What is Food Sovereignty?

The term “food sovereignty” originated in the 1990s with La Via Campesina, a self-described international peasants’ movement that fights injustice in food systems. La Via Campesina defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (viacampesina.org).

Food sovereignty and tribal sovereignty are inextricably linked. When members of tribal governments in the Puget Sound region signed the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855, the first priority of tribal sovereignty was access to traditional foods. This was maintained in the treaty by access to “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations … together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses” (Indian Treaty Fishing Rights) but continues to be a source of conflict in Washington and anywhere settler colonial contact with Indigenous peoples has taken place.

The acts of harvesting, hunting and preparing our traditional foods are more than just feeding hunger and sense of identity; it is also about our mental health and our own self worth – Valerie Segrest, Muckleshoot

Food sovereignty has grown into a movement in many tribal communities in this region, with access to traditional foods as the focus of educational and cultural programs as well as transdisciplinary research into sustainability and reclamation of wild harvested foods. Conservation is a key focus, but so are the concepts of food as medicine and promoting health, longevity, and healing in Indigenous communities. Food sovereignty, embodied in the practice of harvesting and preparing traditional foods, is one means by which Indigenous groups today are generating and participating in their own survivance, the act of not only surviving but thriving and creating health for future generations.

Decolonizing foodways means exploring the ways that settler colonial contact has violently disrupted the connection between Indigenous bodies and Indigenous land, and exploring ways to reclaim and promote Indigenous health and the health of traditional food systems. It involves situating ourselves, the researchers, reflexively in our work, asking what this research can do to promote and center the needs of Indigenous communities. It also involves using our platform to document and celebrate Indigenous food sovereignty movements taking place and the people – teachers, activists, scholars, archaeologists, tribal governments, chefs, care providers, and protectors of knowledge – who are working tirelessly to enact change.

Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) on food sovereignty

Upcoming Events

Salmon People: Northwest Native Opposition to Genetically Engineered Fish

  • Tuesday, April 9 at 6pm, Langston Hughes Performing arts Center – 104 17th Ave South, Seattle, 98144
  • “What are the risks from genetically engineered fish to the people and environments of the Pacific Northwest? New Canoe Media tackles this question head-on with their new short film Salmon People. Now Town Hall joins forces with CAGJ to screen this powerful new film and call together a panel of indigenous and advocacy perspectives—all key activists working on Northwest Native food security and justice in the Pacific Northwest. Sit in to hear from the voices across the Pacific Northwest who are speaking out about the risks of genetically engineered fish.”
  • https://townhallseattle.org/event/salmon-people/

Living Breath of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ  Symposium – Indigenous Foods and Ecological Knowledge

  • Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4 2019 at the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ Intellectual House, University of Washington campus
  • Reclaiming Food as Family Medicine – “This symposium brings people together to share knowledge on topics such as traditional foods, plants and medicines; environmental and food justice; food sovereignty; health and wellness; and treaty rights. Indigenous peoples in the Northwest have maintained a sustainable way of life through a cultural, spiritual, and reciprocal relationship with their environment. This symposium serves to foster dialogue and build collaborative networks as we, Native peoples, strive to sustain our cultural food practices and preserve our healthy relationships to the land, water, and all living things.”
  • http://www.livingbreathsymposium.org

Pre-contact Coast Salish Foods

The University of Washington’s Burke Museum featured an exhibit in 2013 that highlighted the variety and diversity of pre-contact Coast Salish foods. Working in collaboration with members of tribal communities and Elise Krohn, a traditional foods specialist at Northwest Indian College, archaeologists Dr. Peter Lape and Dr. Robert Kopperl surveyed 130 archaeological sites in King, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties and gathered ethnographic data from tribal elders about traditional Coast Salish foods. They compiled the following list of over 280 foods eaten by Coast Salish peoples over the last 10,000 years.

credit: burkemuseum.org

The categories of foods, including plants, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles, and shellfish and other marine life, is significant because it points to variety and seasonality in traditional diets, both of which contribute to health of the body and healthy, sustainable food systems. When contrasted with the typical “modern” American diet consisting of about 12 food types that are eaten on a regular basis, eating a variety of foods provides essential nutrients and prevents diseases that can be triggered by overconsumption of one food type, such as type 2 diabetes. Elise Krohn discusses food diversity further in the recordings on the Burke Museum’s Salish Bounty site, under “Stories of Food and Cultural Values” – you can listen here.

