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.

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,

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.

Tillicum Village and the Commodification of Food Practice

One of the few places that you can still go in Seattle to experience indigenous food is Tillicum Village. Tillicum Village is a longhouse built on Blake Island in the Salish Sea, and is administered today by Argosy Cruises, which bring visitors to the island on a dinner cruise and advertising an authentic cultural experience. It began as the dream of local businessman Bill Hewitt, a caterer who “fell in love” with indigenous salmon bakes after attending one in 1958. he wanted to blend good food with actual native practice and culture, enlisting his “great advice and Friend”(Parrish) Joe Hillaire, of the Lummi Tribe. Hewitt wanted to infuse the setting with Salish traditions, and so Hillaire “gifted Hewitt the first three dances” that would create the ‘dinner theater’ portion of the show. Today, it is a well regarded tourist attraction which at its peak hosted well over a million visitors a year as well as foreign dignitaries and Bill Clinton. But is Tillicum village today helpful or a hindrance to the project of sovereignty? Although the project started as a family affair and with the close teaching of Lummi nation elders, it is now owned by a corporate board and administered as such. Even if it was “authentic”, it may not be now.

According to Hewitt himself, he was trying to educate PNW residents about the culture and practices of Coast Salish people. The show and dinner are hosted at a longhouse in the aforementioned “village”, built in traditional style by native craftsmen. Dancers and craftsmen at work are also native, and so are the people who prepare the salmon, roasted over alder fires inside the longhouse. It is possible, however, that the “authentic” experience at Tillicum village offers another look into the colonization of native food,as Argosy creates a neo-colonial experience that one writer described as “reminiscent” of the old world’s fairs, with their displays of pygmies and native Americans as exhibits and attractions. It creates a distance, a separation from the guests and the performers creating their food, which evokes the idea that the people doing traditional cooking and crafts are out of the past, a “vanished Indian” who exists now only in Tillicum Village courtesy of Argosy. It engages in what Katie N Johnson and Tamara Underiner call “packaged culture”, a culture devoid of outside context, “exotic with the comfort of the familiar” as the salmon in the longhouse is served alongside rolls and a caesar salad. There is a disjunction between the real and living vculture being practiced, and those whoe consume the culture.

And, we must ask, is this effort to create “authenticity” for mostly white tourists just another way for colonialism to stretch its talons into the lives of the people who work and cook at the longhouse, creating a spectacle out of traditional food preparation? Commodification of traditional practices are in subjugated in this way to the tastes and desires of the people paying, not the peopling performing the work. Whatever the end result is, some may argue that the jobs the longhouse provides for native people and the exposure that visitors get to Coast Salish culture is worth it. But wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where we got to see what native chefs were actually doing, instead of a packaged show?


Johnson, Katie N and Underiner, Tamara. “Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures.” University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Parrish, Sabine, ” Authenticity and the Native Cultural Experience at Tillicum Village ,” Student Anthropologist Vol.4, issue 1, 2014. Oxford University Press