April 3, 2023

How Indigenous Nations Are Rebuilding Food Systems

Local food, grounded in cultural and spiritual values, forms the basis for a growing food sovereignty movement.


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.


“We were thrown to the four winds.”

That's how Francene Ambrose describes the fate of her people when, in 1954, the U.S. government terminated its relationship with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The U.S. had obtained Western Oregon by treaty a century earlier. Although Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that treaties are “the supreme law of the land,” termination meant the U.S. no longer recognized Grand Ronde and sold the lands it had protected for the tribe by holding the title in trust. The people were forced to relocate.  

The Grand Ronde fought to restore their status with the U.S. government. In 1983, they prevailed, regaining nearly 10,000 acres of their original 61,000-acre reservation. Since then, the sovereign nation has made great economic and cultural strides to rebuild their economy and restore their traditional food ways.

In fact, it was traditional food knowledge — knowing plant harvesting areas, seasons and preservation techniques — that helped the peoples of the Grand Ronde survive the 29-year diaspora.

“During termination, we didn’t have the legal authority to harvest in our traditional areas, but we didn’t know that,” Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy said. “When I was growing up, we didn’t buy foods from the store. We fished for salmon and trout. We harvested huckleberries, wild asparagus, wild celery, wild strawberries and camas. Western Oregon was rich with resources.”

Kennedy and others believe a return to traditional food knowledge is key to restoring physical Indigenous health and ensuring the survival of a cultural lifeway. That movement — called food sovereignty — shifts people away from corporate food systems toward locally grown, locally distributed, culturally appropriate foods.

“We would not have survived colonization without the food knowledge we have,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t have all the modern amenities we have now. We had to know ways of preserving the food that we gathered.”

Connecting communities with food

Many Indigenous nations are reconnecting to the traditional foods of their ancestors. The shift from a traditional diet to government-supplied commodities and processed foods is reflected in chronic diseases like diabetes. It’s a condition that was rare among Indigenous people before the 1940s. Today, the average life expectancy of Indigenous people is nearly seven years shorter than white Americans, according to a 2015 report by the National Institutes of Health.

Food sovereignty, by contrast, emphasizes the nourishment provided by traditional foods hunted and gathered locally, honored and shared in traditional ways. In the Pacific Northwest, those foods include an array of nutrient-dense plants, as well as salmon, bear, deer and elk meat.

“Elders come out on the floor during our First Foods Celebration and share their favorite memories of tribal foods and their favorite stories about fishing, hunting and harvesting while growing up,” said Ambrose, manager of Iskam MǝkʰMǝk-Haws (“House where you get food”). Iskam MǝkʰMǝk-Haws provides traditional foods to tribal citizens and hosts classes on gardening, cooking and food preservation.

“Some of our families are from what I call the grocery store generation,” Ambrose said. “They’ve been disconnected from traditional foods, or they have a distant memory of a food but don’t remember what it was. Elders will say, ‘Oh, we used to make this. Could it be this?’ And then there’s sharing going on and reconnecting. Our elders are helping families regain knowledge of those foods — the traditional names of those foods, the locations and harvest times and how to prepare them.”

Aaron Gilliam plants organic vegetable starts for Samish Nation elders in the summer of 2021. Many elders received vegetable starts and soil to plant in their own garden.  (Photo courtesy of the Samish Indian Nation)

New systems, old traditions

For years, elders of the Samish Indian Nation in Anacortes, Washington, met Monday through Friday for lunch in the elders building to socialize and enjoy a meal together. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck and elders could no longer congregate.

In response, the Samish Nation revamped the elders’ meal program into a food distribution system that incorporated traditional foods and other necessities. It took shape as a home delivery program that skirted supply chain issues by purchasing food from local growers.

“In the past, we would send out food items that were basic,” said Allison Coonc, Director of Samish Food Services. She said that changed in response to a food preference survey she included with a delivery.

“We gathered, dried and prepared stinging nettles for soup and tea and foraged for mushrooms,” Coonc said. “We welcomed a gift of salmon caught by Upper Skagit Tribe fishermen and donated to Bellingham Food Bank. The food bank wanted to give the salmon back to local tribes, recognizing these are their ancestral lands and that the people have a deep and powerful connection to this place.”

