Students from Northwest Indian College at the Muckleshoot Tribe learn about traditional salmon preparation and skin tanning during a monthly seminar of the Food Sovereignty Project.

Including traditional foods – like huckleberries, nettles, camas and salmon – into tribal members’ everyday diets is the goal of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty program. The two year project is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is supported by Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Plants and Foods Program.

“This effort is about eating healthy and remembering who we are and where we come from,” said Valerie Segrest, a traditional foods educator at Northwest Indian College. In addition to a native foods course, the project also includes monthly day-long community seminars covering specific foods, such as deer, berries or salmon. The project also has spawned a native berry garden at the college, an orchard at the Muckleshoot Tribal School and a “cultural landscape” including native plants at the new senior center.

The project was inspired by a joint effort of the Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Tulalip tribes and the Burke Museum to research plants used by tribes.

“The Burke constructed a database of pre-contact foods,” Segrest said. “We interviewed tribal members about how traditional foods make it into their diets. We then asked if tribal members currently had access to traditional foods, and if they didn’t, why not. Our most vital discussion, and where we’re focusing our efforts now, is overcoming those barriers.”

An important aspect of the project is encouraging tribal members to come up with their own solutions.

“It’s easy for people to say that a dietician should just tell people what to eat,” Segrest said. “But when you ask people what they need for better health, and you allow their solutions to come to fruition, there is an incredible response from the community.”

Some of the solutions can come from mixing traditional food with more modern preparation methods.

“We’ve prepared a huckleberry fruit smoothie and elk burgers,” she said. “This is about making it easier to use traditional food sources.”

Learning about traditional foods also puts the natural resources management efforts of the tribe into a new light.

“When we talk about gathering, fishing and hunting, you start to see how important it is to be good co-managers,” Segrest said. “Now you’re also talking about preserving habitat. It’s not just about food in a garden, it’s about the environment, caring for it and making sure traditional foods can thrive.

“Having traditional food available is not just about individual health, it’s about the health of the community,” Segrest said.

Full interview with Segrest, Part 1:

Part 2: