Harvest wild plants with Native nutritionist Valerie Segrest of the Muckleshoot Tribe. Explore what a regionally-based food system could look like in the Pacific Northwest. Take part in establishing edible prairie-land in your city to increase access to native foods.
Learn more at GrowingOldProject.com.
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This series was created in collaboration.
Lylianna Allala, Colleen Echohawk, and Tamara Power-Drutis
Zoey Echohawk-Hayashi, Lily Warrior, Collen Echohawk, Lylianna Allala, along with various members of the Growing Old team.
Music for the series by:
Black Stax, Glass Heart String Choir, Lacey Warrior, and Talaya Logan Marque Studios with engineering and mixing by Katie Mosehauer and Greg Fields and mixing and mastering by Pierre Ferguson.
Music in Episode 2 by:
Glass Heart String Choir, Kai Engel, and Tamara Power-Drutis.
Katie Mosehauer, Tamara Power-Drutis, and Katie Myers
In Partnership With:
Chief Seattle Club and Earth Day Northwest 2020
Promotion and Community Engagement by:
Katie Myers and The Vida Agency
Fiscal sponsorship provided by:
Earth Day Northwest 2020 and Forterra
This is the kind of story that begins in a forest, on the traditional lands of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Coast Salish People, past and present. It’s a story about Seattle’s urban forest and the humans that live within it. It’s told with gratitude, to honor the trees who care for us, and those who care for this land. To learn, or to remember, the medicines that have been a part of this place since time immemorial.
We start in the year 2070, imagining what our City might look like if we planted the right seeds today. We follow the story of Chief Seattle Club, as they turn concrete into a Medicine Garden at Eagle Village. And we end each episode with you. You. And me. And how we might work together so that the humans and trees in our community can grow old.
In this episode, you’ll continue to hear from members Growing Old Project team:
In episode two, we shared the hummingbird story as told by Wangari Maathai, in which a small hummingbird battles a forest fire and inspires us to do the best that we can, even -- or especially -- when we feel insignificant.
We heard the story of Fujiatro Kubota, who contributed the best that he could even amidst World War II and his family’s incarceration, nurturing what has grown into a 20-acre Japanese garden in Rainier Beach.
Today, we explore what it might look like to bring those principles of care and community into our homes and food systems during a pandemic.
Because even during a pandemic, even if we’re overwhelmed, and even if we feel powerless, we still gotta eat.
On an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon, we left Seattle and drove Southeast to the town of Enumclaw to ask food system strategist and wild medicine expert Valerie Segrest where a hummingbird should begin.
She had just recently finished producing 160 ounces of Douglas Fir infused hand sanitizer for members of the Chief Seattle Club, many of whom don’t have easy access to a sink to wash their hands in during the COVID pandemic. This is one way to protect them, it’s also a traditional way.
We met on her porch to handoff a microphone and chat at a safe distance, this was March 2020, after all.
Alright, you’re set. in right after "after all"
Alright. Cool. Thanks.
Valerie spoke to us from inside her mother’s house, while Tamara asked her questions from across the street near a Western Redcedar.
Are you all set?
It might not have been the most standard interview format…
Should I go? Are you on mute now?
It’s so weird!
I’ll put myself on mute now.
But we’re grateful that she took the time to share her knowledge.
My name is Valerie Segrest and I am a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe, located just south of Seattle, Washington at the base of Mount Rainier, in between the Green and White River. Our historical homelands span across the region including Seattle. So several of our tribal members are descendants of the village sites of the City of Seattle.
Valerie works as a Native nutritionist, and specializes in wild foods and medicines of the Northwest. Over the past decade, she’s also been involved in Tribal food sovereignty as a food system strategist.
Currently my role is to help strengthen food sovereignty efforts across Indian Country with the Native American Agriculture Fund, which is a private charitable spin down trust fund that aims to support Native food producers for the next 20 years.
We wondered what had caused the spark for Valerie, what made her become the kind of hummingbird that fights for food sovereignty, mass produces smudge spray for Urban Natives during a pandemic, and shares her harvest with relatives and community.
