Who has not tasted the salt in a drop of their blood?
That salinity whispers of our ancient link to the ocean,
mother of all life of Earth...
M. Whitfield
The great power of the Pacific has infused the life of California’s coastal tribes since the beginning of thought and memory. Out here on the western edge of the land, ‘oolok unu (“Ocean Mother” in Coast Miwok) is the big boss. As children, we were taught how to behave around her. Pay attention with your eyes and your ears. Don’t turn your back on her. Don’t horse around too much; don’t be loud. Stay aware and alert. It is a way of respect that is very much like that paid to elders.

The ocean influence is evident in diverse aspects of tribal life, secular and sacred. Up here along the Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino county coastlines, stories from when the earth was young introduce us to ocean species that are central to our being and understanding of the world and our sustenance. Our water here is cold and the ocean diet is astoundingly varied, providing low-fat protein, minerals, and vitamins. Although commercial overfishing and poaching has significantly depleted once-thriving fish stocks, we are still able to enjoy large and small fin fish, shellfish, sea greens, and salt. Our tribal cousins to the north, all the way up to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.) and Alaska, share culinary kinship to us through these species. The salt, and also the beautiful shells from this area continue to be valuable in a continuing trade economy.

Jacquelyn Ross

Traditional subsistence fishing and gathering along the shore employ a variety of skills and sustainable techniques that demand physical endurance, nimbleness, persistence, and common sense.  Marine food procurement creates an intimacy with the ocean that permits close understanding down to the individual inlets and tidepools. With a coastline that can include sand beaches, reefs, and rocky shores within the space of just a couple of miles, certain marine species have places they prefer. One has to learn their preferences, habits, and life cycles to put food on the table. Every successful long-term fisherman and food gatherer along the coast becomes a de facto marine biologist.

The ocean mother offers us comfort and healing. Some of my most joyful family memories come from early mornings of fishing together, and then sharing a meal around a fire on the beach. When the world of modern work depletes me, a trip to the ocean is essential. Looking out on the great blue horizon and realizing how small this human life is helps me to put things in perspective. The sound of the waves, the delicious air, the cool wind, and the touch of the water restore me like nothing else. I like to think that this relationship is shared by all who have been gifted with an ocean life.

Carolyn Kualii