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Traditional foods help remind us who we are

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Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

On a clear Puget Sound day, Mount Rainier loomed large, its 14,000-foot snow-capped peak a striking backdrop to the lands that the Muckleshoot Tribe call home. The tribe has long maintained huckleberry meadows on the mountain’s north flank; other tribes have meadows around the Pacific Northwest, and each tribe believes that its berries are the best.

That day, Valerie Segrest was berry-picking—a part of maintaining the meadows—with her fellow Muckle­shoot tribal members, sampling in search of the sweetest patch. She stared at Mount Rainier, experi­encing an it-looks-so-good-I-could-eat-it moment: She realized, “I was tasting the mountain, in a way.” 

That epiphany helped inspire Segrest to work with Northwest tribes to promote the importance of local foods and cultural practices. As a nutritionist with the Northwest Indian College’s Cooperative Extension and a coordinator of the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Project, Segrest emphasizes a hands-on approach to finding and preparing Native foods, and a belief that such methods bring not only physical but also spiritual sustenance.

“Native foods have been in this region for thousands of years,” said Segrest. “That’s what people are craving—more than carbohydrates and protein. They want a connection with food, with the environment, with community. These foods help us remember who we are.”

Segrest grew up visiting her mother’s family farm near Bellingham, Wash., where her aunties swore by the health benefits of berries and helped her forage for wild greens. While pursuing her nutrition degree, Segrest studied Northwest Native foods and their legacy. She and a colleague at the Northwest Indian College developed the “Traditional Foods Principles”—tips to guide eating anywhere, for anyone. Among them: “Traditional foods are whole foods” and “Food is at the center of culture.”

"These foods help us remember who we are."

That means encouraging people to eat seasonally—nettles in spring, for instance, and berries in summer—and to make the effort to gather food in the wild. The Muckleshoot reservation lies about 30 miles from Vashon Island where tribal members harvest clams. For many in the tribe, this requires a day off work and more time preserving the clams. Some are dried in the traditional way. “They were strung on necklaces—a sort of candy necklace, only clams. I love that image,” Segrest said. The rest of the harvest is kippered or frozen. It’s just the sort of holistic, culturally viable practice that Segrest is devoted to maintaining.

So is simply incorporating more produce into one’s diet. The elders at the Muckleshoot Senior Center appreciate the fruits and vegetables added to the daily meal—a change Segrest instigated. More people have started coming, and diners’ blood-sugar levels and weight have improved, said Wendy Burdette, the center’s program manager. ­Segrest’s weekend cooking “camps” also help elders prepare more traditional foods such as elk, fish eggs, and deer.

“The community cooks have had time to learn from one another and give back to the community,” Burdette said.

But what if your harvesting ground is the local grocery store?

“I tell people to look for a whole food,” said Segrest. “Things in a box are pretty mysterious to me, so I walk them through the process of identifying whole foods and defining what’s healthy for them.”

Segrest’s classes on finding, preparing, and storing Native foods fill up fast. But it’s the connection to the past, and the sense of community in the present, that she is most proud of.

“I often say that I don’t think I’m really teaching anything.  I’m helping people remember what they already know,” she said. “Put a traditional food on a plate, and people start to remember.”


Kim Eckart wrote this article for It's Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Kim is a Seattle-area elementary school teacher and former YES! editor.


Indigenous Recipe: Nettle Lemonade

Prep time:  25 minutes
Serves:  4

This beverage cools you down on those warm summer days and is incredibly high in calcium, magnesium, potassium and loads of other nutrients! The tribal cooks from the Muckleshoot Senior Program regularly offer this delicious infusion to our beloved Elders and guests.

2 tbsp dried nettle
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon honey
1-2 cups lemonade

Put loose tea in a teapot or pan and cover with boiling water.  Let steep 15-20 minutes. Allow the tea to cool to room temperature. Combine strained tea with lemonade in a pitcher.  Serve cold with ice and lemon wedges. —Valerie Segrest

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