Native Youth Leadership Alliance

(Mariana Harvey) ‘Our Food Is Our Medicine’! Our Inspirations from Northwest Indian College’s Institute of Indigenous Foods and Traditions

This past September, Northwest Indian College’s Institute of Indigenous Foods and Traditions, hosted its second annual, ‘Our Food is Our Medicine’ gathering at Bastyr University near Seattle, WA.
It was an honor to be in attendance and among so many amazing leaders advocating for our Native foods, traditions and for the health of us all. It was also very special that I got to celebrate this time with some our NYLA community: fellows Johnny Buck, Paul Cline, and Winona Bearchum, co-director Sophia Kizilbash, and advisory council member, David Cournoyer.the crew

On the first day of the gathering with excitement blooming from each conversation and encounter; we finally quiet and settle into the festively decorated auditorium to begin. We are greeted by our master of ceremonies, Elaine Grinell (Jamestown SKlallam/Lummi) affirming the sentiment held by us all: “You are so lucky to be here. Your communities are so lucky to have you here.”

Next up, Frances G. Charles (Lower Elwah Klallam) shares her journey to current Chairwoman of the Lower Elwah Klallam Tribe and her legacy as a strong leader. One of the most powerful stories she shared was that of the removal of two dams that blocked salmon runs for 100 years in the Elwah River. She showed us aerial pictures of what it looks like now after the dams’ removal; and what we saw was evidence of the beaches they once had coming back! Charles beautifully stated, “The beach that we lost, we are rebuilding. Maybe we won’t be able to harvest clams there in our generation, and that’s ok; we’re doing this for our grandchildren.”

Upon leaving the auditorium feeling blessed and prepared to soak up the wisdom of the next few days. I walk into Brett Ramey’s (Ioway) workshop on how to apply practical tools to engage your community in reinstating healthy traditional food systems through public art and community gardens. Our chairs arranged in a circle, Ramey starts with the wisdom learned from corn; “Corn is social, it likes to grow in clusters, not rows. It needs each other, so it doesn’t get knocked down.” In the workshop facing each other we engage collaboratively and by example learn the different processes to lead your community in art and food. The structure of Ramey’s workshop was a teaching tool within itself. Participants were given an abundance of innovative ideas and activities to integrate into their communities such as: create your own ‘Indigenous Food’s Jeopardy’ game, or check out game ideas at, and more resources & stories can be found at Ramey’s website, Horagewi. In reference to Ramey’s art and garden projects done in urban spaces he encourage us to, “Get independence from the ground; reclaim space to share and impose our stories!”

paul winning bookAnd then there was the powerhouse team of Alaskans from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, representing their amazing program of ‘Store Outside Your Door.’ The dynamic trio consisted of Dr. Gary Ferguson (Unangan/Aleut), Meda DeWitt Schleifman (Tlingit), and Desiree Bergeron (Tlingit). As a collective (consisting of mass amounts of traditional knowledge on plants and healing) they held a workshop demonstrating how to make a healing salve utilizing traditional medicines from their communities including herbs such as: cottonwood (good for abrasions/bruising, wrinkles & acne), yarrow (is a blood cleanser & tonic), lavender (antibacterial, antimicrobial & healing to skin) and stinkweed (good for stress, joint pain & eczema). Throughout the workshop bits of advice and teachings were scattered between the hands on demonstration. Together we discussed the need to share our knowledge so that it is not lost. They noted, “A lot of our knowledge is fractured. ‘The Emperor has no clothes’; now is the time to share with respect and ethics.”

One of the most challenging tasks of the conference was choosing which workshops to attend. Luckily here at NYLA we share knowledge too! Here is a reflection from Johnny Buck’s experience attending Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) and Miguel Hernandez’s workshop on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project.

Buck shared, “When learning my language; I learn about our food as medicine. I really understand that message. Our traditional teachings make me remember; as well the experience of traditionally gathering our foods and medicines.” This was the sentiment that Buck brought with him to this conference and was especially reminded of this during Segrest and Hernandez’s workshop. “The work that is being done within the Muckleshoot community was deeply inspiring and beautiful to watch how the community is really blossoming with so many positive movements happening there by creating a healthier community.” Buck was moved by the ripple effects that are being sent out from the work that is being led at Muckleshoot; envisioning the positive effects it can have on his own community. Following the workshop Buck was left with this personal inspiration, “The activist approach sends messages, and it’s intentional. I want to align my values with my actions.”

Learning how to make cedar rope from Theresa Parker

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all those at NWIC and beyond that made this event possible. It takes a special group of people to create such an abundant learning space. The amount of incredibly inspiring teachers and the classes they hold coming out of NWIC is a model for all of us.  

They’re intentionally sharing the knowledge of our traditional foods and wellness practices to ensure we can move in a healthful direction, TOGETHER. Within the conference and within the community there was a subtlety of healing for us all; being empowered to determine our health, food & medicines; to decolonize and embrace our Indigenous foods and ways of knowing.

Our Food is Our Medicine is an annual gathering, look forward to seeing you all there next year.
Lastly, here are some quotes from the conference to simmer on:

“Rest is a traditional value”
“Look back into the eyes of our ancestors and then move forward; Native way of knowing”
“Nutritional Trauma: loss of power to decide”
“Have the kids sing and offer songs for the plants”
“Everyone is different and every plant is different”
“Plants have the same spark we do; tell the plant what we are going to use it for before harvesting”
“Our ancestors saw to the edge of the horizon; do we need to always know what’s happening all around the world?”

Photo credit: Philomath Groove