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Environment & Climate Change , Health , US

‘No fish means no food’: How Yurok women are fighting for their tribe’s health

by Lucy Sherriff October 4, 2021

Keeping salmon in her children’s diet is “an entire job,” says Georgiana Gensaw, a Yurok Tribe member and mother of four in Klamath Glen, a community whose only easily accessible food store is a fried chicken shop attached to a gas station a few miles away. The nearest grocery store, Safeway in Crescent City, lies 24 miles away along a stretch of road frequently plagued by landslides and toppled redwoods—last summer it was closed for 20 hours a day due to a washout—making queues to get through the roadworks up to five hours long.

As a lifelong reservation resident, Gensaw recalls when fresh food was abundant. “I grew up with fish patties, rice and fish, noodles and fish, salmon sandwiches, dried fish,” she remembers fondly. “We never understood how lucky we were, that it was going to go away.”

The Yurok reservation where Gensaw lives sits on a remote strip of land that snakes shoulder to shoulder with the final 44 miles of the Klamath River alongside the misty Northern California coast. In 2001, drought descended on the Klamath Basin, the watershed that feeds the river. Due to a history of water mismanagement in the basin, combined with an historic drought, the river is sick—and the Yurok are too.

The salmon they’ve long depended on as both dietary staple and cultural cornerstone have become scarce. Combined with the lack of food sovereignty, it has prompted the need to fight for their main sources of nutrition and for their very way of life, they say. Yurok women, traditionally their tribe’s caregivers and food providers, bear the brunt of the food and health crisis while leading the fight for cultural preservation.

“The situation has gotten so bad that I don’t even know what kind of loss to compare it to. Because there’s no replacing salmon,” Gensaw says, her voice breaking. “My babies were meant to eat Klamath River salmon.”

In a community whose median income is $11,000, with unemployment rates as high as 80 percent, with some 35 percent living below the poverty line and most of the population in a food desert, the result is a serious impact on their nutrition sources and health. A 2019 University of California-Berkeley study of Native communities in the Klamath Basin found “91.89 percent of households suffering from some level of food insecurity and over half experiencing very low food security.”

A photo of a woman in fishing gear holding a large fish
Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s former general counsel. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Food sovereignty—the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods—is linked to Yurok Tribe members’ rights and cultural identity as well as their nutrition and health. The tribe’s former general counsel, Amy Cordalis, finds being a Yurok woman provides her a unique vantage point from which to hold the U.S. government accountable on this issue to ensure her people’s health and way of life.

“I translate between Yurok cultural values and this colonized American law,” Cordalis, who has been part of her tribe’s legal team since 2014, tells The Fuller Project. “You can’t exercise the right to eat your traditional foods if there are no traditional foods,” says Cordalis, a mother of two and lifelong fisherwoman. “So the fight for a clean, healthy river is inextricably tied to the ability to exercise food sovereignty.”

Earlier this year, a fish kill of enormous magnitude left 70% of juvenile salmon dead, according to Yurok biologists. Tribal scientists later found the deadly pathogen Ceratonova shasta, which spreads due to low water quality and piscine stress, present in 97% of the fish they captured. The Yurok, who usually run a commercial fishery to bring in much needed income, have had their fishing rights severely curtailed to protect the remaining salmon population.

Gensaw has long campaigned for a healthier river: organizing rallies, attending state water board meetings and helping negotiate with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which governs the dams the Yurok say have ruined the ecosystem and endangered the salmon population. She sees the ill effects of salmon scarcity, especially on children. Without fish in their diet, there are “a lot more chubbier, overweight kids,” Gensaw says. “As moms, we talk about it a lot. Queenie is my first kid without a steady diet of salmon, and I can dramatically see the difference,” referring to her five-year-old and her older children, ages nine and 17.

The children’s changed diets are affecting their health. Dr. Terry Raymer, a diabetes expert at the United Health Services in Arcata, south of Klamath, treats Yurok pre-teens who, he says, have a “very significant elevated body mass index,” putting them at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One 2021 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said that Native American youths have “excessive disease rates compared with the general pediatric population,” with children aged 2 to 5 having a higher combined prevalence of overweight and obesity—at 58.8 percent—than children of any other ethnicity or race. And it’s not just the children: The UC-Berkeley study noted high levels of disease related to poor diet in the Klamath Basin tribes, “with 83.58 percent of all households reporting at least one person in their household suffering from a diet/lifestyle related health issue including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and cavities.”

In 2017, the Tribe secured additional water flows for salmon under the Endangered Species Act and challenged faulty data that U.S. government agencies used to determine water levels needed to protect salmon in a case Cordalis contributed to. Now she is fighting both for dam removal, to improve water quality and help the salmon populations recover, and for access to land owned by logging companies that contain traditional foods like the oak trees that produce acorns, a staple of the Native American diet for generations and to which Yurok mothers are turning to increasingly to feed their families as the salmon dwindle. (Under the Dawes Act, Native Americans were purposely allocated land of poor agricultural quality. Ancestral land once spanned almost half a million acres, giving the tribes plenty of land to fish, farm and forage, but the U.S. government confined the tribe to just 10 percent of that area.) A 2019 study in the journal Food Security noted that for the Yurok and other Native peoples, restoring access to Native foods lost due to colonialism is key to “revitalizing culture and restoring community health and well-being.”

A photo of a woman standing outside looking off into the distance
Annelia Hillman in her garden in Orleans, where she lives with her husband, a Karuk member, and their children. (Lucy Sherriff/The Fuller Project)

Yurok activist Annelia Hillman, 46, recruits young Yurok members to help wage her people’s long struggle against loggers, farmers and the U.S. government—not only for land and resources rights, but also for the very health and welfare of their tribe. “We need the next generation to carry on this work,” Hillman says, speaking of the activism she has been involved in for more than half her life, “so they can establish their identity as Indigenous people and challenge institutional systems.”

The Yurok women may have a powerful ally in Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve as Secretary of the Interior. A member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, Haaland wrote to FERC supporting the removal of the PacifiCorp dam early this year, noting that doing so would have many benefits including “protect[ing] public health.” But when Haaland, who taught Cordalis in her pre-law program, visited the Yurok reservation in August, she addressed several issues—but not the salmon or health crisis. “We are thrilled she’s here,” says Cordalis. “But she [didn’t] visit the river, and we were very disappointed about that.”

The Department of the Interior has not responded to queries from The Fuller Project as to Haaland’s stances on Yurok food sovereignty and protecting the Klamath River and its salmon.

The director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Tribal Relations said the health of indigenous children is of paramount importance to that agency. “Long term we are looking to support and foster local tribal food sovereignty initiatives to increase locally grown and indigenous foods to help restore indigenous food ways and protect better against food insecurity,” Heather Thompson tells The Fuller Project. Thompson, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member who previously represented the Yurok while working at a private law firm, says she believes one of the most important issues for Indigenous women is the “health and nutrition of our children and families.”

For Gensaw, that means restoring the river and its salmon population to health, because when the fish thrive, so do the children and families. “No fish means no food,” she says. “Our communities depend on the river for sustenance.”

Correction (10:07 a.m. Oct. 14, 2021): An earlier version of this story misstated Annelia Hillman’s age. She is 46, not 34.

Correction (6:04 p.m. Oct. 19, 2021): An earlier version of this story misstated Amy Cordalis’s role. She is the former, not current, general counsel for the Yurok Tribe. Her role in a lawsuit was also clarified to make more clear that she contributed to the case and did not lead it.

This story was published in partnership with The Guardian and The Fuller Project.

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