The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens,(New Society Publishers) teaches us that the food and farm movement is about more than buying local and protecting our soil. It is about preserving community, digging deeply into the places we’ve overlooked, and celebrating those who have come before us. Valerie Segrest is campaigning to reignite a passion for traditional food and medicine. Using her knowledge as a nutritionist and traditional experience Valerie lays out a path for us to reconnect physically and spiritually with our food.
While food and plants seem to be able to touch us deeply and build connections across generations, I know of a young food activist and Native foods educator who would say that they also serve as our teachers, passed down from generation to generation. I steer Lucille north to Washington state to learn from this young community leader who is sharing what wild foods, along with her elders, are teaching her.
Driving through the Puget Sound area of Washington state, I am struck by the wild beauty of the region. Cedar trees and mountains give way to the coastline of the Sound and its many interconnected lakes, rivers and inlets leading out to the Pacific Ocean. The Puget Sound is a part of the Salish Sea that extends up to British Columbia, Canada, and is named after the Indigenous family of Salish and Coast Salish, or Co Salish, peoples who have inhabited the Puget Sound area for thousands of years. Over 65 different tribes comprise the Salish peoples today. I can’t help but think about how the beautiful landscape I am driving through has supported the diverse food system that’s sustained them for centuries.
I head toward one such tribe on the Muckleshoot Reservation south of Seattle, home to the federally recognized Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, who are descendants of the Upper Puyallup and Duwamish people, or Dkh’Duw’Absh meaning “the people of the inside” in the Salish language of Lushootseed. I am on my way to meet with 31-year-old Valerie Segrest who is a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe, a community nutritionist and a Native foods educator who founded the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project in 2009. She welcomes me into her home on Muckleshoot land in Auburn for a quick interview while her 12-week old daughter sleeps soundly in the front room. We speak softly about Valerie’s upcoming birthday when she plans to take friends and family up the mountain to harvest huckleberries as she does annually.
“Huckleberries are in season now,” Valerie starts, “and every year on my birthday I get a group of people together to go up there and pick. I tell them this is your birthday present to me, pick a gallon of berries,” she laughs, “and in that way, birthdays are awesome. Huckleberries are incredibly high in antioxidants, so they’re incredible anti-agers. We hear stories like that of my auntie who lived to be over 100 years old with a diet of berries and fish; berries are long-life givers. They’re high in fiber and vitamin C, and they do not raise the blood sugar; they actually help balance blood sugar. So they’re anti-diabetic in a way, and diabetes is such an epidemic in our community.”
Though the Muckleshoot don’t have a public health department doing research on the impact of diabetes and other illnesses in the community, Valerie has no doubt that the entirety of enrolled members (which is documented as 1,600, but she guesses is closer to 2,500) is affected by diabetes.
“Anybody you meet is impacted either personally or in their family,” Valerie explains.
“When I go to the school and ask the kids to raise their hand if they have a relative that has diabetes, every one of them raises their hand. Also cancer, it seems like everybody has cancer these days. It’s getting to the point of asking, ‘when are we going to announce that this is an epidemic?’ because it’s happening everywhere. In the last year I’ve lost three of my really great teachers to cancer, and two out of those three also had diabetes for a very long time and had even lost fingers from it. Diabetes is here and it’s rampant.”
Valerie decided to study nutrition with a focus on the traditional foods and medicine of her ancestors as the answer to tribal health. She has worked as a community nutritionist since graduating with her bachelor’s degree in the field, giving workshops and talks within the community and also working for the K-9 tribal school designing the nutrition program and trying to put more traditional foods on the school’s menu. Valerie also started a research project to find out what the barriers were to accessing traditional foods in the community. Part of that research involved talking with tribal communities throughout the Puget Sound about all of the barriers and possible solutions to Native food access. This work sparked the creation of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, which addresses barriers such as a loss of rights, a loss of land, environmental toxins and a lack of education within the community.
“Some of that cultural knowledge about our traditional foods hasn’t been transmitted to all families,” Valerie explains. “Certain families still carry it, and people certainly do practice their traditional food culture, but not everybody has equality and access to that education in the community.
