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Life Begins in the Sea 

North Coast tribes face risk of losing rights to the seashore as California ponders part two of the Marine Life Protection Act


We've heard the story before. As old as history itself, this one tells of three societies on the fringe, their cultures fading, their populations dispersing, and the sound of their spoken languages growing quieter and quieter.

And though the Graton Rancheria tribe of Marin and Sonoma, the Kashaya near Fort Ross and the Manchester-Point Arena band of Pomo Indians still maintain some loyalty to their respective traditional ways and their historical geographical territories, tribal leaders fear that a new power—the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), passed in 1999—could soon bar the three coastal groups from their historical fishing and foraging grounds, severing one of their last ties to an ancient way of life.

"We believe that we are one with the natural world," says Nick Tipon of the Graton Rancheria, a virtually landless group consisting of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo. Tipon has been a prominent voice in the ongoing discussions between state lawmakers and stakeholder groups concerned about the MLPA proceedings, which concluded in December with the establishment of the first phase of the new protected areas, focusing on the Central Coast. "The deer, water, the birds, the fish—they are all one, and nothing is more important than another. So any time someone makes a law that says we can't take something, it troubles us, because that thing is a part of us."

Between 1999 and April 2007, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and the California Fish and Game Commission (FGC) districted 29 marine protected areas between Point Conception and Pigeon Point, zones in which varying degrees of sea harvest are prohibited. In some areas, commercial take is restricted, while in others, the extraction of any object, alive or otherwise, is illegal. Now, as the state looks at the second phase, the North Central Coast region, stretching from Pigeon Point north to Point Arena, these three coastal tribes are protesting what they consider infringements on their unassailable rights to utilize the natural world.

Eric Wilder, tribal services coordinator for the Kashaya, disdains the California government's strong-armed approach toward enforcing the MLPA, which consists of four proposals to adjust the current marine life harvest restrictions in, among other areas to the north and south, Salt Point State Park, Gerstle Cove and Bodega Bay. Several of the proposals would tighten regulations or ban altogether the harvest of various finfish, shellfish and other intertidal life in defined locations.

"From our viewpoint, the way the government has approached us with this issue is like a doctor coming along and saying that he's going to cut pieces of your body away and asking you which are the most important parts that you'd like to keep. We'd like to keep all of it."

Wilder says that the culture of his tribe already faces the very real threat of dissolution as outside enticements and pressures lure youths away from traditional life on the reservation, located several miles from sea near Fort Ross. Relatively few Kashaya people know the tribe's history, says Wilder, but seafood and kelp still contribute heavily to the diets of many Kashaya individuals, while also playing important parts in ceremonial events and annual community gatherings, like the acorn festival in October.

"Fishing and gathering is not just a recreational thing for us," Wilder stresses. "It ties us to our past and our ancestors, and if they close the coast to us, they might as well sentence us to death, because that will end us."

Wilder, like scores of his Kashaya friends and relatives who gather abalone, sea urchins and other edibles along the shore, already adheres to state recreational fishing regulations, and he feels that such commitment to the laws is sufficient.

"That's what those laws are there for, to protect the ocean. Why are they now not good enough? Since the Russians came, our people have had to live in a world of different rules and regulations, and we've followed them, but with all the overfishing and depletion of resources, it seems like it would have been a good idea if they had just followed our rules instead."

Melissa Miller-Henson, of the Department of Fish and Game's MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force, says that the DFG and FGC will almost certainly respect tribal rights and needs as they implement the laws. "I would be shocked if the tribes were to lose their fishing rights. I think we live in a day and age when that wouldn't be acceptable," she says.

But many members of the public and even some lawmakers do not know of each tribe's quiet existence and their reliance on the sea. This obliviousness impedes efforts to preserve the culture, says Tipon. The 1,100 members of the Graton Rancheria tribe live throughout the state, and though they lay claim to a one-acre plot near Occidental, their societal cohesiveness is a rather nebulous concept, with virtually no sense of place to anchor the tribe to its past and few living members who speak the tribe's dialect.

Two seasonal ceremonies still bring the people together for communal seafood feasts and offerings of gratitude toward the abundance of the sea and the land. The loss of fishing rights could effectively end such gatherings and mark still one more step toward complete immersion into Western ways.

"At this point in the game, we feel that anything at all that our people could once do and are now denied is not healthy," Tipon says.

The Kashaya have fared just a little bit better. Twenty-five families still live on the tribe's 42-acre reservation several miles inland from Fort Ross, and 52 individuals still speak the language. One such person is Kashaya elder Violet Chappell, 77, who was born in Mendocino County and has lived virtually all her life on or around the Kashaya reservation. Chappell has maintained a strong and loyal connection to the ways of life with which she grew up, but she has watched her culture slowly wane over the decades.

"There are not enough people of us anymore who know the history, the genealogy and the religion of the Kashaya," she says. "Morals and ethics have always been strong in our teachings, but the children today aren't learning. We Indians have to learn how to live in two worlds. Our world and our culture is a great way to live, but too many of us are forgetting about it all and leaving for the cities."

Before the Russians landed at Fort Ross in 1812, the Kashaya, whose population is estimated to have been some 1,500 people, had never encountered Caucasians, as the Spanish missionaries never reached the mountainous stronghold of the small tribe. The Kashaya dwelt primarily between Duncans Point and the Gualala River, living on the coast during the spring and summer and retreating into the hills as far as 30 miles inland during the winter.

The Russians founded Fort Ross as a base camp for their otter hunting trade, and for three decades pursued the thick-furred mammals, collected the pelts and kept the Kashaya employed as laborers. Upon the Russians' departure in 1841, life was permanently changed for the Kashaya. Encroaching white settlers established private property, built fences and barred the tribal members from their favored foraging and hunting grounds. In 1914, the federal government secured a quiet plot of 42 acres in the hills several miles from the sea. With little water and poor soil, the reservation hardly made up for the loss of their traditional hunting lands, and many would leave the reservation in the decades following to take up modern life in modern towns.

Today, nearly every household on the Kashaya land, says Chappell, is affected by diabetes, an upward trend driven by a declining quality of diet. She recalls the foods of her own upbringing—abalone, seaweed, shellfish, sea urchins, herbs and wild greens—and notes that few Kashaya bother with such items anymore.

Marine Life Protection Act public workshops and meetings will be held Feb. 4, 5 and 6 in Gualala, Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay, respectively, and will allow members of the public to voice concerns as the state government edits and rewrites its various draft proposals. The estuaries and bays of Point Reyes and Salt Point are just two areas being considered for moderate to full protection under the MLPA, though proceedings are only in the beginning stages and final decisions will not be made for another nine to 12 months.

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