Many years ago, members of Pacific Northwest tribes subsisted on a wide diversity of foods from the sea and land. More than 300 fish, shellfish, greens and berries graced their seasonal menus and shaped their cultural lifeways.
“The foods that were eaten here were a huge pillar of our culture,” says Valerie Segrest, a Muckleshoot tribal member and a Native nutrition educator at Northwest Indian College. “They’d follow the huckleberries. Twenty varieties grew from the seashore to the higher elevations; they would follow them as they ripened.”
Today, such a life has become virtually impossible. “First of all,” Segrest notes, “there was a loss of land and a loss of rights. There is the issue of environment toxins now, the cultural oppression around harvesting food, invasive species that have come into our environment and changed it. There’s a lack of time. Now in our modern world people have jobs. You have to have vacation time to go out and harvest. Areas for harvesting mussels are located on an island. You have to have money to put gas in your vehicle to get to the ferry, and pay for the ferry.”
As a result, Pacific Northwest tribes got disconnected from their traditional food sources. They came to rely on processed foods, some of which are provided through the dominant federal assistance programs and others that are front and center at grocery stores. Like many tribes across the country, the Muckleshoot and other tribes have begun to see epidemics of diabetes and heart disease.
But Segrest is doing her best to reverse that. Today, she heads up the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, which aims to reintroduce traditional foods into the diets of tribal members. The two-year project is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supported by Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Plants and Foods Program.
Before the project actually got under way, the Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Tulalip tribes, along with the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, laid the groundwork by investigating plants used by the tribes before European contact. They built a database of such foods, so people wishing to incorporate the traditional foods into their diets have a solid place to start.
Segrest’s program now offers a Native foods course at the college as well as community seminars centered on specific foods, such as deer, berries or salmon. The project has also yielded a Native berry garden at the college, an orchard at the Muckleshoot Tribal School and a widening “cultural landscape” including native plants at the new senior center.
Segrest’s efforts resulted from a combination of academic training, starting with her undergraduate years in the nutrition program at Bastyr University near Seattle, and her cultural education, whereby her elders taught her how to work with people and empower community health programs. She acknowledges her accomplishments are the result of standing on the shoulders “of many giants,” and she points out that her program is one of countless traditional foods movements that are springing up across tribal lands in the Pacific Northwest.
“There are so many things that are happening right now,” she says, “lots of food-restoration programs. There are community gardens coming up, community food banks that people are starting to organize. The Muckleshoot tribe is doing a lot of work around this, but so are the Tulalip, Suquamish and Makah. People are creating partnerships with local farms. There are agricultural harvest boxes being distributed to tribal members.”
One of the most problematic challenges is trying to incorporate traditional foods into modern lifestyles—or replacing some foods, like the camas root—that were once essential but are now difficult to find. Elk burgers, for example, have become a popular modern spin on traditional game. Segrest greets nearly every morning with a huckleberry smoothie. And many tribal members are perfecting recipes for kelp pickles, rosehip jam, nettle pesto and camas nettle soups.
Clearly, Segrest has found herself caught up in a powerful movement. But what has spurred it? Segrest’s best guess is a simple one.
“We’re sick of being sick,” she says. “We’re sick of heart disease and diabetes. We know that diabetes was nonexistent in our communities 100 years ago, because we ate these foods. I think it’s just this consciousness that people are becoming more and more passionate about.”