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.
When Warm Springs Elder Alice Sampson goes out to the fields to dig roots for the annual Root Feast, she is careful to manage her energy. She prays and sings songs with intention, keeping herself positive.
Like many Native ceremonial leaders, she believes that the energy you create goes into the food that is harvested, cooked and eaten, and then it spreads out into the community. As a traditional food gatherer and leader in her community, Sampson knows that it is her responsibility to keep her body and heart healthy to take care of her people.
“We are supposed to do everything in a good way,” says Sampson, who grew up on the reservation, chopping wood, carrying water and swimming in the water trough that her family’s horses drank from.
Sampson, Warm Springs and Wasco, was raised by her grandparents, who were deeply involved in various tribal ceremonies. Her grandmother put her in line to be a food gatherer when Sampson was 12 years old.
Being together as a community is an essential part of Native tribes for exactly this reason: not only to stay connected, but to share and pass down traditional tribal knowledge.
“Our food is healing,” she said. “Right now [in the wake of Covid-19], there is so much grief and loss, it’s even more important.”
First Foods take care of the people
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs believe that when The People were created, certain fish, animals and plants gave of themselves to nourish and care for The People. In return, the First Foods asked that The People honor, protect and care for them every year. Annual First Foods feasts are one of the ways Warm Springs fulfills that obligation, as do many other regional tribes.
The Root Feast is one of three ceremonial feasts that Warm Springs tribal members conduct each year. Each one is timed to the seasonal calendar, to honor and celebrate their First Foods. The celebration begins with the Wild Celery Feast in late winter or early spring, followed by the Root Feast in late spring. The final feast is the Huckleberry Feast in late summer.
The salmon were the first of the water beings to step up to give themselves to The People. Other regional river tribes, like Celilo, have a feast specifically for the salmon. Warm Springs, with a reservation of more than 1,000 square miles of high desert between Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, honors the salmon during the Root Feast, when roots and salmon are cooked together.
The timing of the feasts depends on the foods. The exact dates for the feasts are not chosen until the traditional foods are ready. That timing can be impacted by late winters, when the ice melts or when the salmon spawn.
“Weather really impacts the roots — hot summer, snow melt, drought. Climate change affects them,” Sampson said. “Open grazing can cause issues also … horses and cows like the (root) tops.”
The preparation for the feasts involves ceremony, beginning with the traditional food gatherers. There are protocols around how food is harvested and prepared, what songs are sung and prayers are offered — even the way the food is arranged and the order it is served.
Different protocols come from the different ways people are taught. During the years when the Warm Springs Reservation was mostly shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the tribe gathered in smaller groups to conduct feasts separately. The people understood the importance of keeping their traditions strong. They learned from their ancestors that if they stop honoring the First Foods via the feasts, then the plants and animals that make up the First Foods could go extinct.
Passing down traditional knowledge
To prioritize safety, the tribe shut down the longhouses and posted strict protocols during the first three years of the pandemic. Flyers were posted in central locations, relying on word of mouth to spread the word to people who lacked technology — a challenge on many reservations.
Being together as a community is an essential part of Native tribes for exactly this reason: not only to stay connected, but to share and pass down traditional tribal knowledge. This year is the first time since the pandemic began that the tribe will gather as larger groups inside their longhouses to observe the feasts.
Many tribal members wonder how the pandemic will impact their traditions going forward.
“We divided our crews in half during Covid,” Sampson said. “(My group) had our feasts in a tipi longhouse (as opposed to their regular Simnasho longhouse). It was out in the open, and it would get windy and cold — our food was flying around.”
During the pandemic, some families chose to conduct their own feasts in their homes to prioritize safety. There were also individuals and families who didn’t have the means or ceremonial knowledge to conduct their own feasts, or who chose not to participate in any group gatherings, preferring to prioritize safety above all else.
Families can have their own protocols and preferences that they emphasize during ceremonies. But some worry about the disruption caused by the pandemic.
“One challenge was that some families couldn’t (conduct their own feast ceremonies) because they didn’t know how to do it on their own,” says Jermayne Tukta, Nez Perce, Paiute and Warm Springs. Tukta grew up in Warm Springs and is an archivist at the Museum at Warm Springs. He is fluent in his language — Ichishkin/Sahaptin — and teaches language classes for children and families at the museum.
Living by a seasonal calendar
During First Foods feasts, Tukta helps sing ceremonial songs specifically for feasts that honor the First Foods. His grandmother was a traditional food gatherer.
“Some families opened their homes to people who couldn’t do it on their own,” Tukta said. Warm Springs tribal members worked together to try and include everyone.
Holding feasts to honor the foods was difficult, he said, but the absence of so many elders who passed away during the Covid-19 pandemic and held deep knowledge of the First Foods ceremonies, including drummers and singers, is a great loss of traditional knowledge.
Into that gap, young tribal members have stepped forward to assist with funeral protocols.
“More younger people attended ceremonies than elders because they were healthier and less concerned about getting sick and dying,” Tukta said. “So then they stepped up to learn the songs and learned more funeral songs than anything.”
“Drummers that came up during Covid learned how to sing funeral songs, so sometimes they sing those during feasts, when those songs aren’t really the most appropriate songs for feasts and celebrations,” Tukta said. “It’s important that people talk more about what a song means and why it is sung.”
Vital role of ceremony
Tukta and Sampson said they look forward to the full tribe gathering again in the longhouses to celebrate First Foods feasts this year. While Covid-19 presented many challenges, it has also encouraged the younger generation to step up and fill the holes left by elders who have been hesitant to join in-person gatherings.
The elders have always guided the daughters, and as the daughters step into leadership, they train the granddaughters for their eventual roles. Giving traditional knowledge to younger tribal members will help the traditions and ceremonies continue.
“It’s hard to think of the transitions, as the elder women and leaders move on to the next phase of their lives, and then the next generation steps up to keep the traditions going,” Sampson said.
That process has felt rushed because of the pandemic, but Sampson has great faith in the young people of Warm Springs. She says it’s inspiring for the elders to see the natural order of knowledge passing from generation to generation.
“The ceremonies are run now by daughters and granddaughters,” Sampson said. Sampson chuckles as she remembers stepping into the line at 12 years of age, seeing herself in those in training.
“Young women, wide-eyed, overwhelmed, trying to keep up, in a safe place to make mistakes, learning as they grow.”
Lead image: Alice Sampson demonstrates the use of a pointed metal tool known as a kuppen, used to dig out roots from the ground. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)