What I love about wild harvesting and foraging is not that it's also just filling up your cabinets in your pantry with amazing nutrient-dense food, but also the experience that is required in order to make that happen. Which is very different from your experience of going to the grocery store.
In fact, going to a grocery store and buying some blueberries is quite transactional. You are going into the store grabbing the produce off the shelf, handing it to a cashier, giving them money and they're giving you the berries and you leave. That is completely different experience from traveling to the Huckleberry meadows, harvesting that berry, breathing in the mountain air, creating memories with your family or whoever is out there harvesting with you, remembering memories from maybe a recent outing with family members the prior year or from years in a distant past.
And then quite often our teaching is to be able to share that food with someone who didn't have the ability or couldn't afford to be out there and those meadows with you. And so you might come back and, you know, set some aside for an elder or a disabled person or someone who didn't know where to go or how to do it, and is in need of that food resource.
And so in a way, you're increasing citizenship and strengthening the role of people in a place, you're giving yourself some purpose and meaning. It's transformational, not transactional.
And that's why even just growing your own food or harvesting nearby or getting to know a plant and sharing it with people is so important. As human beings, our bodies and spirits crave wholeness, crave being a part of a whole. And that’s society in more modern terms. And what better way to show in society as a person who can carry medicine and be medicine and offer medicine, we need that now more than ever.
We asked Valerie to share about Indigenous agricultural practices, and how her ancestors had managed natural resources here in the Northwest.
Historically the PNW was once the largest most densely populated non-agricultural region on the planet.
This means that our ancestors knew how to manage natural resources in a really effective way, that the Northwest was adorned with several different food systems from berry meadows to Camas prairies, to food forests to shellfish gardens, and an abundance of seafood and wild game to harvest.
Some people would say that you could step out of the longhouse and trip over food, that it was really rich and abundant. And in fact, I worked with the Burke Museum on a database that they pulled together with over 300 different kinds of foods that we're eating here pre-contact. And these foods were found in Shell mittens that they were digging up all around the Puget Sound region.
That is very different from a standard American diet that offers anywhere between 12 and 20 different foods in a given year, our ancestors were eating from white cap to white cap, mountain top to shoreline, over 300 different kinds of food, which means that there was an incredible diversity in ecosystem spread throughout the landscape and in some places that's just 50 miles.
While Valerie’s ancestors were able to eat over 300 different kinds of native foods here in the Seattle area, that’s not something she, or anyone, has access to today.
In this lifetime, we may not achieve our full embodied vision for the food system. And that's okay, because sometimes when we're making change in the world, or we're writing policy or we're building up resilience in our plants and food system, we also have to always keep in mind the people who have yet to come. And in so many ways the Tree people teach us this.
Our food system today is very different, and there are several challenges to accessing not just local healthy food, but also and potentially more important, Native foods that are culturally relevant to our people.
Several conservation districts are taking it up. I know of many gardens in the Seattle area that are also really thoughtful about encouraging the growth of Native foods and plants. And so it's hit or miss. And it really depends on the person and what they're looking for.
But mostly, there are obvious challenges from modern life that didn't exist here pre-contact. And that challenge is not just reflected in our access to these foods, but also the foods that are trying to grow here that are from here as well.
We can be a part of that, by planting food and medicine that is indigenous to this area. We can also support the Native food producers who are working to make Native foods available on a larger scale.
I now work nationally with several Native food producers and we have all the potential to be able to produce our Native foods. There are programs going on all over the country around revitalizing wild potatoes and reenergizing buffalo ranching and rethinking about, bringing ancient growing methods into a modern world.
And so I have a lot of hope. And I feel like we have this incredible opportunity in front of us to be able to be a more regional based food system and have tribes really lead the way.
The power of community agriculture and a regionally based food system have been proven throughout history and across cultures. During World War II, while Fujitaro Kubota and many other Japanese gardeners and farmers were interned, a citizen movement began to fill the country’s need for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Around 20 million gardens were grown across the U.S. as part of what was called the Victory Garden movement. At their peak, these gardens provided nearly 40 percent of our country’s vegetables. While the movement was essential at the time, it carried with it a connotation of wartime, and a memory of Japanese Internment.
