Before European colonization, the Puget Sound region was one of the most densely populated and richest food places on the planet. Stories passed down through the generations tell us that many types of berries, roots, bulbs, nuts, and seeds were all an important part of a Northwest Coastal Indian diet. These nutritious and diverse foods contributed to the excellent health and rich cultural traditions of Northwest Coastal Indian ancestors.
Archaeological studies confirm oral tradition. In order to prevent diabetes and other chronic diseases that affect many American Indians today, a team of researchers from the Burke Museum partnered with the Muckleshoot, Suquamish, and Tulalip Tribes, and King County to assess what foods were eaten by native people before European contact. What they found was remarkable. Over 300 types of food remains were identified. This number does not accurately represent plant foods, which deteriorate much more quickly than animal bones. To link to the archeological study and database click here
Another thing the archaeological study confirmed is that Northwest Coastal Indian ancestors traveled to different areas to harvest foods that were seasonally abundant. For example, they might have traveled to the prairies in spring to harvest bulbs like camas, to the rivers in the summer to harvest eulachon, and to the mountains in late summer to harvest huckleberries. They hunted, fished, and gathered when the food was most abundant and also at its peak in nutritive quality.
Native people actively managed the land before Europeans arrived. Special techniques, including burning, weeding, aerating the soil, and pruning, were used to increase the bounty of wild foods. This was beneficial for many species. Without these techniques, some important plants may well have disappeared from the Northwest long ago.
Strict food protocols were followed for harvesting, preparing, serving, and eating foods. These protocols protected natural resources and insured continued abundance. First Food Ceremonies celebrated peoples’ relationships with food and the land through song and story, reaffirming a connection with the land, the plants, the animals, and the water. The spirit of each food was honored. Many of these traditions continue today.
Many Northwest Coastal Indian elders fondly remember how their happiest times were ones where they gathered traditional foods with their friends and family. These were unifying moments, when people worked together over a common goal. Stories and laughter were shared while hands processed fish, berries, and nuts. As Cowlitz elder, Rudolph Ryser, PhD, from the Center for World Indigenous Studies says, “The kitchen table was a place where cultural knowledge was passed from one generation to the next.”
In just a few generations, Northwest Coastal Indian peoples’ ability to eat native foods has declined. During European colonization, communities were moved from their homeland onto small reservations. Some land management practices were made illegal and were replaced with European style farming where land is cleared and plowed. Children were sent to boarding schools in an attempt to strip them of their culture. They were given European names and prohibited from speaking their language. Practicing many cultural traditions, including food traditions, became illegal. This legacy of trauma can take generations to heal.
Northwest Coastal Indian peoples’ health has also suffered from a loss of native foods, which are full of complex nutrients including vitamins, minerals, good quality fats, and antioxidants. During colonization, these foods were replaced with commodity foods that are high in carbohydrates, sugar, and poor quality fats. As people became more sedentary and adopted new European-style foods, diabetes began to appear. Diabetes was virtually non-existent among Northwest Coastal Indian people about 125 years ago and now it is at epidemic levels. Studies also link trauma from colonization directly to diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Access to native foods has steadily declined since treaty times. Environmental toxins in wild foods prohibit people from hunting, fishing, and gathering in some areas. Elders from many communities grieve that they can no longer harvest and prepare the foods they grew up eating. The implications of this are vast. As the availability of these foods decreases, the stories, songs, and language connected to them fall silent. Invaluable aspects of the culture are lost. A way of perceiving life, nature, and healthy, native foods disappears.
In the face of these great obstacles, it is incredible that Northwest Coastal people have held on to their food traditions. And yet they have. The current resurgence of cultural traditions is nothing short of a renaissance. Elders are gathering to remember and teach. Families and communities are restoring harvest areas and are picking up the digging stick and the basket. Gardens are being planted. Land partnerships and food policy initiatives are developing. Native foods are being embraced as a powerful tool to fight modern chronic diseases, including diabetes. They are reconnecting people to the seasons and the land, which is beautifully woven into Northwest Coastal Indian culture.
The Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Project
From Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest
In 2008-2010, our Northwest Indian College Cooperative Extension Department conducted a community-based participatory research project to increase native food access and usage. We worked with tribal elders, cooks, healthcare workers, cultural specialists, archeologists, and others to address this question: How do we utilize research about traditional foods of Puget Sound Indians to create a healthier diet and lifestyle for Indian people today?
Part 1 – Create a modern native foods diet: Through reviewing archeological records and ethnographic accounts, along with interviewing elders and cultural specialists, we identified native foods that are still readily available and palatable. We also included some locally grown foods that are nutritionally similar to native foods. For example, blueberries can be eaten if huckleberries are not accessible.
Part 2 – Organize Community Roundtable Discussions: We brought together over 90 people from tribal communities in the Puget Sound region to ask what native foods people are still harvesting, what the barriers are to harvesting those foods, and potential ways to overcome those barriers.
Many participants shared stories about fishing, gathering clams and oysters on the beach, and berry picking. While some tribes have a large land base to harvest native foods, others like Snoqualmie and Cowlitz do not have a land base and rely on forming partnerships with public and private landholders. This can be a real challenge. Several urban Indians who live in cities like Seattle have limited access to native foods, and they said that this impacts their sense of cultural connection.
Some of the most important barriers that participants shared include toxins in the environment, a loss of traditional harvesting grounds, cultural oppression, land regulations that prohibit gathering of native foods, environmental changes including non-native species and land management practices, and economic challenges.
Participants shared many exciting ideas and talked about current projects aimed at revitalizing native food systems. Some of these included community and family gardens, environmental restoration projects that promote native foods, community food banks, land partnerships with federal, state, local and private land holders, partnerships with local food producers and distributors, educational programs, and food policy initiatives.
Part 3 – Tribal Cooks Camp: Twenty cooks from eight different tribal communities came together for three days of “recipe brainstorming.” Each cook shared knowledge about foods that he or she specializes in. This was a high point in our culinary experiences, as we prepared and sampled delicious recipes including camas nettle soup, spinach and wild rice salad, seafood chowder, clam fritters, roasted venison with wild blackberry sauce, salmon baked in skunk cabbage, hazelnut cakes with thimbleberry sauce, wild berry crisp, and many other delectable dishes.
Part 4 – Process and Share Outcomes: As we talked with cooks, elders, and traditional foods specialists about what a modern traditional foods diet might look like, a revitalized way of thinking about food emerged. As elders discussed their cultural beliefs around food, we noticed that many Indian people hold common values that are as applicable today as they were generations ago. We call these Traditional Foods Principles. They address the physical and spiritual health of individuals and communities in conjunction with the well-being of the land.
Food is at the Center of Culture
Honor the Food Web / Chain
Eat with the Seasons
Eat a Variety of Foods
Traditional Foods are Whole Foods
Eat Local Foods
Wild and Organic Foods are Better for Health
Cook and Eat with Good Intention
In 2010, we compiled the project findings, including many stories, drawings, photos, and recipes, in a book entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Native Food Culture. Over 3,000 copies of the book have been distributed to participating tribal communities. In order to honor the cultural property rights of program participants, the book is not available outside of tribal communities. A public version is in the works and will be published late in 2013.
A Northwest Native Foods curriculum was developed based on the project. Each of the nine classes includes a native foods principle, information on how to harvest and cook many foods, and the nutritional importance of a native foods diet. The curriculum will be released with public access in summer 2013.
A tremendous amount of information was gathered throughout the Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Project. Many stories were shared, some full of loss and hardship, and others full of hope and the promise of a better future. Hearing stories, both past and present, is healing in itself. It validates peoples’ experiences and speaks to how important food is to the culture.