The culture of many California tribes is built around the once abundant salmon. (Courtesy photo)

This Thanksgiving, join Native Americans in fighting for the future of salmon

Like the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock, the early colonizers of San Francisco relied on Native Americans for food and water.

Like the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock, the early colonizers of San Francisco relied on Native Americans for food and water.

In November 1769, Spanish cartographer and explorer Miguel Costansó arrived at what he thought was San Francisco Bay. To convince others in his company he was right, they looked for the region’s “friendly Indians” who they had heard would easily offer fresh water and firewood. Eventually, Costansó and his party found them.

“Two very numerous bands of Indians met us on the road with presents of pinole and some large trays of white atole, which supplied in large measure the needs of our men,” Costansó wrote in his diary 250 years ago.

As we know from history, Costansó’s maps of the Bay opened the door to Spanish colonies and their missions, which were designed to ruthlessly impose western morality on the indigenous people who had helped them. Native Americans were brutalized and enslaved here in San Francisco. And things didn’t improve after California joined the United States. California Indians were forced to hide their identities or risk their lives.

Even today, violence plagues American Indians on reservations and in cities. Native American women experience some of the nation’s highest rates of murder, sexual violence, and domestic abuse.

Thanksgiving celebrations rarely recognize these realities. Instead of limiting gratitude for the gifts bestowed on the Pilgrims and Costansó’s men in the past, San Franciscans can also lift up Native Americans’ efforts today. One way to do this is by joining the fight to protect a nutritious and traditionally important food: salmon.

The culture of many California tribes is built around this once abundant fish. For generations, festivals and stories celebrated the return of salmon from the ocean. According to the Winnemem Wintu, salmon took pity on the first humans and offered to give them speech if they promised to always speak for the salmon. Others believe that when salmon die, so do we.

“That’s not just native people, that’s all people,” April McGill, a Mission resident of Wailaki, Yuki, Little Lake Pomo and Wappo descent, told me. “They do so many things for us and nourish our bodies — they’re the healthiest fish out there. It’s our job to take care and fight for them.”

But despite Native American efforts, the salmon are disappearing. At least 10,000 Coho salmon once swam through the Lagunitas Creek watershed in Marin County. Last winter there were 648. A 2017 report by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and conservation group, California Trout, found that 23 of California’s 31 genetically distinct kinds of salmon and trout are at risk of vanishing in the next 100 years.

“No statistics can express what losing the salmon has done to our culture and well-being as communities,” Morning Star Gali, the tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon and a member of the Pit River Tribe, recently wrote. “Unlike many other salmon states, very few of California’s tribes have established rights to a harvestable surplus of salmon and a land base, and no California tribes are actually able to catch enough salmon to feed their families.”

California’s tribes should not have to fight alone to exercise their sovereign rights and protect such a culturally critical food. San Franciscans can, and should, do more.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation to establish the first-ever American Indian Cultural District in San Francisco last week. The step supports the local community in securing resources to help protect cherished cultural assets. It could also lead to the establishment of an American Indian Cultural Center — the first in 50 years.

Individuals can also help protect the water salmon need. San Franciscans should conserve the resource and avoid using plastic bottled water. The Winnemem Wintu tribe has filed multiple lawsuits around the approval a new Crystal Geyser plant near the city of Mount Shasta.

Instead of simply saying thanks for receiving food in the past, San Franciscans can give thanks by joining Native Americans to fight for food in the future.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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