Dan Bacher, July 24, 2010
In a historic protest on July 21, members of dozens of California Indian Tribes and their allies marched through the streets of downtown Fort Bragg protesting the violation of indigenous fishing and gathering rights under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.
“This is the biggest protest on any issue held on the North Coast since the Redwood Summer of 1990,” said Dan Hamburg, former North Coast Congressman and a current Green Party candidate for Mendocino County Supervisor, as he marched beside me on the way to the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force meeting in Fort Bragg.
Members of the Yurok, Tolowa, Cahto, Kashia Pomo, Karuk, Hoopa Valley, Maidu, Hopi, Navajo and other tribes and the Noyo Indian Community shouted “M.L.P.A. – Taking Tribal Rights Away” and other chants as they marched. Recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, seaweed harvesters, environmentalists, sea urchin divers and seafood industry workers walked side by side with tribal members in a show of solidarity.
Alongside tribal flags, participants hoisted banners with slogans including “Keep Away MLPA,” “Native Conservation, Not Naive Conservation,” “No MLPA,” “ MLPA=Big Oil,” and “RLF – What Are You Funding.”
The group peacefully took control of the task force meeting in a great example of non-violent direct action. After rallying at Oak and Main Street, over 300 people walked a half-mile to the C.V. Star Community Center. Just before heading into the meeting, tribal community members standing twenty deep chanted, “No Way M.L.P.A.!” to the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) members convened inside.
“Our message was clear: the state will no longer impose its will on indigenous people,” said Frankie Joe Myers, organizer for the Coastal Justice Coalition and a Yurok Tribal ceremonial leader. “This is about more than a fouled-up process that attempts to prohibit tribes from doing something they have done sustainably for thousands of years. It is about respect, acknowledgement and recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights!”
Before the group began their march, they spent an hour holding signs and chanting on the corner of Oak and Main Streets as driver after driver honked their horns in support.
“The outpouring of support from the Fort Bragg community was amazing,” said Jim Martin, West Coast Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “It was clear that the majority of people supported our protest. Some people were driving around several times so they could honk in support again.”
After the protesters entered the meeting, tribal elders, including Walt Lara of the Yurok Tribe, said they would continue to do what they have done for centuries – harvest seaweed, mussels and fish.
“We’ve managed the ocean in sustainable way for thousands of years,” Lara stated. “We only take what we need so that nobody should be hungry. You take our water, you take our land and now your are going to take our appetite.”
Thomas O’Rourke, the chair of the Yurok Tribal Council, said, “We as an Indian Nation have the right to manage our resources. The people who have managed for the last 200 years haven’t done so well in managing the land and our coast.”
“It is wise to listen to the people who managed these lands for thousands of years,” he continued. “We believe in protecting species. We will continue to exercise our right to harvest seaweed and fish as we always have. You have to take us to jail until you go broke and you fix this law.”
The Yurok Tribe has a representative, Megan Rocha, on the MLPA’s Regional Stakeholder group. However, O’Rourke said the MLPA process has viewed tribes exactly the same as recreational fishermen, even though tribes are sovereign nations.
“There is nothing more offensive than the lack of recognition we have received from the Initiative,” he stated. “We are a sovereign government within the State of California and should be treated accordingly. We would like the Blue Ribbon Task Force to do what is morally right and remove tribes from this inappropriate process.”
Jimbo Simmons, a Choctaw Tribe member and a leader of the American Indian Movement, emphasized that numerous laws, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, affirm the right of indigenous people to conduct their traditional religious ceremonies including traditional ocean food gathering. “Food is a human right,” he stated.
“Our tribal rights are not negotiable,” Dania Colegrove, Hoopa Valley Tribe member and a member of the Coastal Justice Coalition, told the task force. “Get used to it!”
Some Tribal members and fishermen at the protest questioned the task force’s real motives in kicking indigenous people and other fishermen off the ocean.
Susan Burdick, Yurok Elder, pointedly told the Blue Ribbon Task Force that “You are like the Ku Klux Klan – without the hoods! We’re not going to stop what we have doing for generations. We have young people here, old people here and we will march everywhere you go.”
“What is your real purpose: to start drilling for oil off our coastline?” she asked. “Be honest with us!”
Burdick’s concerns over the push by the oil industry and others to industrialize the California coast were echoed by environmentalists including Judith Vidaver, Chair of Ocean Protection Coalition (OPC).
“For over 25 years OPC, with our fisher and seaweed harvester allies, has protected our ocean from threats such as aquaculture projects, nuclear waste dumping, offshore oil development and recently, wave power plants,” Vidaver stated. “We are requesting that final Marine Protected Area (MPA) designations include language prohibiting these industrial-scale commercial activities.”
She also shocked the panel by asking that task force member Catherine Reheis-Boyd voluntarily step down from her position on the BRTF.
“Oil and water do not mix—as we are being reminded daily by the disaster spewing in the Gulf,” she stated. “Mrs. Reheis-Boyd’s position as President of the Western States Petroleum Association and her lobbying efforts to expand offshore oil drilling off the coast of California are a patent conflict of interest for which she should recuse herself from the BRTF proceedings which are ostensibly meant to protect the marine ecosystem.”
Meg Caldwell, a BRTF member, responded to Vidaver’s request in defense of Reheis-Boyd.
“I am a died-in-the-wool environmentalist and I have worked for the past year with Reheis-Boyd. Not once has she demonstrated any bias for any industrial sector on the Task Force,” she stated.
The overwhelming majority of people making public comments criticized the MLPA process for any array of reasons.
However, Karen Garrison, policy analyst for NRDC, affirmed her support for the MLPA Initative. She said that her organization “is committed to creating an effective marine protected area network that also supports continued noncommercial traditional Tribal uses.”
“The Kashia Pomo regulation shows it’s possible to do both, at least under some circumstances, and shows the flexibility of the MLPA to accommodate Tribal uses,” Garrison stated. “We also support the Tribe’s proposal to separately identify noncommercial traditional Tribal uses in any regulation that allows both Tribal and recreational uses.”
The MLPA, a landmark law signed by Governor Gray Davis in 1999, calls for the creation of marine reserves with varying levels of protection from one end of the state to the other.
Many fishermen, environmentalists and Tribal members have blasted Schwarzenegger’s MLPA Initiative, privately funded by the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, for taking water pollution, oil drilling and all other human uses of the ocean other than fishing and gathering off the table while denying Tribes their fundamental rights.
“Whether it is their intention or not, what the Marine Life Protection Act does to tribes is systematically decimate our ability to be who we are,” Myers said. “That is the definition of cultural genocide.”
“The MLPA process completely disregards tribal gathering rights and only permits discussion of commercial and recreational harvest,” Myers concluded. “The whole process is inherently flawed by institutionalized racism. It doesn’t recognize Tribes as political entities, or Tribal biologists as legitimate scientists.”
“The protest surpassed my wildest dreams,” said Mike Carpenter, a sea urchin diver and local protest organizer. “I’m glad that tribal members, fishermen, Latino sea urchin industry workers and local environmentalists all banded together to keep our communities from being robbed by outside interests and big corporate money.”
The latest action was preceded on June 29 by a protest during which a group of 40 Tribal members and their supporters interrupted the MLPA Science Advisory Team meeting in Eureka. Members of the Coastal Justice Coalition during both protests emphasized that there is no scientific data that says tribal gathering has any negative impact on the coastal ecosystem and the Act does nothing to stop pollution and off-shore drilling — the real threats to the ocean ecosystem.