Today, as the shelves of our local grocery stores go bare, and uncertainty about food supply mounts, some communities are turning back to the Victory Garden model to provide for family and friends. But what if we looked further back for lessons on how to provide healthy food for everyone in our community?
In order for us to shift to a more regional based food system, we really need to take an inventory of what is here and what we would like to champion in returning. Quite often we think of urban Natives and reservation based Natives as being separate. But there's this incredible potential to create a pipeline from the area that has the land base to grow foods to a urbanized area that has the market to sell those foods.
And so how do we strengthen our connection and not think about two separate worlds or populations but one whole group of people that are moving towards a one common cause, and one common goal to be able to increase Native food access, and that also includes marketability.
The other point is that we can all do our part in playing a role in invigorating that system. If we think about all of the things that we need to do to make sure that our our foods are more regionally focused, we can become overwhelmed quite quickly. But if we actually are modeling what historical food system looked like, certain families would carry certain access to certain foods.
Restoring a regionally based food system won’t happen overnight, but there are obvious seeds that can be planted today, even during a pandemic. We asked Valerie to describe what it would look like for communities to be a part of a more familial food system, and what it looked like for her ancestors.
Some family sure would have, you know, an abundance of foods to choose from, but by and large, you would go to one particular family for Alder medicine, you'd go to another one for Rose medicine, you'd go to another one for Huckleberry medicine.
And this was very intentional, because if we all knew everything we needed to know about plants or the living world around us, then we wouldn't need each other and the world would fall apart. And that social capital being woven right into families, is something that we can really still live by and implement here.
So maybe you and your family takes on nettles and you make sure that every potluck and Indian event you go to nettles is on the table, be it as a beverage or a food or a pesto or any of the multitude of ways in which you can incorporate that particular plant into your menus.
As I was listening to Valerie describe what it would look like for families to interact in an Indigenous-modeled food system, it didn’t sound unachievable. In fact, aspects of it reminded me of what it was like growing up in Eastern Washington.
In Cheney, which is on the ancestral lands of the Spokane Tribe, most of our neighbors tended to a farm, and my brothers and I were often sent to pick up fresh eggs or to drop off baked goods to folks up the road.
Yet other aspects of the food system Valerie described revealed how much of our ecosystem I hadn’t even begun to interact with or consider. While my family has tended to gardens for generations, I never thought of the plants beyond our managed plots as part of them. There was a garden. And there was a forest. The two didn’t really overlap in my mind.
Though, as a number of agroforestry studies now show, plants and trees seem to enjoy growing more when they do. And when they overlap in a city, they serve a critical role in increasing food security and access.
In a study on Natural Resource Access Rights published in the journal of Society and Natural Resources, researchers with the USDA Forest Service examined how people in Seattle gain access to wild foods in our urban parks, yards, and public right of ways.
They found that “when rural, Indigenous, and immigrant populations move to urban areas, they may recreate traditions of natural resource use there and continue to rely on wild resources for part of their livelihoods and for food security.”
Harvesting, they write, has become a global phenomenon in urban places, a trend expected to continue in coming years. Some cities or districts determine access for harvesting based on an allotment or pea-patch system, in which residents are provided with a lease to manage and harvest their plot. But there are also more informal models for how to manage harvesting in the city.
Forest Service researchers found that internal moral calculations about whether it’s right or wrong to harvest a particular plant were a primary mechanism to preventing over-harvesting here in Seattle, and they recommended that voluntary codes of conduct may be the best way to manage harvesting in urban areas.
One of the major teachings and around the ethics of harvesting is to only take what you need. In fact, after you're done harvesting from an area it should look like you were never there. Some people may break it down into numbers and say only take 10% of what you see, but also be considerate of other life that might need access to that and to not devastate a wild food crop.
Central to this type of food system, is an edible landscape, far more nurtured than the one we live in today. Still, Valerie says that harvesting food in Seattle is possible, so long as you learn in the field with someone who knows how to do so ethically.
