Sammy Gensaw, Kin to the Earth

By Amber Jamieson

Born in the struggle and raised in the resistance, Samuel Gensaw III is a natural born leader who was molded into a community advocate by his many mentors, including members of the Klamath Justice Coalition, Christopher Peters of Seventh Generation Fund and his great grandmother Lena Nicholson. Sammy will never forget the smell of thousands of adult salmon that washed up on the banks of the Klamath River, nor will he forget that the 2002 fish kill was preventable and happened as a result of politics.

Sammy Gensaw in Oregon at an anti-LNG pipeline rally in Southern Oregon. Credit Stormy Staats

Sammy is a traditional Yurok fisherman and his family has subsisted on Klamath River fisheries since time immemorial, so the 2002 fish kill was a huge blow to their food security, way of life, and cultural identity. In his early teens, Sammy became involved in the Klamath Justice Coalition, which was instrumental in protesting the Klamath dams that are now slated for removal. At the age of 15 Sammy and his friends would hold bake sales and fundraisers to travel and speak at dam removal hearings and protests across the country. These efforts contributed to what is now the largest dam removal and river restoration project in world history. 

Once the Klamath dam removal agreement was in place, Sammy, along with a delegation of indigenous youth, went to Brazil and Borneo to share their story and help other indigenous people fight newly proposed dams in the Amazon and Borneo rainforests, bringing hope and strategy to their movements. When he was not being mentored by river activists on the front lines, he would be at the mouth of the Klamath, fishing. As a teen, he was asked to share and teach others about the “old school rules” of being on the river and how to “think right when we fish”. This response to the community’s need for youth activities driven by cultural values and traditional knowledge developed into what has now become the “Ancestral Guard”. Soon, they needed a non-profit, so Sammy became a founding member of Nature Rights Council, a 501(c3) non-profit organization, which now houses the Ancestral Guard as a program. 

Ancestral Guard is the first and longest lasting indigenous youth group in Del Norte County and undertakes almost every challenge that comes along. A long-term vision has been to combat the food desert narrative by improving food security and access to healthy food on the lower Yurok reservation where there are no grocery stores. The circumstances for people who have been living on this land for thousands of years have changed. No longer can they find the same abundance that once graced the land. Sammy has strived to improve access to traditional foods for impressionable youth by not only increasing the opportunities to harvest foods locally but also by protecting ecosystems that make up our local foodsheds.   

Sammy in redwood dugout canoe on Stone Lagoon. Credit Jake Reed of the Ancestral Guard

The natural world continues to change around us. Historically, the brutal colonization of Northern California lands and the unacknowledged genocide of its original people have created long lasting circumstances for modern families who are utilizing traditional harvesting methods. These families have developed systems of interdependence and reciprocity with salmon and other species for thousands of years, but now that their main food sources are on the brink of extinction, they need to adapt. Ancestral Guard is putting efforts into building a small-scale community food garden and mobile commercial kitchen and food processing trailer that can help preserve and supplement the traditional food diet. The organic garden plot is in the lower Yurok reservation, and will be delivering fresh produce baskets to the homes of new mothers and elders by this fall. Sammy calls this project the “Victorious Gardens Initiative,” a plan that was hatched last fall, before “Victory Gardens” were a thing. 

Sammy’s visionary leadership has always attracted the attention of a crowd, and when you hear him speak, your eyes well up with hope and a vision for the future. His speeches will galvanize a community and even bring foes together in solidarity to acknowledge that what is needed is a restorative revolution, because in the end we all depend on the clean water and healthy ecosystems to survive. 

To learn more and support Sammy’s work, visit naturerightscouncil.org.