Salish Bounty Co-curator Elizabeth Swanaset holds clams collected on a Puget Sound beach last summer. The clams were then smoked and preserved for winter use. (Courtesy Warren King George)

Salish Bounty Co-curator Elizabeth Swanaset holds clams collected on a Puget Sound beach last summer. The clams were then smoked and preserved for winter use. (Courtesy Warren King George)

Salish Bounty: Tulalip Tribes Host Traveling Food History Exhibit to Illustrate its Correlation to Indian Health


If the food history of Coast Salish people were arranged as a timeline, past to present, it might look like this:

commodity foods (Jackleen de la Harpe)

The distant past: traditional hunting and gathering;

The last century: reservations, assimilation and commodity foods;

Today: cheap, fast food.

A new exhibit at the Tulalip Tribes’ cultural center looks at food to explain the history of Northwest tribes and to imagine a future that revives the Coast Salish food traditions that support the good health of families and communities.

Salish Bounty: Traditional Native American Foods of Puget Sound opened November 3 at the Tulalip Hibulb Cultural Center in Marysville, Washington. The traveling exhibit, which will run through January 2013, is elegant in its brevity and positive approach to the serious issues of food and health in Indian country—soaring rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Salish Bounty focuses briefly on three periods through the lens of food—traditional tribal hunting and gathering prior to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855; the confinement of Indian people to reservations, assimilation and the lack of access to traditional hunting and gathering places; and a future of blended new and old food traditions.

Historic photographs, maps, media, dried plants and shellfish of the Pacific Northwest tell the rich story of food in the local, indigenous foods. Even in mid-November, raised garden beds, a greenhouse, and organic gardens continue to produce vegetables. The tribe offers gardening classes, and a newsletter “The Greens of the Earth”, as well as other programs that emphasize the positive aspects of growing and cooking food as a pathway to good health. And, in the spring 2013, the Natural History Preserve will open with more than 40 acres of walking trails.

Salish Bounty is part of an international exhibit, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, that demonstrates how the food we eat has changed over time from the perspectives of families around the world. Elizabeth Swanaset, Nooksack/Cowichan/Laq’amel Tribes, and Warren King George, Muckleshoot/Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, co-curated the exhibit in partnership with the Tulalip Tribes and the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Traditional foods including smoked salmon, clams and salal berries (Jackleen de la Harpe)

Swanaset, a traditional foods consultant, said many tribal members, especially young people, have lost their connection to traditional cooking and eating. In her family, she said, meals often included salmon, deer, clams, oysters and nettles—these traditional foods are the basis for the meals and recipes that she creates.

Coast Salish people, said Swanaset, followed the fish, the seasons, the tides, “that was our calendar. When treaties came, we had to stay in one place. We didn’t know how to live like that, we didn’t know how to live with someone giving us a box of food.” Yet, she said, food brought them together, binding community, family and ancestors through tradition and new traditions. Swanaset has created a Facebook page, Salish Sea Traditional Foods, especially for younger tribal members, that explores traditional food—how to smoke chum strips, gather chantrelle mushrooms and can huckleberries.

It’s important to encourage tribal people to update what they eat, said George, “not revert back to pretreaty cooking. Salish households might begin with a traditional dish–but instead of corned beef hash, have kippered salmon hash. Or, instead of beef stew, throw in a few pieces of nettle or camas bulbs, using traditional ingredients,” he said.

A traditional woven clam basket (Jackleen de la Harpe)

The Coast Salish peoples’ lives were deeply tied to the rich and varied food landscape of the Northwest before they were separated from their land base, said Peter Lape, associate director of research, Burke Museum. Tribal elders and archeological work by the Museum have identified more than 280 species of plants and animals that sustained the tribes and bands that lived in the Northwest before Europeans arrived. This region—roughly defined from the Canadian border to lower Puget Sound and from the Pacific Ocean and east to the Cascade Range—produced salmon, many species of clams and oysters, plants and berries. When the 1855 treaty was signed, the land base was reduced to today’s 22,000-acre Tulalip reservation.

Salish Bounty began as part of an archaeology research project at the University of Washington, said Lape. As an archaeologist, he is fascinated by food and the story it tells about place and people, he said, but it is Native people who understand the cultural importance of food. Lape, Swanaset and George worked on the exhibit as a team, tying data to the cultural meaning of family history and the land. “Every meal is enriched by the history of the area. Food is a symbol of people and the landscapes,” he said.

Grilled Venison

Juniper berries give deer meat a sweet and savory taste.

About 2 lbs venison steaks, cut into ¼ to ½ inch strips

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 juniper berries, ground with mortar and pestle or chopped fine

Salt + pepper

Place cut venison in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Add salt, pepper and ground up juniper berries as seasoning. Mix so the spices and olive oil covers the strips, then cover and let sit in the refrigerator for several house. Cook on a grate over the fire or barbeque, flipping when the meat is just done. Serve with blackberry sauce.

Source: Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit, 2010, The Northwest Indian College

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