Seattle has some really good spots actually for harvesting and I'm not going to tell you where they are because they're still my spots, even though I live in South King County now. The parks are beautiful. There is food adorned all over the City. And I have had a couple of moments where I've been harvesting in the Seattle area and people will stop by and say, “that berry is toxic, you can't eat it.”
And it's something like Salal, which is so nutritious and high in antioxidants and grows everywhere and it's so easy to grow because it wants to live here. I just think how far off we are as a society not knowing that the food that we need to heal ourselves is growing right outside the door. And it's a teacher and it's waiting for you just right outside the door.
Harvesting wild plants is something that you can learn, but should only be attempted if you commit to following the rules. We asked Valerie to walk us through what it looks like to harvest plants ethically.
The number one rule is, if you've never gone out to get something before, please take somebody with you who has. Someone who has had experience, hands on application to that particular plant, is going to not just give you a richer experience, it's also going to be way more safe than just bumbling around out there with a plant ID book. There are very few foods that are toxic in our landscape, which is what makes our food scapes so awesome. But they are so easy to misidentify, then you really just wouldn't want to get sick.
While you’re developing your plant ID skills, Valerie suggests keeping an eye out for how clean the land is that you’re harvesting from.
When I'm looking at a new harvesting spot, I sort of take an inventory around that spot.
Say I’m harvesting a berry but I look to the left of me and I see an obvious area where it has been sprayed with a weed killer. I wouldn't be harvesting that berry anymore. Or perhaps I see some really good things growing along the roadside. And it's a busy road and it's near a ditch. I wouldn't want to harvest that even though it's so tempting and so beautiful. I still wouldn't harvest from an area that's got extra hydrocarbons and pollutants in it.
You’ll also want to learn which season is best for gathering different wild foods. For example, Spring is a time for camas, summer for huckleberries, and autumn for fish runs.
In their Salish cookbook, Feeding Seven Generations, Valerie and her co-author Elise Krone write that “seasonal foods connect us with the rhythm of the land.”
The vitality of the medicine of the plant moves through the plant. And so if you're harvesting dandelion greens, for example, springtime is the best time to do that. You really wouldn't want to harvest dandelion greens in the fall when all the medicine is returning back to the root of the plant. The Fall is a good time to harvest dandelion roots because that's where the vitality of the plant is at.
Not only that, the leaves become really fibrous over the years, so they're less palatable. But when you're eating those wild greens in the springtime, they're tender and fresh and bitter. And that's the medicine of springtime. So you really want to make sure that you're gathering in the right season.
The act of harvesting is only part of the process, Valerie says.
Some food is processed and stored and prepared in certain ways, and that can make a really big difference from someone being nourished or getting sick.
Also remember that your harvesting time is pretty short in compared to the processing time. So what I quite often run into is being overly enthusiastic, harvesting, and then getting home and realizing that it's going to take, it may have taken me an hour to harvest, it's going to take me six hours to process. So be thinking about the end game, and how long it's actually going to take you to get through the whole experience.
Learning to harvest can take a while, which is why Valerie recommends starting slow and taking a guide. But even when you’ve completed your harvest and prepared your food, your job isn’t quite done yet.
Always honor your commitment to the food that you're harvesting. So finish processing that food and then eat it. Don't just store it away. If you're taking the life of a plant, the best way to honor it is to use it. And so make sure that those frozen nettles in your freezer are consumed every year. And maybe that Salmon you harvested is actually roasted and eaten.
When we're harvesting we always want to keep in mind the people that we're harvesting for, and how we want them to feel. And so when you're remembering that, as you're harvesting, remembering to think good thoughts, to talk to the plant, maybe not out loud, if that isn't your thing, but to hold that intention, letting the plant know that you are going to utilize it to be medicine for somebody, to feed somebody who needs that nourishment, to feed yourself and that you're asking for the best part of the plant and committing to honoring the plant in the best way possible is incredibly important and makes all the difference in how that food is received.
Vi Hilbert would say that plants have a mind and a spirit and a body just like we do. And so we can talk directly to that plant and that can show, in just having really good intention and really good vision for what you want that plant harvest to become, what kind of medicine you want it to become.