Activism and Anthropology

Some Indigenous and non-Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists who are currently working with food sovereignty, as well as with climate and food justice

Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook: http://jklmastenbrook.net/ 

Nancy J. Turner: https://www.uvic.ca/socialsciences/environmental/people/faculty/emeritus/turnernancy.php

Dana Lepofsky: http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/faculty/lepofsky.html 

Robin W. Kimmerer: https://www.esf.edu/faculty/kimmerer/

Elizabeth Hoover: https://vivo.brown.edu/display/emhoover

Devon A. Mihesuah: http://www.aihd.ku.edu/exercise/AboutMeMihesuah.html 

Charlotte Coté: https://ais.washington.edu/people/charlotte-cote

Kyle Powys Whyte: https://kylewhyte.cal.msu.edu/

Ron Reed: https://nature.berkeley.edu/karuk-collaborative/?page_id=171

Fight over Indigenous Vegan-ism: Diet Comparison

Promoting vegetarianism and veganism are usually considered to be aspects of colonization. However with the spread of colonization, health outcomes have changed significantly for Indigenous omnivore and vegetarian/vegan diets. Cruelty-free diets have resulted in increased sources of magnesium and folic acid (Craig 1) but decreased sources of protein. The nutritional profile of vegetarian/vegan has been similar to Western health outcomes. Usually vegan diets are considered most accessible to white middle-class individuals but as settler colonialism is widespread, Indigenous peoples begin accessing more cruelty free options. The effect of colonial contact on Indigenous bodies has been positive although for many years the Indigenous diet has been considered clean, unprocessed, and adequate to maintain nutritional demands over Western diets. Colonialism did not invent cruelty free diets but has supported their growth among peoples.

Winston J Craig; Health effects of vegan diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 5, 1 May 2009, Pages 1627S–1633S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N

Shridhar, K., Dhillon, P. K., Bowen, L., Kinra, S., Bharathi, A. V., Prabhakaran, D., Reddy, K. S., … Ebrahim, S. (2014). Nutritional profile of Indian vegetarian diets–the Indian Migration Study (IMS). Nutrition journal, 13, 55. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-55

Hunting as a Ritual Practice

Hunting has been considered a staple part of Indigenous life. However, Western society has created animal rights as a way of protecting treatment and hunting of animals by Indigenous Peoples. The controversies rely on whether it is ethical to hunt animals for survival or to interfere with Indigenous food, practices and way of life. One side accounts for animals being scarce and sentient beings that need protection, whereas the other side accounts that animals and humans cannot be separated from each other and must live in coalition. For years humans have lived with other animals and learned to take and return gifts to the land. With this relationship existing, humans have been able to live sustainably and their diets remain clean. With the introduction of Western ideologies and research, risks associated with hunting and its sustainability have been raised. It was discovered that the environmental health of where these practices are occurring are put on the line and risk human health and well-being. However, before Western ideologies and research, Indigenous peoples lived sustainably from the land and did not suffer the effects of colonization.

King, U., & Furgal, C. (2014). Is hunting still healthy? Understanding the interrelationships between indigenous participation in land-based practices and human-environmental health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 11(6), 5751-82. doi:10.3390/ijerph110605751

Project Profile: Camas Prairie Cultural Ecosystems Incubator

Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve

Environmental Anthropologist Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (University of Washington) is involved in a project with the UW Earthlab that seeks to foster understanding of the importance of camas and explore the ways camas can be managed and harvested in the context of food sovereignty and Indigenous land and ecosystem management. This UW Earthlab group consists of ecologists, educators, anthropologists, ethnobotanists and conservations from academia, tribal communities, nonprofits, industry and government, working together toward the goals of education – focusing in particular on younger generations of K-12 and college students – and conservation from a cultural and an ecological standpoint. The group began their work in 2017 with a camas harvesting event at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve in southwest Washington, with around 60 tribal members from nine groups participating.

