Genetic Ordinance Protects Yurok Tribe’s Natural Resources


Food policies have a tremendous impact on how food is produced, processed and distributed in Native communities. Often, these policies are determined at the federal and state levels. Today, more and more tribes are exercising their sovereign rights and establishing tribal food policies to meet the specific needs of their communities.

Tribal food policies empower tribes to protect their food, land and natural resources from federal and state systems that attempt to claim jurisdiction over these assets. These policies are powerful tools that enable tribes to control, manage and regulate their food systems.

Yurok LogoIn 2015, the Yurok Tribe in California, the largest tribe in the state, established the Yurok Tribe Genetically Engineered Ordinance (GEO) as part of its tribal food policy. This first-of-its-kind tribal ordinance prohibits the growth of genetically modified crops and the release of genetically engineered salmon within the tribe’s territory.

The Yurok Tribe serves as an important model to other tribes interested in developing their own food policies, ordinances and practices. This is the tribe’s story:

The Yurok remain one of the few tribes that have maintained its presence in its ancestral homelands in California. This presence is a great feat as California Indian history epitomizes the cruelties of American settlement in Indian territories. The Yurok Reservation is located approximately five hours north of San Francisco along iconic Highway 101. This scenic drive parallels the Klamath River and consists of old-growth redwood trees (some 1,000 to 2,000 or more years old), breathtaking coastal views, and fresh inland waters that are home to both the Yurok people and one of the most iconic fish in the world: the Pacific Salmon.

20160419_161844The Yurok people and the Pacific Salmon model an existence that resembles the fury of the Klamath River itself. Every year, the salmon return to the river, their natural breeding grounds, despite the increasing environmental odds that threaten their demise. Along this river, a new battle was brewing. Over the last few decades, the Yurok have tirelessly fought for the survival of the salmon, advocating for dam removal on the mighty Klamath River to feed other rivers. The tribe’s – and others’ – efforts were successful in advocating dam removal. The dams on the Klamath are slated for removal by 2020. (See

On December 10, 2015, the Yurok Tribe passed tribal legislation banning genetically engineered (GE) salmon and plants, essentially making it the first tribal food and agricultural code in the country. Stephanie Dolan, one of the primary authors of the Yurok Tribe GEO, says: “The main goals in creating this code are to prohibit GE salmon from crossing into Yurok county, prohibit GE crops from being planted, grown or harvested in Yurok Country, create an advisory committee to look at reducing pesticide use on the reservation (which impacts all of the plants, animals and health of the Yurok people) and to encourage other tribal communities to exercise their jurisdiction.” Cheyenne Sanders from the Yurok Tribe Office of Tribal Attorney also assisted in drafting the GEO.

This code has been inspired, in part, by other food policy movements across the country at both the local and state levels. However, it is important to note that tribal communities maintain a unique government-to-government relationship with the United States that recognizes the need and responsibility of tribal nations to govern their own territories, communities and people that lends force to this type of legislation. It is important for tribes to be proactive in defining their jurisdiction over precious resources such as food and land so that they continue to pass these resources down to future generations.

20160419_161838Abby Abinanti, the Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribal Court – and the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California in 1974 – is responsible for enforcing this code in Yurok Territory. Abinanti firmly maintains: “It is only natural that the Yurok Tribal Court can enforce the Yurok ordinance. The Yurok Tribal Court is meant to serve the people, and salmon has always been a part of that.” Abinanti’s courtroom is based on the tenants of traditional Yurok justice and seeks to enforce Yurok community standards. Abinanti and the Yurok have made it clear they will protect the Yurok lifestyle and the traditional salmon that are central to it.

The Yurok are trailblazers for asserting these sovereign powers. They have made history in several important Indian law cases such as U.S. v. Kagama; Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association; Jessie Short vs. U.S.; and the unforgettable fish wars when tribal fisherman occupied the mouth of the Klamath River to assert their right to fish for salmon. In many respects, the passage of the GE salmon ban in Yurok territory is an extension of occupation that occurred in Yurok Territory more than 40 years ago.

20160419_090659Today, the Yurok Tribe continues to assist other California tribes – including the Karuk Tribe, Tolowa-Dee-ni’ Nation, Hoopa Valley Tribe and Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria – in their efforts to pass similar tribal food policies and ordinances in their communities. These five tribes are a part of the Northern California Tribal Court Coalition (NCTCC), a group of tribal courts that encourage other tribes to take steps to enact similar laws to protect their lands and peoples.