Live with the seasons.
Cook and eat with good intention.
Diversity your diet.
Eat whole foods, especially plants.
Give back to the land.
Gather wild foods.
These are the ways recommended by Valerie and Elise in their Salish Cookbook.In it, they write that “food is a gift,” and that Coast Salish values and food traditions are a living legacy that links them to the past, present, and future generations.
The book notes that by harvesting native foods and incorporating them into a modern lifestyle, Native people strengthen their cultural identity, as well as their relationship to the land and tribal sovereignty.
In the Native community, we have lost a lot of our opportunity for agriculture. In my own Tribe, the Pawnee Nation. We lost tremendous amounts of our knowledge and infrastructure around Indigenous agriculture because of the genocide we experienced.
And so now, I have aunties and my own siblings, who are working really hard to bring back some of those old ways. And I do believe that we have a lot of hope around climate change.
I think that a huge part of that hope is the renaissance of Indigenous ways of knowledge and science and systems that will bring back the right kinds of foods and the right kind of time, the right kinds of growth and sustainability of our water systems.
I think that is something for us to be really, really hopeful about and encourage in every way realm, from government and from nonprofits and in our own homes and yards, that Indigenous knowledge systems should be lifted up as a way to encourage and sustain environmental justice.
As Native communities regain their ancestral knowledge and infrastructure, there’s also room for non-Native people to learn from Indigenous science.
So, let’s talk details.What would it look like, to lift up Indigenous knowledge systems across communities here in Seattle?
Next week, we’ll talk about what this might look like in regards to housing infrastructure and policy. But today, let’s talk about what that could look like in our own homes, or yards.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably got a seed nursery going right now with your basic veggie starts. Countless people have taken up gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic, an influx that many have likened to the Victory Garden movement.
But what if we turned to Indigenous science for how we might steward our gardens?
What if instead of Victory Gardens, we started planting prairies? Prairies that stretched from my backyard to yours, woven into the fabric of the forest, across the City of Seattle and expanding further still.
We asked Valerie to picture coming across her ideal prairie for our year 2070, and what she would hope to see growing there.
That field for me would have to be a Camus prairie, that when Camus is in full bloom, it looks like a body of water in a really, really healthy prairie. And it's not even just Camus that's there. There's a multitude of other prairie life and lily bulbs species that are abundant on that prairie. This blue Lily bulb flowers adorned with chocolate Lily or fruit alaria little rice root, which is actually my favorite prairie plant.
But I'm the worst at Camus harvesting too, by the way, because you really are in a field of lilies in bloom like it is a daydreamer's paradise. And it's so full of good feelings.
I am constantly reminded that Camus prairies are brought here via glacier 10,000 years ago, and without human intervention, they would have been swallowed up by lowland forests succession a long time ago. So that means that my ancestors had been taking care of these gardens for thousands of years.
It's like if you were to be maintaining your great grandmother's Victory Garden, like that feeling you would get of her presence being there, her approval, her admiration of you maintaining that wonderful tradition for your family and for the cammus to continue to exist. That is what I would see, all of those promising beautiful feelings, right there in that prairie infront of me.
Harvesting food, particularly those indigenous to this area, strengthens our individual relationship with this place. Harvesting food ethically, requires us to work together. And if we can do that, there’s much to be hopeful about.
What’s your favorite native food or medicine in the Seattle area? Is it huckleberry? Hazelnut? Salmon? Elk? Fiddlehead ferns? Share your favorite with us on Instagram at Growing Old Project.
Learn more at Growing Old Project dot com.
This series was developed in collaboration.
It was co-created by Colleen Echohawk, Lylilanna Allala, and Tamara Power-Drutis.
It was produced by Katie Mosehauer.
Music for the series was created by Lacey Warrior, Glass Heart String Choir, and Black Stax.
Promotion and marketing was provided by Katie Myers and The Vida Agency.
Support for this project is provided by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Arts in the Parks, a partnership between the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and Seattle Parks and Recreation.
This is Growing Old.