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.”
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.”
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)
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
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.
Tribal nations have been reclaiming traditional foodways for years as an integral part of the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. This movement aims to embrace Indigenous identities, histories, and traditional, cultural methods of supporting health. The CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program consists of partnerships between 17 tribal nations across the United States that together make up the Traditional Foods Program (Wesner 2013). Each of these communities has created their own approaches to foodway reclamation, in order to decolonize and re-build sustainable Indigenous food systems for future generations. One Traditional Food Project, the Suquamish Community Health Program, was created by and for the Suquamish Tribe in Washington state (https://suquamish.nsn.us/) (Wesner 2013). Barbara Hoffman, a Community Health Nurse, and Fran Miller, Community Nutritionist, are integral to the Suquamish CHP (Wesner 2013). When asked about their particular approaches to restoring traditional foods and methods within the community, they described their unwavering traditions of seafood harvesting and consumption and how this encouraged them to focus more on the reclamation of traditional plants (Wesner 2013). Some specific plants foods include “mushrooms, nettle, traditional tea plants (marsh tea, horsetail, red clover, berries and their leaves, fireweed, devil’s club, yarrow, plantain, wild rose), berries (huckleberry, salmonberry, soapberry, thimbleberry, wild coastal strawberry, elderberry, oval-leaved blueberry, cranberry, wild trailing blackberry, salal berry), skunk cabbage (also called Indian wax paper, not used as food, but as a wrap in cooking), Indian plum, fiddleheads, fireweed shoots, thimbleberry and salmonberry shoots, edible flowers, hazelnuts, and evergreen tree tips” (Wesner 2013). The project promotes community education on and exposure to traditional plants through large community events, tastings at both early learning centers and within Elder lunch programs, harvesting trips, and gardening classes, among other methods (Wesner 2013). For others looking to promote and reclaim traditional foodways within their own communities, Hoffman and Miller suggest partnering with others in the area whom are familiar with native and traditional foods, such as elder community members or tribal leaders and healers (Wesner 2013).
Wesner, Chelsea 2013 Traditional Foods in Native America: Part I. Atlanta, GA: Native Diabetes Wellness Program, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
Indigenous populations consistently display worse health outcomes compared to the general population. Colonization, then, can be considered a root cause of disease. With this perspective, Mundel and Chapman (2010) argue that decolonizing practices are essential in restoring health to Indigenous populations. One such decolonizing project is that of the Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden Project in Vancouver, Canada. The Garden Project takes place on UBC’s campus, which is on traditional Musqueam territory (https://www.musqueam.bc.ca/). The Garden Project was created by and for Aboriginal people in the Vancouver area. The project incorporated communally caring for gardens filled with traditional vegetables, fruits, medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as salmonberries, huckleberries, Camus and tobacco, in addition to gathering and learning traditional ways to prepare native plants growing on the land nearby (Mundel and Chapman 2010). The project aims to place emphasis on the act of growing, gathering, cooking, and consuming traditional foods and medicines, as well as on the health of the community and the environment among which the project occurred. This project promotes Indigenous health through decolonizing practices and activities which aim to reclaim traditional foodways and approaches to healing.
The project leaders emphasize holistic considerations of both the body and mind, focusing on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, while also prioritizing the health and well-being of the community rather than merely that of the individual (Mundel and Chapman 2010). Many participants spoke of the project’s “cultural importance” and how it served to reignite their relationships with cultural traditions, such as ceremonial practices of communal cooking and collecting and growing traditional plants, whereas other participants said that this project reminded them of the importance of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Mother Nature (Mundel and Chapman 2010). All in all, the project aims to combat the effects of colonization by reclaiming traditional foodways and approaches to healing.
Mundel, Erika, and Gwen E Chapman 2010 A Decolonizing Approach to Health Promotion in Canada: the Case of the Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden Project. Health Promotion International 25(2): 166–173