?” the kids would ask. She’d say, “So your grandkids will have something to eat.”

The concept of making resource decisions based on how it will affect your children’s grandchildren is at the core of traditional stewardship. Through the grant, we will be using my grandma’s story and collecting others like it from Tribes in the region to help inform the state’s management of the marine protected areas. Simultaneously, we are using it to develop my tribe’s code for hunting and fishing as Smith River Rancheria moves towards co-management of resources with the state. 

That step toward co-management began a year ago this month. For the first time in California history, federally recognized Tribes’ traditional and customary uses of marine resources were formally acknowledged. Under the Marine Life Protection Act, 13 State Marine Conservation Areas were established along the north coast where Tribes are exempted from the regulations, respecting our right to continue traditional activities. 

The new desire of the state to listen and understand that tribes have an inherent right to govern its people and resources has been a long time in coming. Our collaboration is essential to deal with the challenges the ocean faces. We have a responsibility to our ancestors to take care of the land and sea, and the work we are doing with the State will help ensure we are practicing good stewardship methods. 

I look forward to the day when the knowledge my elders passed on becomes shared and benefits all ocean users. Our grandchildren depend on us working together to ensure that there are healthy ecosystems for the clams and fish and seaweed to flourish. We all have an individual responsibility to be good ancestors.

Briannon Fraley is Tolowa Dee-ni’ of the Smith River Rancheria, and grew up along the coast and the Smith River of Del Norte County in northern California. She is a 2009 graduate of Humboldt State University in Native American Studies with a concentration in Law and Governance. In 2012, she was selected as her Tribe’s first Self-Governance Director.