To know Jamaal Byrd is to know what cultural preservation truly means. He is the son to a strong African American man from South-Central Los Angeles, and a proud Native American woman of the Squaxin Island tribe of Western Washington. He grew up on a reservation near Olympia, later moving to Vancouver where his family still lives. Representing both sides of his family, Jamaal then attended Portland State University where he was a running back for the Vikings, and gained a degree in Native American studies.
As a child, Jamaal grew up watching his aunts and uncles exercising their duty rights out on the water diving for geoduck and commercial fishing. It was something he knew he always wanted to do, from the second he stepped on his uncle’s boat at 11 years old. However, as a teenager, sports are what drove him. On his father’s side of the family, comes a long line of successful football players. His grandfather and great uncle were 2 of the 6 members of the first African American class at the University of Southern California, and played on the 1962 and 1964 National Champion teams. They, as well as a cousin currently playing, went on to the NFL to play for teams like the Raiders, Chargers, Cowboys and Saints, seeing 4 pro-bowls and even the Hall of Fame. With big shoes to fill, Jamaal was not far behind. Being an All-Conference player both sophomore and junior year at PSU, and facing NFL combine opportunities, injury struck in his senior year and ended his sports career dreams. Which, looking back, proved to be a blessing in disguise. He is now happier than ever, paying homage to his tribal ancestors.
After his injury, his aunt convinced him to move back to the reservation and buy a fishing boat. In 2009, Jamaal became the proud owner of a small 21 foot commercial fishing boat, where he started with set netting. After almost 4 years of hard work, he was able to buy a bowpicker and get more serious with his harvesting. At the same time as starting his business, Jamaal went to the Seattle Divers Institute of Technology to get his diving credentials, where he was only the second African American to go through the program since it was created back in the 1940s. While dive school teaches you the basics of diving, it did not offer the training and credentialing needed to dive for and harvest geoduck. Attending Nisqually Aquatic Technologies allowed Jamaal to obtain the specialized credentials for harvesting. With that, he became a master diver, teaching other divers within his tribe. This type of diving is not like donning scuba gear and a tank, it requires surface supplied air using umbilical cords, helmets akin to old navy diving helmets and uses cameras.
In 1995, treaty rights were reinstated for 13 tribes in Washington, gathering in the Puget Sound area. This allowed much of Jamaal’s family and tribe to exercise those rights and begin their own commercial businesses. While competitive, they are all a tight-knit group. It is not a safe industry to be in, and they all just want to make sure everyone comes home safely and is able to support their families. Facing adversity in commercial fishing and diving is something Jamaal kind of expected. What he didn’t expect was that adversity coming from the native side, mainly based off his multicultural looks. But, being in the minority has also been advantageous, in the sense that being the only African American commercial fisherman with his own company in the Northwest, he was contacted by other African American outdoorsmen. One such man, wanted to come out and do a video on him. After the video was posted, it had over 750k views and garnered attention from the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Shaquille O’Neal. But, the messages that meant the most had to have been from inner-city kids being inspired by him and what he was doing.
Few of us can say we are walking in the steps of our ancestors, but this is exactly what Jamaal does, every single day. Not only does he follow their traditions, he and his all native crew also have special customs each and every time they go out on the water. Before going on his boat, The Dreamcatcher, they all smudge to rid themselves of negative energies. For those that may not know, smudging is a Native American custom that has been practiced for centuries. It uses herbs, usually sage, sweetgrass or even cedar, to perform a cleansing by waving the burning smoke of the herbs over a person or an object, ridding it of all negative energies. This can be done using cleansed hands or feathers. Along with smudging, they give an offering on every trip to show respect to their ancestors. No drugs or alcohol are allowed on the on boats. And, always, his first catch is given to an elder. It’s important for him to honor those who came before him. It is rich history that keeps customs alive. In fact, recent archaeological digs have unearthed wood from netting that dates back 950 years to Squaxin Island natives. People almost 1,000 years ago were doing just what he is doing today. But, it goes beyond fishing, Jamaal takes those customs into everything he does in life and how he conducts business. He grew up with his grandmother in the home. She was born on the island and was the last generation to grow up there. She shared many stories of her time there. But, once the government came in, she was taken, put in boarding school, even raped, and didn’t see any of her family for roughly 7 years. It is because of elders like his grandmother that he continues to live as his ancestors did. He tries to honor her in everything that he does.
It is something he loves doing, and considers it an honor to be able to pass it along to his kids. He and his wife now have 3 kids, 2 girls and a new baby boy. Jamaal’s wife is from Guam, where they share a lot of the same customs and tribal ways that he looks forward to sharing with his young children. His oldest, Brooklyn, is now interested in what daddy does, coming to help him size up the crab and deliver them to distributors. Family is everything to him, and he really isn’t sure where he would be if it weren’t for the cultural influences of his mother’s tribe. Probably follow in his father’s footsteps, who has two masters’ degrees, a doctorate and practices law in Vancouver. Though, the way of life is so engrained in him, it is hard to imagine anything else.
In addition to commercial fishing, Jamaal is a bow hunter. He finds it more primitive, and loves tracking animals, spot and stalking elk. When he’s out there, he just imagines what it was like for his ancestors and what they were out there doing on the same land. His oldest daughter is even into competitive archery. He recognizes how valuable it can be, feeding your family through cultural teachings. We as a people tend to be so detached from our pasts and how life used to be, in how we treat each other and provide for our family. His cousins in Los Angeles are always so blown away that treaty rights and native customs still exist. Those that are not exposed to it, like us in the Pacific Northwest, sometimes don’t even realize that people still live like they old ways. It’s important to carry these customs on, for generations to come. And, Creator willing, Jamaal will do what he can to continue his way of life.
We, at Black American Outdoorsman, were lucky enough to have Mr. Byrd stumble across our page one day. He was drawn to it after seeing a post by Colin Whittle, exposing the African American outdoorsman community to the rest of the world. Before joining, he reached out to Colin and told him his story. It was definitely a good fit, and the relationship began, making Jamaal Pro-Staff from the start. When he joined, the community had less than 1,000 members and he wasn’t sure where it would go. He says it is inspiring to see the work that has gone into it. He feels honored to be a part of the mission, and sees great things for BAO in the years to come. We see great things for Jamaal as well!
Finally, as if his journey has not been inspiring enough, when I asked for some words of wisdom for the next generation, Jamaal said this: “Respect yourself. Be humble. Stay grounded. Ask questions. Be open to listening and to constructive criticism. Live your truth and do the things you love.”
I don’t think there could be a better way to end the interview than with those words.
“Live your truth and do the things you love.”