One of the core values of this transdisciplinary group is to work as a self-described “community of practice” learning from the land and also learning from each other; I interpret this to mean disrupting normative values of who can learn what from whom, and considering the possibility that science can learn as much from traditional practice as traditional practice can from science. Crucial to this is the idea of looking at camas and its habitat as a cultural – not merely biological – ecosystem. This conceptualization necessarily centers tribal needs and interests and re-connects Indigenous health and foodways to this ecosystem through a specific plant while acknowledging interdisciplinary, non-normative ways of knowing and producing knowledge.

Further reading on UW’s Dr. Joyce Lecompte-Mastenbrook and the UW EarthLab Project 

Project Title: Camas Prairie Cultural Ecosystems Incubator

Project Leads: Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (UW Program on the Environment) and Sarah Hamman (Center for Natural Lands Management)

Tribal Community Involvement: over 60 individuals from nine tribal communities (need to do further research to be able to explicitly state who is involved and the nature of these relationships)

Project Goals: development of transdisciplinary Cultural Conservation Education and Research Program

Values: 1) reciprocal benefits for all participants, 2) shared importance of social, cultural and biophysical values, and 3) transformative learning expressed into clear outcomes (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)

Keywords from the project site: cultural food, deep time, co-evolution, cultural ecosystems, management, community of practice, transdisciplinary

Challenges: privileging certain standards of proof and ways of knowing, building trust between tribal communities, scientists, land managers and agencies (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)

UW’s EarthLab site


Dr. Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook, professional site


Gary Paul Nabhan, Food from the Radical Center (excerpt) Island Press 2018


Camas on Campus

Archaeologist and University of Oregon faculty member Madonna Moss has researched camas as part of the traditional pre-contact diet of the Kalapuya people of western Oregon, part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 2017 she worked with a group of graduate students, under the supervision of Dr. David Lewis (Grand Ronde) and Marie Knight (Warm Springs), to dig camas bulbs and to clean, process, and bake them in an earth oven located at the Many Nations Longhouse on the university campus. In her blog she writes that earth ovens (or pit ovens) for roasting camas have been dated to more than 9000 years ago, and are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Dr. Moss’ blog gives an account of this process. This work is significant because, like the Songhees First Nations camas roast on the University of Victoria Campus, it involves utilizing the platform of the university campus to draw attention to traditional Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty.

Further reading on Dr. Madonna Moss’ archaeological work at the University of Oregon

Dr. Madonna Moss, University of Oregon blog


Camas: the Healthy Staple Starch

Camas prairie in bloom

Of the plant-based foods in the diet of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, camas bulb (Camassia quamash) is one of the most prominent. A member of the lily family, camas has nutrient-dense starchy tubers. Unlike potatoes or other starchy vegetables not native to this region, the camas tuber contains inulin, a complex sugar that breaks down into easily digestible simple sugars, promotes gut health, and aids the body’s management of insulin, helping regulate blood sugar and prevent type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes (Krohn and Segrest 2010), which has affected Indigenous North American and Alaska Native people at a much higher rate due in part to the post-contact introduction of processed carbohydrates and diminished access to traditional foods (LeCompte-Mastenbrook 2015). Traditionally, the tuber is dug in the spring when its blue flowers distinguish it from inedible, white-flowering death camas. It can be cooked a variety of ways, like a potato; traditionally it was steamed in an earth oven and could be dried after steaming for later use (Krohn and Segrest 2010), indicative of its importance as a year-round dietary staple.