So we try to create spaces for that to happen, and we identify spaces in the community where food can be grown and harvested. We’ve planted several community gardens and held workshops and events, like just yesterday where we were honoring cooks in the community to make sure people feel like their work is important. It’s important to honor the skills and knowledge we carry; it’s a wealth in our community.”
Valerie also teaches nutrition at the college level at Northwest Indian College, where she teaches courses like “Honoring Northwest Native Food Traditions” and others that focus on traditional plant use and traditional medicines and foods. She feels the message from the traditional food movement in tribal communities is not that different from the messages we’re hearing from the good food movement. “There are some traditional food principles,”
Valerie says, “that emerged from the research project I did with my research partner, Elise Krohn, where we were going around and interviewing elders and community members from tribes throughout the Puget Sound. And these common themes kept coming up, which are as applicable today as they were generations ago. Firstly, traditional food is at the center of our culture. Since people traditionally harvested, processed, prepared and shared meals together, this unity is an integral part of our cultural identity. Eating food helps feed the desire for wholeness within us, and it can be amplified when the entire family participates in a meal together. Our ancestors also understood that food is precious, a gift from nature, so we should make sure that we’re eating foods that honor the food web or the food chain and work with our food in such a way that we’re honoring that web. We should also cook and eat traditional foods with good intention. Finally, traditional foods are whole foods — they are seasonal and they are local.
“Our food culture is so place-based and so season-based, like right now the huckleberries are out, and that’s all anybody talks about. And there are 20 different varieties of huckleberry that grow here in the Northwest; they are a food that we would traditionally follow as the different varieties ripened. So it’s a huge cultural keystone food for us. Also, our hunting season just opened up, so it’s time to go get your elk and store that meat away for the year. My partner, that’s his work, so he’s now busy getting stuff ready for hunting. It really is a community-based food system. It’s just coming from such a humble community that I don’t think people see it as anything else but just what they do — maybe I romanticize things, but I think it’s very valuable what people do around traditional food.
“My teachers really taught me to look at that, and one teacher who really put into motion the work that I do today is someone who I think started the traditional food movement in the Northwest, though our ancestors really have been doing this for a long time. Bruce Miller or Subiyay which is his Native name, passed on in 2005 but is a Skokomish elder who was such a revolutionary man. He’s the person who was so bold about sharing his knowledge in a time when people were feeling very disturbed about sharing their knowledge because you don’t know what people are going to do with it. But he was so charged with this drive that we don’t have time, we don’t have time to pick and choose who we’re going to share this with, it’s out there and it’s real. He watched whole populations of food plants that he and his family would harvest disappear. He felt really inspired to act on it and for that I’m really grateful.
“So I was inspired to pick up that work and create cultural continuity. Even that phrase ‘cultural continuity’ comes from another one of my teachers, Hank Gobin, a Tulalip elder who would say things to me like, ‘How are you going to contribute to cultural continuity?’ Or ‘I know you’re a nutritionist and really excited, but nowadays our traditional harvesting grounds are Albertson’s and Safeway, so how are you going to help people go through the grocery store with their ancestors by their side?’ That to me is a really great teacher. What a wonderful question to ask somebody. “And then there’s Roger Fernandes, who is an artist and a storyteller. He’s Lower Elwha, from out on the peninsula, and he grew up in Seattle his whole life.
He always presses me to remember the story behind my teachings. He pushes me to look at the lessons that are coming from that story and revisit them over and over again because the power of storytelling, he says, is how we learn. Stories teach us how to behave in the world. All of our traditional foods carry a story. Nettles, salmon, huckleberries. You just sort of get connected in a different way when there’s a story being told.
“I don’t know where I would be without the advice, strength and even spiritual support from my elders, my teachers. It’s medicine for us of this generation, but it’s also medicine for them. They are able to share their stories and pass on that knowledge and cultural continuity. They can feel like they are leaving the future of our people, our culture and the rights we have to sustain ourselves in good hands. As our ancestors did before them. Like with our traditional foods, continuing to pass on that knowledge is how we are able to maintain our food culture and our access to these foods in particular. That’s the way I interpret food sovereignty.
