April 3, 2023

Flexing Our Sovereignty: An Introduction to Underscore's Food Sovereignty Project

Series Co-Manager Nicole Charley introduces a series of stories about traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices that honor and strengthen the relationship to the plants and animals that sustain all of us.


Underscore News

The Food Sovereignty Project tells stories about traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices that honor and strengthen the relationship to the plants and animals that sustain all of us. The seven-story project was co-managed by Nicole Charley and Jackleen de La Harpe for Underscore News with generous support from The Roundhouse Foundation. Read the entire series here.


Last summer, I saw a Facebook post from a Native community page for the Portland/Vancouver area that said a deer was available. I commented that I would love to take it, but I had no place to butcher. Another Native community member replied that they would be willing to assist. My sister and I loaded up my SUV with tarps, a big plastic container, fileting knives and leather gloves.

The deer was in a neighborhood along the Columbia River. The couple who posted about the deer showed us where it was and told us she was part of a herd that visited the neighborhood on a regular basis. The poor doe had tried to jump the fence, got caught on her neck, and bled out.

We let the couple know that we planned to harvest the meat, and we would make use of as much of the animal as we could, including the hide and brain.

With help, the doe was loaded into the back of my SUV, and my sister and I drove it to RBG Freedom Farm for butchering. RBG does food work with the greater BIPOC community and supports the Seven Waters Canoe Family. Our friend walked us through the process of removing the hide and taking the meat off the bones. Another farmer came over to watch and asked about the intestines and organs. We gladly gave him what was left of the carcass; we were so happy that the whole animal would be used.

Nicole Charley and her sister, Sheilina Charley, harvest a doe that died accidentally in September 2022. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Charley)

When I got home, my partner and I watched YouTube videos on ways to preserve the meat.

I share this story as part of my family's 2022 spiral of seasons, a peek into a timeline of First Food experiences of the seasonal calendar. I haven’t had a lot of hands-on time with yamash (deer), so this experience was special to me.

In preparation for our boys' First Kill ceremony (they are coming into their teens now), we will incorporate what we learned and the kids will continue to learn along with us. After meeting certain legal requirements, including certified gun safety training, they will continue to be mentored by their grandfathers as they learn about the cultural and spiritual side of this rite of passage. In flexing our sovereignty, we are ensuring they can pass along this knowledge to future generations.

This series of stories illuminate and lift up Native people who are flexing their food sovereignty — being intentional in choosing how to feed their families and their communities, working together and sharing sacred resources. Gathering, hunting, fishing, prep, and storage are beautifully complex processes. Native communities also have complex and layered political and legal dances in navigating their food sovereignty. For Native peoples, our foods are at the core of our existence. It is beautiful to see the efforts revolving around revitalization and regeneration in different communities.

Nicole Charley’s family digs roots on the Warm Springs Reservation, in May 2021, accompanied by Bingo the dog. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Charley)

Food systems work is central in my life, and sharing the passions of the interviewees in this series makes my heart happy. My work as a Traditional Food Gatherer for my tribe is a lifelong commitment, duty and honor: to care for the foods, to feed my people, to protect this knowledge for the next generation, to model service for my people.

I am humbled to be chosen by my family for the honor to be a Traditional Food Gatherer. To be able to tie together my personal, professional, and educational goals and passions is a blessing in my life. Part of my work is sharing the food gathering stories of my community, my family, and others as we prepare the next generation of food gatherers, hunters, and fishers, as well as sharing the hurdles faced in our efforts to incorporate traditional foods and cultural ways of knowing into our daily lives.


Lead photo: Five-year-old Julian Jackson, Warm Springs, holds a root during a harvest at the root digging fields on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon in April 2022. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Charley)

About the author

Nicole Charley

Nicole Charley is of the Taix Band and the Wasco/Dog River Band of the Columbia River region and a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. Nicole works with the Intertribal Agriculture Council and  is a designated Traditional Foods Gatherer for the Simnasho Longhouse, a lifetime designation, honor, and commitment. She is co-director of the Food Sovereignty Project for Underscore News.