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.


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.

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

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,

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

NWIC Traditional Plants and Foods Program: Vegetable, Elk and Wild Rice Soup Recipe

Below is a recipe for Vegetable, Elk and Wild Rice Soup that was created by the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Plants and Foods Program Coordinator, Julia Bennett. This recipe serves 10-15 people. “This is a popular meal that I created to serve during my classes. Traditionally it would not have included the rice, instead wild roots such as camas and wild carrot would have been used.” – Julia Bennett

  • 2 lbs ground elk meat (can substitute venison or buffalo) 
  • 2 cups wild or brown rice or quinoa cooked 
  • 2 stalks celery chopped 
  • 1 medium onion chopped 
  • 6 cloves garlic chopped 
  • 1 – 2 turnips peeled and cubed 
  • 1 – 2 rutabagas peeled and cubed 
  • 3 – 4 carrots peeled and sliced 
  • 1 – 2 parsnips peeled and sliced 
  • Wild greens or spinach 
  • 8 cups Vegetable, Beef, or chicken broth 
  • 4 cups V-8 juice (low sodium) 
  • Olive or canola oil 
  • Fresh or dried herbs to taste (rosemary, marjoram, thyme, parsley, sage) 
  • Salt and Pepper to taste 
  1. Brown meat, onions and garlic together in a large pot that will hold at least 1 gallon. 
  2. Add all other vegetables (except wild greens or spinach), broth and V-8 juice. 
  3. If using dried herbs add them now…if using fresh wait and add them about 1/2 hour before serving. 
  4. Cook on medium low for 1 hour. 
  5. Add cooked rice and fresh herbs (if using them) cook for another 20-30 minutes. 
  6. Add spinach or wild greens and more liquid (broth, V-8 juice or water) if needed. 
  7. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed and serve. 


Wesner, Chelsea 2013 Traditional Foods in Native America: Part I. Atlanta, GA: Native Diabetes Wellness Program, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention