On April 29, 2011, participants in the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project plant an orchard at the Muckleshoot Tribal School in Auburn. Valerie Segrest and other program staff work with students to plant fruit trees as part of a multi-year project to create a cultural program to improve the health of the Muckleshoot people by revitalizing and increasing access to their traditional foods. The project began by engaging the tribal community in an assessment of food resources, then integrated those findings in a community-based art project, the Muckleshoot Traditional Food Map, which will be used as a reference for building a more secure and culturally appropriate food system and as a guide for future projects. To help secure food security and food sovereignty, the Muckleshoot Tribe will acquire the 90,000-acre Tomanamus Forest in the Green and White river watersheds in 2013. Together with a sustainable forestry program, the acquisition will extend the ability of the tribe to make decisions about their traditional homelands and increase access to traditional foods.
The Puget Sound Traditional Food and Diabetes Project
While studying nutrition at John Bastyr University, Muckleshoot tribal member Valerie Segrest worked with Elise Krohn, a native-plants educator, and then with Northwest Indian College in an independent study that accessed the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture's archeological collection. Starting in 2003, the Burke Museum had been working with local tribes on a project now known as the Puget Sound Traditional Food and Diabetes Project.
The project is a collaboration of archaeologists, historians, health scientists, and educators that serves as a community resource to revitalize the traditional Coast Salish foods diet and address diabetes in Puget Sound Native communities in culturally appropriate ways. The research of Segrest and Krohn was used to help establish an intertribal collaborative dedicated to improving health in Native communities, and also formed the foundation of their 2010 book entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.
Recreating a Traditional Diet
From 2008 to 2010 Segrest, working with the Northwest Indian College, led a community-based participatory research project that integrated archeological research with ethnographies and conducted interviews with elders. It is now known that Coast Salish people relied on more than 300 different foods, foods that were at the center of the relationships people maintained with the land, across seasons in the watershed, and between communities.
According to Segrest, who became coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, "The foods that were eaten here were a huge pillar of our culture" (Minard). She further explained, "networks are a vital resource among tribal communities. It's unprecedented how quickly we've changed our foods. Typically in history people change them much more gradually" ("Feeding the Spirit ...").
The Causes of the Problem
The rapid change in the diet of Native people was due to the arrival of non-Natives and their takeover of traditional tribal territories. Native people who later became members of the Muckleshoot Tribe signed two treaties with the federal government that ceded land and established reservations, but reserved to Native people the right to hunt, fish, and gather in their accustomed places. The Treaty of Medicine Creek was signed in December 1854 with the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin Indians, some of whom lived in the Green River Valley. In January 1855, the Treaty of Point Elliott was negotiated with the Duwamish (as the Native people living around Lake Washington and along the Black River later came to be known) and Suquamish people, along with other tribes whose range extended north to the Skagit River. Later federal actions established a reservation on Muckleshoot Prairie that brought people of different bands from across the upper and lower watershed together into a Muckleshoot Tribe
The non-Native people brought new value systems and relationships to the watershed and significantly altered it. Massive disruptions caused by disease and loss occurred within Native families and across Native communities. A pattern of private ownership was overlaid on the landscape; the first lands taken from the Native people were on the prairies and in openings in the river valleys and estuaries -- the sites of their traditional food gardens.
Land in the watershed that had been shaped for millennia by cultural practices based on interrelated reciprocity was now subject to the rules of a market economy. Population growth, engineering projects (such as the creation of the Duwamish Waterway, Harbor Island, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal), and pollution from sewage and industry soon undermined food systems that had provided for Native people's health and food security for millennia.
For the ancestors of the Muckleshoot Tribe, treaty negotiations focused on maintaining the right to access traditional foods in perpetuity. Segrest explains the relationship between the treaties and food sovereignty: "[O]ur ancestors who signed those treaties, they were very straightforward about access to food and the land. So we traded for access to food. And if we aren't accessing that food we aren't strengthening our sovereignty. So getting people out there and harvesting and fishing and hunting that's all about strengthening our own sovereignty and feeding our identity" (Hoover). In another interview, Segrest noted, "I'm trying to show my students ways they can eat like their ancestors did" ("Feeding the Spirit ...").