The program partnered with Native-owned Long Hearing Farm for fresh produce. Elders received local, certified-organic produce in summer and fall.

In addition to salmon, cod, nettle soup and fresh produce in their delivery bags, elders might find recipes, nutrition tips, cleaning products and personal health care items. They may receive cultural items, such as a language activity book and a book to document their Samish lineage. Elders are encouraged to start their own gardens.

“We offered various organic vegetable starts, seeds, herbs, and natural and chemical-free soil,” Coonc said.

A sample of Long Hearing Farm produce a Samish Nation elder receives as part of the tribe's weekly home food deliveries. (Photo courtesy of the Samish Indian Nation)  

Take your ancestors shopping

Alaska’s First Peoples lived on the bounty around them: berries, plants, caribou, deer, moose, fish, seal and whale. With the arrival of colonization, much of the knowledge of harvesting and preparing native foods was taken away as aboriginal Alaskans adapted to a Western cash-based economy. The result: dependence on store-bought processed foods.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is reconnecting Indigenous Alaskans to traditional foods through a program called The Store Outside Your Door that reintroduces Alaska Native people to a lifestyle of identifying and harvesting foods where they live. The program works with communities to build food-sharing networks that employ traditional harvesters and hunters and make native foods more available.

In the program’s instructional video series, Traditional Foods, Contemporary Chef, chefs go out with local Alaska Natives to fish and harvest, then return to the kitchen to prepare a meal. Viewers might learn to make Alaskan fresh roll consisting of salmonberry shoots, sea asparagus, herring eggs, rice noodles and lettuce wrapped in a spring roll skin; halibut with a salmonberry reduction sauce; or rockfish braised with yarrow, wild parsley and spring greens, topped with with seal oil and seaweed accents.

Crossing treaty boundaries

In the years when Grand Ronde was terminated, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had licensing authority over the tribe’s ability to fish and hunt. And when the federal government restored its recognition of Grand Ronde’s sovereignty, the state didn’t want to relinquish that authority. So the federal government gave the tribe a choice: Your land can be restored to you or you can have fishing and hunting rights. Not both. Grand Ronde chose the land.

Today, Grand Ronde comprises 11,662 acres, but tribal fishing and hunting continues to be regulated by the state. Senate Bill 3126, introduced in November 2021 by Oregon’s U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, would change that by expanding the tribe’s fishing and hunting rights.

Meanwhile, Grand Ronde continues to bolster its food sovereignty initiatives through partnerships. The tribe receives salmon from hatcheries and meat from bear, deer and elk culled by the state. The tribe’s cultural committee organizes trips to harvest plants on tribal, federal and state lands. And some neighbors have made their lands available for harvesting.

“When we’ve opened the First Foods Celebration to the public and we’ve talked about these foods and where they grow, neighbors have said to us, ‘I have a pasture and I see those purple flowers everywhere. We didn’t know that was camas. Would you like to come and harvest from our fields?’” Ambrose said.

Ambrose collects recipes — she calls them “rez-ipes” — that are designed to make traditional foods easier to prepare. Ambrose uses bear meat in spaghetti and meatballs, elk meat in chili, and deer meat in meatloaf and stew. For younger generations raised on grocery store food, the rez-ipes can help make local foods more attractive.

Feeding body, mind and soul

Harvesting close to home is not easy for Indigenous people who live in metropolitan areas. Long Hearing Farm owner Elizabeth Bragg, who is Blackfeet/Cherokee/Gros Ventre, has a favorite saying: “When shopping for food, take your ancestors with you.” She credits Muckleshoot nutrition educator Valerie Segrest with that teaching.

“When shopping I ask myself, ‘What would my grandma want to see in her veggie box?’” Bragg said. “She’d like to see sweet corn. She’d like to see snap peas. She’d like to see tomatoes and lettuce and foods that she grew up eating. She might want some roasted beets. That would be exciting for her.”


Lead photo: Elizabeth Bragg, Blackfeet/Cherokee/Gros Ventre, is owner of Long Hearing Farm in Washington’s fertile Skagit Valley. "It’s incredibly giving, this land that we’re on,” Bragg said. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bragg)

About the author

Richard Arlin Walker

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an ICT correspondent reporting from Western Washington.