In addition to being a traditional food of great significance to First Nations communities along the Pacific North Rim, it may be a key factor in their future health. More than 20 indigenous cultures in western Canada and the United States still tend, collect, clean and pit-roast its bulbs for special seasonal events. Many of these communities hope that camas can help keep their children free of diabetes.

Gary Nathan, Food from the Radical Center

Due to settler colonization of the camas praries in this region, the plant has become both less prolific and less accessible to Indigenous groups. During the period of settler colonial contact, potatoes were introduced in the 1830s and generally replaced camas in the Indigenous diet (Turner and Turner 2007). Invasive plant species introduced by settlers took over their wetland-prairie habitat. For thousands of years, Indigenous women practiced sophisticated land management through controlled burns and through the digging involved in the practice of cultivation and harvest, allowing the plant to be sustainably harvested for use as a dietary staple. European settlers in the period of settler-colonial contact made these controlled land burns illegal, disrupting the ability to cultivate and harvest the plant (Krohn and Segrest 2010). More recently, camas habitat has been disturbed and ecosystems disrupted by the Army Corps of Engineers flood-control efforts that involve draining of marshy grassland (Nabhan 2018).

Efforts by tribal communities to reclaim camas as a wild food source and healthy starch include work by Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. On Tlchess (Discovery Island) in British Columbia, the Songhees First Nations have been harvesting, preparing, and pit-roasting camas as well as engaging in intergenerational teaching and culture sharing.

There is still so much work that needs to be done with regards to camas and cultural restoration. There is a growing need to have access to traditional food in Lekwungen Territory. Even more so to environmentally safe food to consume. Cultural roles and practices need to be included in the restoration of these ecosystems.

Cheryl Brice, Lekwungen
Songhees First Nations Lands Manager

Lands Manager Cheryl Brice (Lekwungen) has spearheaded educational work – including harvest and pit roasts – at the Tlchess site and at the University of Victoria Campus (for more, see Camas on Campus). In Washington and Oregon, similar tribal-led harvests have proven effective at educating community members on the health benefits of eating this native starch.

Further reading on camas and other Indigenous food resources

Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest, Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit. Chatwin Books, 2010

Nancy J Turner and Katherine L Turner, Traditional food systems, erosion and renewal in Northwestern North America. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 2007

Further reading on camas in Indigenous-led food sovereignty movements

Restoring Camas and Culture to Lekwungen and Victoria: an Interview with Lekwungen Cheryl Brice, 2006 http://www.firstnations.de/media/06-1-1-camas.pdf

The Legal Challenge of Food

Food, and more specifically salmon, has long been the bedrock for legal cases against Washington State by Indigenous people. The treaties that form the legal basis for Washington’s tribes and Washington’s government, signed in the mid and late 19th century, nearly all had food as a centerpiece. Indigenous people were well aware of the rapacious appetite of the coming colonists, who would begin to severely degrade fish stocks after only a half century of fishing in the Salish Sea. Thus many leaders came to the bargaining table with food on their mind; not only was it the way they survived, but according to Valerie Segrest, head of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, it was
physical, mental, and spiritual medicine “(Native Knowledge 360) for the Muckleshoot.

By the 1970’s, legal questions about the status of fisheries and indigenous access was being fought in the courts and on the water. During Washington’s “Fish Wars”, native American Civil rights activists fought for their legal right to take fish from their traditional grounds. In 1974, a federal judge named George Boldt settled the question in the so-called “Boldt decision”. Boldt decided that in order to comply with the treaty language, tribes were entitled to half of the total catch. This landmark case marked an important turning point in Washington State, as fisheries were suddenly required to scale back their harvests and allow ingenious operators access to their legally-accorded fishing grounds. By 2018, the debate has changed, as dwindling fish stocks due to climate change and disruption of salmon habitats makes the important cultural and economic bedrock fish in danger of being wiped out. In the 1970’s, debate raged around the meaning of “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds, but since then it has changed. Now, the tribes suing the state are arguing that they should have more legal control of culverts on state lands because of the “substantial degradation of the food supply” that has occurred in the past half-century. They are arguing, in effect, to “establish that their treaty rights to fish give them a role and a right to any decision that affects the fish population .” One specific case revolving around these issues was that brought by 21 federally-recognized tribes in Washington State against the state government in order to force the removal of dams that were impeding Salmon migration.

