Tribal nonprofit educates community about traditional resources

Led by Nooksack tribal member Jenny Roberts, a group of mostly tribal members ventured into the tribe’s forested homelands near Deming in July in search of the understory shrub devil’s club to turn into a topical pain-relief salve for tribal members. Devil’s club, which grows long stems adorned by maple-like leaves, has been a medicinal resource for Nooksack and other tribes since time immemorial. The plant is now gaining interest in Western medicine as well. 

Workshop participants carefully harvest prickly devil’s club. Photo: Indigenous Beginnings

During the harvest in July, the group clipped stems of devil’s club, shaved off the plant’s prickles, and convened in a kitchen to stir up the salve. That process involved chopping, soaking and stewing the woody plant material. 

The harvest-to-salve event was one of many workshops organized by the young nonprofit Indigenous Beginnings, established and run by Nooksack tribal member Stephanie Cultee. The organization launched about a year earlier, in July 2021, with a similar devil’s club workshop. 

The nonprofit is dedicated to teaching tribal and nontribal participants how to harvest and prepare traditional foods and how to carve, weave and otherwise transform natural resources into useful items. Events have included making jelly from fireweed, weaving cedar into baskets and headbands, carving wood into paddles, making drums from wood and hide, beading, and weaving wool, with lessons led primarily by Nooksack, Tulalip, Lummi and Quinault tribal members. 

Indigenous Beginnings was created to help spread the cultural teachings of these and other tribes in western Washington, sharing the diversity of knowledge of Native Americans in both urban and reservation settings in a culturally appropriate way. While the majority of workshop participants are Native American, the events are open to nonnative community members. The workshops are generally offered at no cost and with materials provided. 

Workshops hosted by Nooksack members during the nonprofit’s first year included salmon canning and cedar pulling with Jeremiah Johnny, pictured above. Photo: Indigenous Beginnings 

More events are to come. In March, Indigenous Beginnings received a grant from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM), to support 24 workshops for the Nooksack and Tulalip communities. The funding came from a portion of the American Rescue Act intended to help Native cultural institutions recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to provide programming. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of our cultural education is not provided in schools. We’re motivated to fill this void by freely giving and sharing traditional teachings through our in-person, hands-on workshops taught by inspirational knowledge keepers,” Indigenous Beginnings Board of Directors member Micheal Rios said. “Through their guidance, and with support of organizations like ATALM, we will continue to share with youth, adults, and elders in our communities who wish to create a bridge between our modern way of life and the cultural values that powered our ancestors.” 

When it comes to devil’s club, the resource’s values are many. Parts of the plant were used historically to make materials such as fish hooks and lures, tattoo ink, deodorant, and medicinal treatments for ailments including arthritis and lice. Devil’s club also can be consumed as a tea, which is known to help with indigestion. 

“It is one of our most powerful medicines,” Azure Bouré, traditional food and medicine coordinator for the Suquamish Tribe, told a newspaper in June. 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, herbalists and pharmaceutical researchers today are interested in the potential of devil’s club to help regulate blood sugar in the treatment of diabetes, among other uses.

Above: Young Indigenous Beginnings workshop participants prepare for a plant harvest. Photo: Indigenous Beginnings, Story: Kimberly Cauvel