To see more information about NCTCC’s other Rights of Mother Earth initiatives, including the recent Tribal Food Sovereignty Gathering, visit the website at

The Yurok Tribe is advocating for dam removal so that salmon can reach more than 250 miles of historic spawning habitat, among other reasons. Additionally, removing the dams will alleviate major water-quality issues, including unnaturally high water temperatures, massive toxic algal blooms and high populations of deadly fish parasites.

(Note: A designed/printable version of this story can be downloaded for free from the First Nations Knowledge Center at this link:

By A-dae Romero-Briones, First Nations Associate Director of Research & Policy, Native Agriculture

Edited by Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Consultant

A-dae Romero: A Happy Success Story for Native Agriculture

A-dae at home in Lanai, Hawaii

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is always happy and proud when our grantees and the various projects we have supported achieve good success and begin to make positive ripples in Indian Country. We’re happy and proud a lot because we have many of these stories, but one of the recent ones is about our good friend A-dae Romero.

A-dae first flew onto First Nations’ radar in 2011 when we provided her with a USDA Community Food Projects travel scholarship to attend our L.E.A.D. Conference. At the time, A-dae was thinking of starting a nonprofit organization related to food.

That thought soon became reality with a new organization called Cochiti Youth Experience, Inc. at Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. (A-dae was born and raised in Cochiti Pueblo. She is Cochiti and Kiowa.) She co-founded this nonprofit so it could create positive opportunities for Cochiti’s young people, and it has a special focus on strengthening Pueblo agriculture as an economic, political and social anchor for the community. First Nations provided a grant to assist Cochiti Youth Experience in 2012 under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, then another grant in 2013 under our Native Youth and Culture Fund.

Since then, A-dae has continued to accomplish good things, both personally and professionally. She recently received important honors and achieved major milestones that recognize her growing impact, especially in Native American agriculture.

A-Dae (front and center in gray suit) at The White House for the "Champions of Change" honors.

In July 2014, The White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture honored A-dae as one of 15 local “Champions of Change” leaders from across the country “who are doing extraordinary things to build the bench for the next generation of farming and ranching. These champions are leading in their industries and communities, inspiring others who want to find careers and a life on the land, and providing food, fiber, fuel, and flora around the world.”

Then, she was recently named a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, a very prestigious academic accomplishment. She will use it to study the Maori people of New Zealand. Then Agri-Pulse, a national agricultural news source, included her as one of the most influential rural agricultural advocates in its “50 Under 50” report.

Further, A-dae recently completed her LL.M. (master of law) degree in agricultural and food law through the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. A-dae was the initiative’s first student to complete this multi-disciplinary research, service and educational opportunity, and the initiative itself is the first of its kind nationally. This advanced law degree comes on top of her J.D. (juris doctorate) degree from Arizona State University’s College of Law, and her degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (her focus was on public policy and economic policy).

A-dae now acts as a consultant with First Nations Development Institute on several of our Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative efforts, plus she walks in two worlds by farming with her family in New Mexico – raising blue corn and varieties of Pueblo corn – and farming with her husband’s family in Hawaii, growing taro. She also serves on the board of Native American Farmers and Ranchers through New Mexico Community Capital, and on the board of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA). And, she was just named a legal researcher for the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), in partnership with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), for the new Global Network on Legal Preparedness for Achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

After earning her LL.M. degree, First Nations honored A-dae at our offices in Colorado. Left to right are Jackie Francke and Marsha Whiting of First Nations, A-dae, and Sarah Hernandez and Raymond Foxworth of First Nations.

It’s no wonder A-dae is becoming a leader in Native agriculture. According to the Agri-Pulse article, her grandfather was a leader among his people. When construction of the Cochiti Dam flooded agricultural land used by their tribe, A-dae was just a child. Yet she remembers playing nearby as her grandfather and other leaders discussed the loss of the land for farming, which was vital to the pueblo’s livelihood.

A-dae said it was “very intimate and powerful time” in her life, as the community, dependent on agriculture, struggled with the question of who they would be without farming. As she began to develop an interest in a profession that could help her to be a voice of her culture, she found a mentor who encouraged her to pursue her dreams of law school. Since then she has found a fertile and fruitful field of endeavor at the intersection of law and agriculture.

“After all,” she said in the Agri-Pulse interview, “farming is about getting our hands dirty, and there is a simple kind of happiness in that.”

By Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer