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The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Initiative promotes tribal food. (Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Initiative)

The Muckleshoot Tribe, along with a number of other Puget Sound tribes in Washington, have established a Food Sovereignty Project that has launched about 50 local tribal food system projects within its two year premier.

According to Valerie Segrest, the project coordinator, precolonial tribes in the Pacific Northwest subsisted on a variety of more than 300 types of food in a year—whereas the standard American diet consists of 13 kinds of foods. Tribes in this region have been disconnected from their traditional food sources—by obstacles including a loss of land and rights, cultural oppression, and lack of time and money. Consequently, many tribes are reliant on processed foods—many of which are provided through federal assistance program—that contribute to high rates of poor health.

The initiative began with a database project by the Muckleshoot, Suquamish, and Tulalip tribes in partnership with the University of Washington’s Burke Museum that investigated the plants comprising precolonial tribal diets. Segrest was motivated by the database project and hearing community members across generations express a desire to learn about and eat more traditional foods to create a program that increases access to common food knowledge.

The initiative’s approach to food sovereignty deliberately focuses less on food policy and more on community decision-making.

“Giving people a space to be a part of that, strengthening sovereignty, is empowering and helps maintain the sustainability of the program," said Segrest. "I was a part of the development of that program—it’s ours, it’s not some person with an academic degree. It’s about us, our knowledge, and what we know that’s going to help us with our food knowledge and food systems.”

The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Initiative involves a number of small-scale food system projects that range from menu development to the establishment of community gardens. The traditional foods menu development program convenes tribal cooks and community groups to develop a reliable menu and food policy that supports the integration of more locally-grown, traditional foods in tribal kitchens—and industrial cooking practices in general.

The initiative also supports the facilitation of hands-on workshops that teach modern methods of incorporating ancient foods and food principles into their diets—like huckleberry smoothies and nettle pesto—and traditional community foods feasts featuring the harvest and preparation of seasonal traditional foods.

Segrest notes that one of the challenges faced by the initiative—and tribal food sovereignty efforts in general—are certain land management policies that make it costly and time-consuming for them to access and harvest traditional foods. "I really value the work of environmentalists, but unfortunately they’re operating on the view that every time man steps into nature, man ruins it. That’s different from the way our food system project—that we—approach it."

According to Segrest, food was so essential to their ancestors—as a source of identity and livelihood—that they insisted on guaranteed access to food from the land during colonial treaty negotiations. She says that regular, moderate harvesting of food sources is essential to the preservation of a healthy ecosystem: “Even our oral traditions tell us that if we are not active in our food system, then our food system will go away. When you don’t utilize those resources—the berries, the salmon, the deer—then they won’t return; they won’t come back.”

The initiative has established a native edible landscape in a local senior center, a tribal berry garden, and tribal fruit orchards at the Muckleshoot Tribal School. They have also facilitated a partnership between the Muckleshoot Senior Center and the Puget Sound Food Network to supply the senior’s lunch program with fresh, local produce.

“Food sovereignty is a message. It’s about how to live or how to be in our food system, and it’s a method of decolonizing our food system and revitalizing our traditional food culture," said Segrest. "I don’t ever think there’s ever going to be an end. I think it’s increased by people drinking a cup of nettle tea or fishing. Every time we go out fishing, we increase our sovereignty; every time we go hunting, we strengthen our sovereignty; every time we share food that we’ve harvested, we strengthen our sovereignty.”