As defined by the First Nations Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool, tribal sovereignty is the practice of "the right of Native peoples to retain their cultural identity and to acknowledge and reserve fundamental rights granted in treaties or other legal documents." The tool is a resource created by the First Nations Development Institute to assist Native communities in recovering native food systems. Sovereignty and food are especially related, as Native people have had the foods of the dominant culture imposed on them. Regaining control of their traditional foods and their relationships to them is central to maintaining culture and insuring the survival and well-being of future generations. Segrest emphasizes the critical importance of a traditional diet: "We are taught that without these foods, we cease to exist. When our foods go away -- the traditional foods, the first foods -- we as people cease to exist. We may still breathe and walk on this land, but we will be nobody and cease to exist" (Hoover).
The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project
The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project (MFSP) is a community response to the loss of access to traditional foods, part of the activism that has fought to maintain the guaranteed treaty rights to salmon. As Segrest explains, "People are tired of being so sick ... . They're just tired of it. One hundred and fifty years ago, diabetes and heart disease did not exist in tribal communities. That's because we were eating a diet based on the land and the seasons and a protocol that ensured an abundance of foods. That's the picture we want to get back to" ("Feeding the Spirit ...").
Between 2008 and 2010 the Northwest Indian College Cooperative Extension Department worked with Segrest to facilitate a community-based participatory research project to develop a food sovereignty model that would extend the work that began with the Burke Museum and create a culturally-based diet and way of living. They met with traditional food hunters, fishers, and gatherers to collect information about traditional foods that can still be harvested and to learn about the barriers to obtaining foods that are no longer available.
After those meetings, the project organized a camp at which tribal cooks created recipes. Through a thoughtful integration of this information, they combined traditional foods that are accessible with substitutes for those that are difficult to obtain. What was learned during this process was used by Segrest and Elise Krohn for a book they were writing entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.
A Food Map and an Orchard
The Northwest Indian College received U.S. Department of Agriculture funding from 2010-2012 to develop the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project. The study began with community gatherings to discuss community food resources. These meetings led to the creation of a Muckleshoot Food Map and the launch of the food-sovereignty project. There were programs to increase access to traditional foods and healthful substitutes, and the project published a newsletter and facilitated discussions. Also offered were workshops on traditional foods and ways to approach a traditional-foods diet using modern resources; traditional and seasonal foods feasts and harvesting workshops; and opportunities for intergenerational sharing. As part of the work, a fruit-tree orchard was planted on the Muckleshoot Tribal School grounds on April 29, 2011.
The program was created to address health issues created by the rapid loss of access to traditional foods by restoring relationships to the land, practicing traditional ecological knowledge, and regaining access to the food system developed over millennia by their ancestors. Those ancestors lived in the Green-Duwamish watershed since time immemorial -- they participated in the evolution of the historical watershed and maintained social networks that spanned across the Cascades and down to the saltwater.
The Importance of the Project
Members of the Muckleshoot and Duwamish tribes have always required specific places to practice cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Their ancestors made many sacrifices in the treaty era to ensure that future generations could have access to traditional foods, medicines, and essential materials.
The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project is working to bring back traditional ecological knowledge that was developed and adapted over the millennia, shared across generations, and continually tested and improved. Living in a place since time immemorial creates a culture attuned to well-being in that place; traditional ecological knowledge gained across generations about the shared evolution of people and place is embedded in stories and practices and maintain the reciprocal relationship and responsibility to care for this place.
The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project is community-centered and relationship-based. It recognizes that well-being is more than simply eating healthy food, but also comes from practicing such cultural traditions as gathering that food. The project has created a framework that will evolve as the members of the community continue to reconnect with their traditional foods. As Segrest notes, recovering the foods will lead to renewed knowledge: "Food is our connection to the land and can be a teacher" ("Feeding the Spirit ...").