How a California tribe is restoring the environment along with their culture

“Kashia culture and identity is strongly rooted in the natural world. Managing our natural resources and lands in a way that increases their resiliency and productivity ensures our traditional practices and cultural values are passed to future generations.”

—Abby Gomes, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians tribe member

Before colonization, the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians lived along California’s vast Sonoma County coast. By 1915 the Kashia only owned .007% of their original territory on a reservation called Stewarts Point Rancheria, or as the tribe calls it “Su Nu Nu Shinal” (meaning “Huckleberry Heights”). This drastic decrease in territory caused equally drastic changes for the Kashia’s livelihood, diet, and culture forcing many tribe members to live off-reservation. Today, with the help of numerous organizations, the Kashia’s reservation and territories span around 1,230 acres, including the Kashia Coastal Reserve. With this increase in territory, Kashia land management and cultural practices also resurged.

I had the opportunity to learn about the reintroduction of such practices from Kashia tribe members Abby Gomes, Hannah Banuelos, and Otis Parrish. Kashia traditional practices teach invaluable lessons on living in harmony with the environment for ourselves and our local ecosystems.

Sustainable Land and Resource Management

The dense pine forests we see today did not exist prior to European settlement. In fact, many of the trees and shrubs that now litter the coast are invasive species which have taken over without indigenous land management. The Kashia previously managed such species through burning the brush, maintaining the iconic California “golden hills” landscape.  “Periodic cultural burnings maintained these coastal grasslands and openings from encroachment by bishop pine forest and coastal scrub,” Kashia member Gomes said. The cultural burnings also encouraged seed germination of native plant species as well as the presence of large populations of deer and elk through maintaining their natural grazing areas. “The land and natural resources were managed in a way that ensured their continuance and productivity into the future.”

This cultural burning is being reintroduced to the area by the Kashia to manage invasive species, reduce forest fires, encourage native species growth, and restore natural habitat.

Beyond periodic burning, the Kashia are also taking a traditional-turned-modern approach to maintaining their ecosystems through formally surveying and monitoring their reserve with their planned Kashia Coastal Reserve Tribal Citizen Science Monitoring Program.

According to Gomes, the program “includes Kashia values and is modeled after the Greater Farallones Association’s Beach Watch Program.” The Kashia program plans to engage tribe members in monitoring human use activities and resources important to the tribe including marine mammals and bird species.

One large problem the tribe faces is the lack of marine resources upon which they depend. Private land ownership of the tribe’s former territory, restrictions made by government, and overharvesting by those outside the tribe cause this scarcity.

Maintaining the ability to gather these coastal resources ensures the continuance of cultural traditions and practices,” Gomes said. “Returning back to the coast, (the) Kashia (tribe) now has an opportunity to reconnect its tribe membership with the ocean and revitalize its cultural traditions, practices, and land management values.”

Despite hindrances that have developed post-colonization, the tribe manages its Coastal Reserve through these practices as a gateway for educating the public about Kashia history and practices.

Seasonal and Native Diet

Kashia people were migratory in the Sonoma region. In the summer they gathered food from the ocean focusing mainly on seaweed but also mussels, “abalone, fish, sea anemone and kelp” according to tribe member Banuelos. During the spring, the tribe fished the river for salmon and trout. During the colder seasons, the tribe harvested Indian potatoes, clovers, and acorns. However, according fellow tribe member Parrish, European settlement introduced non-native foods including “flour, coffee, pigs…sheep…melons, cabbage, carrots, and apples.”

As a result of adding non-native foods to their diets, and given the reduction in harvesting territory, tribe members have since suffered from assorted illnesses including diabetes.

But, Banuelos says, “A lot of elders really rely on their traditional foods…It makes them feel better. They believe in it. It makes their body and their health a bit stronger.” That is to say, tribe members believe in maintaining their health and ecosystems through consuming native food.

There are specific traditions the tribe follows before, during, and after harvesting, processing, and preparing native food.

According to Banuelos, “There’s preparation…They do a little ceremony…They pray with clapper sticks…Sing songs for thanking the ocean for providing food for us. We only take what we need for our family.” This spiritual connection with indigenous food affirms how the Kashia are grateful for their sustenance and take only what is needed — an important concept given the amount of food waste occurring throughout the United States.

Continuing Kashia Practices

To perpetuate Kashia sustainable practices through their culture, the tribe also emphasizes financial security for tribal members, and the importance of preserving Kashia language.

It is difficult to keep tribe members engaged if they cannot afford to live on or near the reservation, especially with California’s rising housing prices. Banuelos emphasizes “more homes on the land for our tribe would be good. (We) try to make sure our people are taken care of first... Otherwise, I think our tribe is doing pretty good.”

According to Parrish, the loss of language is the largest problem given it is a vehicle for passing on traditional practices. He highlights that when one learns their culture’s stories, “the story becomes a part of them.”

For Banuelos and Parrish, the key to ensuring financial security and preserving their culture is to focus on Kashia youth. Parrish said, “To our young people, get an education and come back to our people and do something constructive for everybody. That’s the message my generation has given to the next generation coming up.”

By improving financial security, teaching the Kashia language, and focusing on the next generation, Kashia could flourish and continue to be an example of a society living in harmony with the environment through sustainable land, resource, and food management practices.

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