“Though the food sovereignty movement is getting bigger and is providing a sort of space for people to talk about a different food system and do community gardening and all of that important and wonderful work, there’s also an ancient system that has been here a long time and fed people a long time, and we have to remember that system. For tribes at least, food sovereignty carries a different weight. Every time I go and harvest, I’m expressing sovereignty, and to think about it in that way is really important; it’s what our ancestors traded land for.
“That was the number one priority of our ancestors when they signed the treaties here in 1859, to ensure we always have access to our foods. And it’s a treaty right to access these foods, but it’s also our responsibility to take care of them and to make sure that there is enough for generations to come, as they did for us. I think it’s a key piece to our community health, because it’s a direct message from our ancestors saying, ‘we know that these foods have sustained us for a very long time. They’ve maintained our health and they’re going to sustain the health of the future as well.’ So when we’re looking at the barriers to accessing our foods and sustaining our health; it’s a heavy responsibility we carry to remove them.
“Take our salmon issues, for example. We know Coast Salish people have been fishing and eating salmon for 10,000 years, and we’re the generation that may watch the last fish come up the river. Salmon is over-fished, and there are barriers in natural restoration of the wild salmon population.
There are literal barriers blocking the fish from coming back up river to spawn, with work going on up river around dams or development or just European land management styles. Then, some of our fish are just dying; the temperatures of the waters are so high with climate change that they’re being cooked on the way home. And the rivers, like the Duwamish River, which is part of Muckleshoot fishing grounds, is so heavily polluted that it’s been deemed by the EPA a Superfund site, meaning a top priority for cleanup due to a century of heavy industrial use that’s left the waterway contaminated with toxic chemicals.
“There’s also issues with our food on land due to environmental toxins and huge development. Food sources such as camas prairies were so abundant here in the Northwest, they could be what we call nowadays a community garden. It was a place where several families would gather and dig camas bulbs [the bulbs of this perennial flower were traditionally roasted or boiled and taste similar to sweet potatoes] every year and camas was, next to salmon, one of the most traded items in the Northwest at one point. The prairies were so abundant that you could walk through the prairies from Canada all the way into northern California, and now we have less than three percent of them intact. So development has been a huge barrier, but also there are barriers in how to manage the remaining prairies and also how to manage our huckleberry meadows. Traditionally, we would use burning methods to manage our berry meadows; now we have Smokey the Bear who tells us that fires are terrible. So our huckleberries and our camas fields haven’t been burned in a very long time, and they need to be managed and continually harvested to continue growing.
“But we live in a time where our natural resources department in the state of Washington is looking at our natural resources as cultural resources now, which is great. They’ve made some compromises on burning issues, not quite what we’d like to see, but it’s a start, and we’re talking about how to clean up the rivers and be good partners and stewards. So I think we’re in a really important time where both sides are listening to each other and saying we need to do something. And we’re getting better at hearing each other and working with people where they’re at. We also have this spirit of the land and the water and the food telling us that we don’t have much time and we have to take better care of them.”
Our country’s early reaction to this realization that we need to take better care of nature was the conservation movement of the 19th century; national parks were created and the beauty of our wild lands preserved. But, while Valerie is a fan of conservationist literature like that of Walden and Thoreau, she feels it misconstrues the role of man in nature.
“While I’m still in love with and respect literature’s take on nature,” Valerie comments, “they have this message that whenever man steps into nature we wreck everything around us. But that’s the exact opposite of our view here in tribal communities. We are about finding a balance with nature where you’re working together and not having dominion over that space. Even as foragers, we use harvesting techniques that make it look like we’ve never even been there while also actually benefiting the plant. Most of our foods are perennials, so we use harvesting techniques that increase the growth. For some of the berries, for example, if you don’t harvest them, they produce less and less every year. And if you do harvest them, they produce more. It’s a relationship we’re a part of.