Some lawyers for Washington state see the ramifications of the case as enormous. Former Washington State Attorney General Rob Mckenna, for example, argued that it “could place the tribes in a position to co-govern much of the state. “(MyNorthwest) The dispute revolved around who would “foot the bill” for a series of culverts originally paid for by the federal government. Tribes argued that their poor design would kill Salmon and that it was the state’s responsibility to remove them while Attorney general Bob Ferguson argued that the state shouldn’t be required to pay.The case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court in July 2018, where the Court upheld a 9th circuit ruling declaring it was the state’s responsibility to pay. Jay Julius, Chairman of the Lummi Nation, said that the decision would “be great for the rivers, for the salmon and for the citizens of Washington state.” (Seattle Times)

The 21 tribes eventually won, but more legal cases will surely be fought. As resources are squeezed tighter and tighter by climate change all over the world, it can be assumed that access to traditional foods will continue to be even more pressing as time goes on. However, legal rulings have proved to be a sometimes-effective mechanism by which indigenous people can assure their ability to access traditional foods far into the future.


“The most important Washington lawsuit you have never heard of.” MyNorthwest, April 26th, 2018. MyNorthwest.com

Hal Bernton, “Tied US Supreme Court decision means Washington must remove barriers to salmon migration,” Seattle Times, July 11 2018

“Foods Still Matter: The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project,” Native Knowledge 360, https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/pnw-history-culture/muckleshoot.cshtml

The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project

Here in Washington State, there exist a number of contemporary programs that aim to reconnect native people with their traditional foods. One such project is the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty project, based on the Muckleshoot Reservation. The Muckleshoot tribe is a group that did not exist before colonization, a confederation of tribes that banded together to represent one united front to the united states government during treaty negotiations. Today, they are known by most colonizers in Washington State for their Casino and Bingo Hall, rather than their history. But by connecting Muckleshoot people to their traditional foodways, the project is helping people connect back to their own histories and their lands.

By the 1970’s, the Muckleshoot had been reduced to a one-acre reservation. Before the project, it was nearly impossible to access some traditional foods, nevermind the fact that treaty rights were often being violated. On such small amounts of land, it was nearly impossible for anyone to continue cultivating foods from the land or access many traditional sites of shore harvesting. And before th 1974 Boldt decision, native fisherman were only taking in 5% of the salmon catch across the state, limniting the access of many to this important cultural resource. The project was started to make the most of the space the Muckleshoot had, and it also began buying up private land to add top the reservation just to grow food. Now, they have raised beds, orchards, and more to grow traditional foods which are served to elders at lunches. Through this food, they not only access what program director Valerie Segrest called the “physical, mental, and spiritual medicine” that its traditional foods but a greater sense of community and tribal solidarity. By serving these foods to elders, it helps to strengthen social connections between younger and older members of the tribe, as well as give younger members access to traditional knowledge that the elders might be able to give them. The reason this project is so important to food sovereignty is because of this potent combination, which serves to make people healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually.

The food that the project is accessing are diverse and spread out not only within the reservation but outside of it. Aside from their “farm to table” program (mentioned above), they also access salmon fisheries, clam beds off Vashon island, fruit orchards, deer, huckleberries, and community medicine gardens. This wide variety of foods allows participants to reclaim their food sovereignty in a way that is independent of the government or anyone outside of their community, moving the tribe towards a truly sovereign model of indigenous and traditional food production. With a better model of food production, food sovereignty advocates believe that indigenous nations can begin to reclaim independence from their colonizers.

Source: “Foods Still Matter: The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project.” Native Knowledge 360, Smithsonian Museum of the Native American Indian, 2018. https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/pnw-history-culture/muckleshoot.cshtml