Traditional Foods and Indigenous Solidarity by Hillary Renick

Indigenous and marginalized people are rising up from Mauna Kea, Ihumātao, the Amazon Basin, and in places sacred to communities, and key in land, air and water protection. The Arctic and many other Regions of Mother Earth are on fire, raising the alarm for indigenous people to act.

For California tribal people, food security and food sovereignty is more important than ever. Fish kills, algae blooms, private landowners and state regulations have suppressed and pushed many traditional practices underground. The inter-tribal trade of traditional items such as abalone as food, adornments and currency have crisscrossed the continent for millennia. Changing ocean conditions, access, pollution, and population decline has made natural materials a scarcity. Inland lakes and other gathering places are now barren or in major decline.

The State of California has closed our abalone fishery, for conservation they say, but climate emergency and unchecked sprawling urban populations and encroachment is a major part of the problem. Tribal subsistence fisheries have little to no impact on the species decline, but we are treated the same as the public. Human caused pollution, increased impacts to habitat and artificial conditions such as diverting water from the Trinity River to Southern California farmers have aided this problem. There are too many people in our sacred spaces, our food places, our religious and prayer sites, our burial places along our coast and inland waterways. State planners ask tribes about their traditional ecological knowledge but are deaf to understand how traditional lands were managed in covenants of reciprocity with the natural landscape.

California red abalone, as well as other abalone species are endangered and in decline worldwide. These nearshore species are important indicators of overall habitat health. Abalone has cultural significance to tribes throughout Turtle Island. Apache and inland tribes have camped with us to honor abalone and share their stories of abalone woman, while sharing and harvesting traditional foods as we have done for millennia. Other inter-tribal trade items and regional symbols are increasingly harder to gather.

Tribal jewelry identifies us as part of a community, having ancient ties and relations to specific places on our landscape, indigenous communities, and trading partners as we have for millennia. Dentalium is increasingly difficult to acquire with farmed and Asian varieties not being durable as species found off the Vancouver Coast. Wampum or quahog shells1 most notably known to record important events in East Coast tribal communities are becoming harder to find. Pink conch shells of the Southeast are now listed protected under international conservation rules. Inland tribes that depended on this inter-tribal trade are disproportionally affected by this scarcity.2

Commercial harvesters are affecting tribal foods and trade by disrupting the Yakama huckleberry harvest,3 Paiute and Washoe pinenut harvests,4 Pomo seaweed harvests,5 and several other medicines, teas, and basketry roots and shoots across native North America. In the Puebloan southwest, the paint for pottery, turquoise and stones for artists is increasingly rare.

Throughout Indian Country, we see similar stresses on our lands, our culture, or ability to subsist. Through the advent of social media, indigenous people are now able to connect more easily than a trip to the next tribe or trek to far away spiritual and sacred landscapes across our homelands. East and West, North and South, Island and Mainland, many of us are now in solidarity with others seeking the same justice to live as we have on our homelands that have protected and preserved since time began.

It is imperative that indigenous and marginalized people come together to speak on issues of concern to create dialogue. Recently, the Yurok Ancestral Guard was invited to the Narragansett Fall Meeting in Rhode Island to discuss threats to traditional foods, fisheries, and water scarcity. Thousands of miles away from each other, these two tribes share the Algonkian language, similar stories of times of glaciers, and a deep respect and reverence for mother earth. Sammy Gensaw III, Director of the Ancestral Guard spent the weekend learning about the struggles of New England Tribes as they entered the 4th century since the Pilgrims landed on their shores. Sammy shared salmon and traditional items gathered from California coasts, forests, and rivers, while the Narragansett shared corn, beans, squash, sassafras, and other traditional foods. The tribes agreed to continue dialogue in solidarity as tribes have for millennia. The Ancestral Guard works throughout greater Northern California to provide traditional foods to elders, those in need, and teach traditional skills necessary to subsist off the land.

Hillary Renick (Pomo/Paiute) JD, LL.M. is alumni of the University of Arkansas School of Law Program in Agricultural and Food Law, and has worked in land-air-water-cultural resource and traditional food sustainability. Hillary can be reached at and Sammy Gensaw III, Yurok Ancestral Guard can be reached at or (@ancestral_guard).


1 David Weeden, Mashpee Wampanoag, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, spoke about Mashpee Tribal member who said Popponasset Bay has no quahogs in an area with normal high yield. The quahog shells make the wampum that they traditionally traded to inland tribes throughout the Northeast. It is unknown whether the changing salinity, dredging or increased storm surges have influenced this decline. (Personal communication April 27, 2019).

2 Bill Quackenbush, Ho-Chunk Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, shared Ho-Chunk use of freshwater clam beads, bone, and small mussels found and traded through the Great Lakes. (Personal communication April 27, 2019).

3 Matthew Tomaskin, Yakama Nation tribal member (Personal communication June 25, 2019).

4 Ron Johnny, Ft McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribal member (Personal communication May 22, 2019).

5 Shawn Padi, Hopland Pomo tribal member (Personal communication May 10, 2019).