“I understand the need to protect — we have our own conservation we’re a part of, protecting our traditional harvesting grounds. We have certain areas where we harvest that we can’t bring a non-tribal member to. People are hesitant to share their spaces because one day you go out to visit your medicine patch and it’s been dug up with a backhoe. So I get it, but conserving nature from man entirely is not the way.”
Humans and nature working symbiotically is an Indigenous philosophy we can all learn from. The Muckleshoot Tribe once based their entire economic, social and food systems on that symbiotic relationship. Systems which were structured around generosity and sustainability instead of greed and power.
“Here in the Northwest,” Valerie explains, “our food system was our economic and social system, so certain families would carry certain foods. You may have been a family of saltwater fishermen or a family of huckleberry harvesters, or your family may have maintained a certain part of the camas prairie, and that was really important to our social structure because in our tradition your wealth was judged by your generosity. We had gatherings called the potlatch where people would gift their guests with beautiful, lavish gifts.
Sometimes you would just give away everything that you owned, that was an indicator of how wealthy you were. Your wealth was also indicated by the way you would set the table. So when it was nettle season, my family would go to the patch and harvest, and then we would set the table and invite the community in to come sing blessing songs to that food and to enjoy it with us, and it was sort of an announcement to say, ‘this food is now in season, we’re opening up our space to you and we’re feeding you and look at how much we have to offer.’ If you took really good care of your patch and you prayed for it and fertilized it well, then you’d be able to set the table pretty well, so it was this sort of idea of generosity and abundance. ”
Today’s potlucks, where guests bring dishes to a party, got their name from the potlatch; however, in many tribes a potlatch was not just a party, but an entire type of economic system. The main purpose of the potlatch was the regional redistribution and reciprocity of wealth through gift giving. The word itself can be translated as “a gift” or something that is given away to others. Families hosting the potlatch would sometimes invest a year in planning the event and put a lot of effort into making or buying gifts for each guest.
Many potlatches in the Puget Sound, where all the tribes of the Northwest would gather to trade, would be held in preparation for trading. They were events that were key in building allies across tribes and relationships among prominent tribal members. Potlatches continued until banned in the late 19th century by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Both governments claimed that the custom was destructive and unnecessary. In 1934 and 1951, the U.S. and Canada respectively repealed the law, and potlatches could once again be legally held.
“Nowadays people still have them,” Valerie continues. “We obviously are dealing with the effects of a superimposed diet and a total change in culture, but not total because we still carry those things with us. If there’s a certain function or funeral happening, certain families will be bringing fish or they’ll be bringing the huckleberry pie, so there’s still that tie to which family works with which food. And we’re seeing more and more people participating in that system as we offer more trainings through the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project. My family now harvests nettle every year and stores it away for anyone who may need it. I am a big advocate of stinging nettle and consider that plant to be my very first plant teacher.
“Nettle is an incredible food source. Just one cup of cooked nettles is all you need for your calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphate — all the things our body uses to build blood and to detoxify the liver. So it’s a really incredible food, and it comes out in spring time, when we need our bodies to build strength and detoxify after winter to get prepared for the year to come, so it’s got this really cool seasonal rhythm to it. And I can’t think of a more useful plant. You can eat the leaves in the springtime; in the summertime you can harvest the leaves for tea; and right around now [start of autumn] the stalks get up to ten feet tall sometimes, and you can harvest those. The stalks were traditionally used as cordage for fishnet. It’s one of the strongest fibers in the world. Nettles [like net] were used for fishing nets and sometimes armies would use nettle fiber for uniform material. I’ve seen them bring schools of herring out of the water with it. This food source has many different functions.
“I have certain nettle patches I visit, not just when it’s harvesting time, but just to go and be with them. You see, my elders taught me that plants and foods are our greatest teachers. And that they’re waiting right outside the door for us. In that way, they are much more than a commodity or food source, they inform us about how to live in the world in a very metaphorical way. When you’re looking at how nettle is so strong or how huckleberries feed more than just us, they feed the elk and other animals, or how the salmon people return to the rivers every year, it causes us to look at what that means and how we can live our lives like the salmon people and the plant people do. How do we grow and thrive in diversity and be big medicine in the world?”
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Reprinted with permission from The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.