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Honesty and an open mind go a long way in reporting on tribal food scarcity in California’s far north

Honesty and an open mind go a long way in reporting on tribal food scarcity in California’s far north

Picture of Jessica Cejnar
Honesty and an open mind go a long way in reporting on tribal food scarcity in California’s far north
(Photo by Jessica Cejnar)

“Reporters always write bad stuff about Klamath.”

Those were words said to me three weeks into my reporting project on food scarcity in the predominantly native community in southern Del Norte County in Northern California.

I was at the Yurok Tribe’s annual Klamath River Cleanup with flyers introducing myself and my reporting project to residents. I hoped that joining tribal members in picking up trash and pulling Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry would encourage them to tell me their stories.

But they were skeptical — with good reason.

After seven years of covering news in Del Norte County, whenever I heard from Klamath residents, usually at public meetings, it was about how they felt neglected. They described themselves as the “redheaded stepchild.”

It’s difficult to argue against this.

Margaret Keating Elementary School, Klamath’s K-6 school, has the lowest academic scores in the Del Norte Unified School District. Yet district administrators have ignored parents when they asked for a cultural coordinator that could help the indigenous students.

For years, the Yurok Tribe has long supported a project that would lift dams on the Klamath River, the heart of their community. Dam removal would potentially restore the salmon runs the tribe’s members rely on to feed themselves.

But the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, saying they were concerned about how sediment behind the dams would affect the recreational fishery, intervened in the project this summer. The board didn’t oppose the project, but it didn’t support it either.

Meanwhile, the shooting of a 13-year-old Klamath boy in 2015 has yet to be resolved by the local justice system.

These are examples of recent traumas endured by people who have experienced injustice for generations. Tribal citizens have grandparents still living who remember being sent to boarding schools where speaking their own language and practicing their own culture were forbidden.

Though a Supreme Court decision in the 1970s reaffirmed the Yurok people’s right to fish on the Klamath River, a conflict in 1978 known as the “Salmon Wars” pitted federal and state agents against the native population.

According to Susan Masten, a member of the Yurok Tribe whose family was at the heart of the Supreme Court Case (Mattz v. Arnett), federal and state agents were in full riot gear while the natives had only tin or wooden boats. 

People are still emotional about that time even 40 years later, Masten says. She compares it to post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.

“Every time the state or the feds were mentioned, they just went kind of crazy and if you talk to them now, too, it still brings up emotions,” she told me. “They would cry. It was so intense.”

I was prepared for Klamath residents to be slow to warm to me. But I learned that although my impression that they felt ignored was correct, I needed to throw any other assumptions I had out the window.

My 2019 California Fellowship project proposed to look at food scarcity in Del Norte County and determine if the safety nets created to address it were reaching those most in need. I wanted to map out the county’s food deserts, which is essentially everywhere beyond its only incorporated city. My goal was to put a human face on the issue.

It was a former Margaret Keating Elementary School principal who encouraged me to focus on Klamath.

I visited as often as I could, at least once a week during the first two months of my project. And my visits weren’t always about food scarcity; I took pictures and wrote about the community, starting with the Salmon Run in May.

With help from the Center for Health Journalism’s Engagement Editor Danielle Fox, I set up a table in front of the post office. I visited the Klamath Senior Center during its monthly luncheon to speak with people. I addressed the congregation of the Pacific Light Church at the Klamath Community Center, hoping that people would speak with me about their experience with food scarcity.

At a community book fair in honor of a Yurok elder’s birthday, a parent named Georgiana Gensaw began introducing me to other families. I had just been laid off from my reporter job at the Del Norte Triplicate and wasn’t sure what to tell people, but I went ahead with gathering as many voices as I could.

I learned that though the lack of a grocery store in the community is a challenge, that wasn’t the story. Rather, the Yurok community’s relationship with food — and their practices to ensure that families, neighbors and even strangers have enough to eat — was what I should focus on.

One resident, Marilyn Lunsford, is a Yurok Indian whose family supplements the wild foods it gathers — salmon, lamprey, berries, seaweed and, occasionally, bear — with commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite only receiving 150 pounds of food a month from the commodities program, Lunsford and her husband, Ken, open their home to anyone in need, including folks traveling through Klamath.

“My mom and dad always fed a bunch of kids,” Lunsford told me. “They fed the neighbor kids too, when they came over. That’s just what we learned.”

It’s probably a given to say don’t go into a community, especially one living with intergenerational trauma, with an agenda or a set of fixed assumptions. If I had done that, I wouldn’t have gotten far in my project.

Being honest with your sources is just as important as keeping an open mind. Talk to your sources about your project goals, but don’t make promises you’re not sure you can keep, and don’t presume you have the answers to a community’s problems. Solutions to a neighborhood’s challenges won’t always come from people in positions of power either.

One source, Brigette Norris, who grew up in Klamath, said during a panel discussion on food access that people often come into the community from outside the area claiming to have answers. They either refuse to listen to those who live there or they leave and don’t follow through on promises, she said.

Klamath residents know what they need, and they have ideas on how to get what they need. I only hope I made that apparent to those looking in from the outside.

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