More than half of Nisqually tribal members don’t have access to tribally caught salmon, according to a food sovereignty assessment conducted by the tribe.

Salmon remains the most available traditional food even though only 44 percent of tribal members who responded to the assessment say they have access to it. More than half of Nisqually tribal member respondents (57 percent) report they don’t have access to wildlife harvested by tribal hunters, and 75 percent say they don’t have access to tribally gathered plants.

Food sovereignty refers to the right to healthy, culturally appropriate and sustainable food. A primary reason for the lack of access to traditional foods is that they aren’t as plentiful as they were historically.

“Salmon habitat has been on the decline for decades,” said Georgiana Kautz, natural resources manager for the tribe. “Though we’re making great strides here in the Nisqually watershed working with our neighbors to restore habitat, Puget Sound itself is sick. Salmon don’t have much of a chance.”

Even though the tribe operates two salmon hatcheries that boost runs, tribal fisheries have been shortened in recent years to protect weak natural-origin returns. “We’ve taken the lead on restoring and protecting our salmon runs, but because of damage done in the past, our people cannot take advantage of our hard work,” Kautz said.

Access to shellfish is more difficult due to pollution and loss of habitat. For example, a recent shellfish assessment by the tribe pointed out that most of the habitat in the tribe’s treaty-protected harvesting area has been lost to shoreline armoring.

While access to traditional food has diminished, the tribe has made a concerted effort to stem the loss.

The tribe runs a community shellfish farm on Henderson Inlet. The tribe sells most of the shellfish from the farm commercially but also reserves some of the production for distribution to tribal members.

To improve access to fresh produce, the tribe launched a community garden program in 2011. Besides providing fresh produce to tribal members, the community garden allows access to culturally important plants such as berries, nettles and camas.

“Our ancestors reserved the right to fish, hunt and gather in our treaty because those rights are important to our economy and culture,” said Farron McCloud, chair of the Nisqually Tribe. “We’re working hard to expand access to traditional foods to the Nisqually people because it is a core part of who we are.”

Grace Ann Byrd, Nisqually Tribe, helps distribute food grown at the tribe’s community garden. Photo: D. Preston, Nisqually Tribe.