Native Youth Leadership Alliance

(Mariana Harvey) Indigenous Food Super Heroes!

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Earlier this month I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the ‘The Living Breath of Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ: Indigenous Ways of Knowing Cultural Food Practices and Ecological Knowledge’ symposium held at the University of Washington in Seattle. This extraordinary event held space for Native peoples in the local region to share their knowledge, practices, issues, stories, and (possibly most importantly) celebrate their successes surrounding its theme.

The symposium was uplifting and inspiring, so many amazing Indigenous leaders gathered in one space, it felt like a meeting of Indigenous Food Super Heroes! Not only did I soak up all the great knowledge from our speakers, I also thoroughly enjoyed various traditional foods that were shared. Smoked deer, elk, dried salmon, baked camas root, herring eggs, seaweed, butter clams, mussels, oysters, smoked oolichan, canned moose, wild crab apples, salal berries, huckleberries, pickled kelp, just to name a few! I was so grateful that the symposium’s coordinators took great care in making Indigenous foods an integral part; allowing some of us to try these foods for the first time. Prior to the symposium I had never tried oolichan, herring eggs, moose, or pickled kelp; and now I know what I was missing out on.

It is difficult to sum up all that I gained by attending this symposium. Beyond the pure knowledge, advice, and delicious native foods, the collective consciousness represented by the community in attendance was uplifting and awe-inspiring. Many Native peoples all around are actively returning to, reclaiming, replenishing, and celebrating our traditional foods…and it is really exciting.

In light of all the generosity of food and wisdom that was shared at the symposium, I would like to pass on some of this knowledge and experience to you all.

“Our foods are precious and worth caring about. We are precious and worth caring about,” simple and profound message from Valerie Segrest. Segrest (Muckleshoot), project coordinator for Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty project, shared various elements of her work and her passion for our foods. She encouraged us to, “Honor the gift of food.” Also stating, “Traditional foods are whole foods, that grow in nature. There are no fields of lucky charms, bushes of marshmallows, and rivers of diet soda,” making us all giggle and contemplate how far the world we live in has strayed from whole foods.

Segrest also shared practices she has found useful, such as having an elder ‘to witness’ when any projects are happening. Bringing in the elders, helps to bridge the gap between the ages and also creates a space for elders in all the work they do. Another part of her work was shifting Muckleshoots tribal food policy to no fried foods and using local foods as much as possible. Segrest co-authored the book, Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture, that shares NW coastal recipes, stories, successful programs, and how NW Natives are reviving their traditional foods.

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Nitanis Desjarlais (Cree/Nuu-chah-nulth), with Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities Indigenous Foods Network shared about her and her family’s movement to live off the grid, and eat an Indigenous diet. One pivotal reason for shifting her family to an Indigenous diet was in response to her own family members passing from diabetes. She explained that even on her loved one’s death bed, they still ate sweet, sugary foods and breads. She expressed, “these are the foods his mother gave him, fry bread, pastries and bread as a love for him and for celebrations. I want my kids to celebrate our Native and traditional foods.” 

Desjarlais, her husband and seven children went on an Indigenous diet on National Diabetes Day. Offering their rice, cereals, and other foods not native to the americas to community members they began to wild harvest, gather, and hunt all their foods to live a sustainable subsistence lifestyle. As a family they began to preserve, dry, can, smoke their harvest for the winter months and barter for whatever else they needed. She shared stories of her kids bringing moose heart sandwiches to school, and her husband passing on catered lunches at meetings, while pulling out his stash of dried moose. Her kids, valuing and celebrating their native foods, turned down offers to trade their wild lunches for their peers’ cookies, and sweets.

“As much as we give, that’s how wealthy we are,” words shared by Desjarlais in relation to how Native peoples lived and shared, a model she lives by today. During her panel on the first day of the symposium, she told us she would come back tomorrow and bring some of her ‘cupboard’ to share with us. Sure enough the next day, she walked around the symposium offering her own smoked oolichan, and set out an array of Indigenous foods from her ‘cupboard’ including smoked oysters, dried salal berries, canned moose, and kelp relish. She shared her riches with us all.

I left the symposium, with a full belly, bright spirit, and lot’s to chew on… with my mouth and my mind. This symposium was put together in 3 months, but had centuries of wisdom thriving within each soul, it was amazing what four determined Native women can do! Thank-you to the astounding coordinators, Charlotte Coté (Nuu-chah-nulth) Ph.D., Clarita Lefthand-Begay (Diné) MS, Ph.D. candidate, Dian Million (Athabaskan) Ph.D., and Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) MFA. I look forward to next year!

See Mariana’s NYLA Profile