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Reclaiming First Foods

NW Indigenous people seek to protect and reclaim their ancestral diet

For generations Native people in the Pacific Northwest lived by a complex and seasonally changing diet, referred to as First Foods. With colonization of the region, however, came the severing of ancestral tribal foodways. For more than a century, the introduction of foods high in refined sugars, processed carbohydrates and poor-quality fats, have resulted in rampant diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses in Native communities. 

Hope on the rise

A movement to reclaim the traditional Northwest Native diet, rebuild community health and educate all people, not just tribal members, about First Foods and traditional foodways aims to change that. The revolution seeks to re-establish environmentally sound Native harvesting practices and dietary reliance on berries, nettles, shellfish, salmon and camas – the First Foods.

Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe and a Native foods nutritionist, has worked with most tribes in Washington to help rebuild First Foods foundations. She says it’s been an honor watching the gradual return to her people’s traditional foodways over time. 

“Every tribe has some initiative dedicated to strengthening our food traditions and is making an effort to prioritize intergenerational teachings along the way,” says Segrest, owner of Tahoma Peak Solutions.

A healing work

“For us, it is about healing,” she says. “For over a century, tribal communities have experienced intentional severing from our ancestral foodways through federal, state and local policies that work to create obstacles for us to access our foods and medicines. Prioritizing our ancestral food teachings is about healing from that severing.”

The return to a First Foods diet, she says, has a multitudinous impact: “It is about prioritizing the treatment of these preventable diseases, and it is also about addressing the colonial impacts on our people.”

First Foods impact everyone

Segrest believes that also educating non-Native people about the First Foods can sustain humans in the region. She says it will take all of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous families — working together to revitalize the health of the land, water and other elements needed to supply an abundance of these staples. 

“Increasing the visibility of our work to return to our ancestral foodways is part of addressing impacts; it is part of our healing story,” she says. “It is also important for others to recognize that we carry valuable ecological knowledge that will address issues of climate justice and food equality so rampant in our country writ large.”

Connecting kids to First Foods

Mariana Harvey of the Yakama Nation is the Wild Foods and Medicines Tribal Relations Lead of GRuB. As the mother of a 4-year-old and 7-month-old, Harvey says she has been very intentional about connecting her kids to their ancestors’ traditional diet and developing their palate for such foods early on. An Indigenous diet helped nourish her children in utero, Harvey says, stressing that she considers her childrens’ very first foods – the milk from her body – “the best first medicine.” 

Harvey is also a co-creator of the Tend, Gather & Grow Curriculum, a set of five toolkits developed by about a dozen Native and non-Native people to help others families explore native and naturalized plants and foods of the Pacific Northwest region. The toolkits include Indigenous knowledge, stories, and plant and food medicine traditions. 

Passing ancestral knowledge to a new generation

Harvey has frequently heard her elders say that eating Native foods helps youngsters acclimate to their own land. She is passing that knowledge down to her children. 

Involving her oldest child in foraging and other gathering processes – for example hunting for salmonberries around their house – builds interest in testing and “cherishing” those foods. At 3 months old, they were already out in the mountain huckleberry meadows together. Now Harvey’s looking forward to this year’s nettle season as yet another chance to show her children the importance of First Foods and “the superpowers they bring.”

A child’s first food

There is another Native tradition that Harvey honors: The gathering of foods by family members. The first solid food consumed by Harvey’s 4-year-old was elk hunted by an uncle. For her 7-month-old, it was salmon caught by a cousin. The family also incorporates traditional foods from the ancestors of Harvey’s partner, who is Mexica (or Aztec). 

“Food is our identity,” she says. “Both cultures really uplift that.”

Learn more
  • To find out more about traditional foodways and culture, check out the hands-on activities and curricula offered by the Washington State Farm to School Network’s resource of Farm to ECE in Tribal programs
  • Visit ʔálʔal Café located Pioneer Square. Owned and operated by Chief Seattle Club, this modern-day cafe (“ʔálʔal” is Lushootseed for “home”) reclaims and reintroduces traditional Indigenous foods, while showcasing Native-owned suppliers. While the food they serve is undoubtedly delicious, many will argue the overall experience is even richer. 
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About the Author

Corinne Whiting

Corinne Whiting is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor with a deep love for nature, live music, passionate people and global explorations.