Co-authored by Elise Krohn.

Not that long ago, the ancestors of the Northwest Coastal people gathered a vast assortment of foods for subsistence.  Hunting, fishing, harvesting, processing and preparing these foods was woven into everyday life.  As foods became available throughout the seasons, the people would travel to traditional harvesting grounds to collect what was available at that time.  Ceremonies were held to pray for continued abundance and to honor the foods. 

During colonization, these traditions were suppressed and people were no longer able to access their foods.  As a result, the stories and language that celebrate these cultural practices are diminished in the present day; native foods like camas, soapberry and even salmon have become scarce.  Modern-day tribal people face many barriers in accessing such foods.  Loss of land, loss of rights, economics, food regulations, environmental toxins and a loss of knowledge are just a few of the many impediments to increased consumption of traditional foods.

As a response to these barriers, a movement is happening among tribal people in Western Washington to improve individual, family and community wellness by revitalizing traditional food culture.  For many tribal people of the Northwest, the roots, berries, wild game, shellfish and fish are more than foods; they are regarded as teachers and considered a main pillar of culture.  Through sharing rich stories, old-world and environmental knowledge, we have discovered new ways of approaching a modern balanced diet based on the principles of historic Northwest Coastal Indian food.

My part in this was largely inspired by an interview with Hank Gobin, an Elder from the Tulalip tribe, who suggested to me that “Nowadays our traditional harvesting grounds are now QFC, Safeway and Fred Meyers.” Through talking with more Elders and native food specialists about a modern version of a traditional foods diet it became very clear that similar cultural beliefs and values around food are held by many Native people. These values are as applicable today as they were in generations past.  

From these conversations emerged the “Traditional Foods Principles,” which address the physical and spiritual health of individuals and communities in conjunction with the wellbeing of the land. 

1. Food is at the center of culture

People traditionally harvested, processed, prepared and shared meals together.  This unity is an integral part of cultural identity.  Our ancestors understood that food is precious, a gift from nature, and is necessary for our existence.  Eating food helps feed the desire for wholeness within us, and it can be amplified when the entire family participates in a meal together.  Individuals can become nourished and enriched as they partake in a fundamental aspect of survival with the ones they love, and the family is also strengthened.  For example, our ancestors used the whole animal, and the sharing of that animal by a group of people reinforced the connections that held them together.  Eating collectively can also be a time when culture is transmitted from one generation to the next through conversation and leading by example.

2. Honor the food web/chain

Living in harmony with nature is a Native teaching.  As we know, everything is connected.  It must be remembered that the ramifications of polluting our soil and our water can be seen in the health of plants, animals and ultimately, ourselves.  We have a responsibility to maintain the health of our food system as our ancestors did, so that we pass down a world that will support generations to come. 

3.  Eat with the Seasons

A traditional food diet is diverse and is based on the seasons.  The power of being in the moment and harvesting what is available ensures that a variety of foods will be on the menu.  Seasonal foods prepared people for seasonal changes as well.  For example, eating berries when they are ripe in the fall boosts your immunity, helping you to get through the flu season.

4. Eat a Variety of Foods

Our ancestors ate more complex foods and received a greater variety of vitamins and minerals in their diet.  Eating many types of foods also helped preserve the diversity of the environment, which helped uphold the entire ecosystem by avoiding over harvesting of any one resource.  We know that healthy ecosystems are diverse ones.  Now that people are eating relatively few foods due to mass monocrops like corn, wheat and soy, we are losing environmental diversity along with diversity in our diet. 

5. Traditional Foods are Whole Foods

Traditional foods are “real foods” that have grown in nature.  They are not industrialized foods that have been refined or contain additives, dyes or chemicals.  A whole food is alive and consists of one ingredient: itself.  If you read the ingredients list on a pre-packaged food and do not understand the words, you probably should not eat it.  You should not need a science degree to understand food labels.  If you cannot picture an ingredient growing in nature, it most likely is not food at all. 

6. Eat local foods

Plants breathe, respire and require water.  So after they are cut off from their food source they begin to die, which means they lose nutrients and flavor. This makes eating fresh, local food especially important.  Eating local is also good for the environment, as it reduces the amount of fossil fuels used to get the food to us and helps support our local economy.

7. Wild and organic foods are better for health

Wild foods are denser in nutrients and lower in calories.  Processed and refined food tends to provide empty calories and may only offer a part of a food.  This contributes to weight gain as our body, in its natural wisdom, craves all the missing parts of processed and refined foods.  Organic foods also guarantee that we are getting all the nutrients essential for our bodies.  Intensive agricultural practices deplete mineral content in the soil and therefore in the plants that grow from the soil.  When we eat wild and organic foods, we are supporting a healthier body and environment. 

8. Cook and eat with good intention

Reflect on what you consume, as well as how you consume your meals.  Eating is a reminder that we are human.  Cooking is a time to honor the foods we eat.  It is a time to pay respect to the life that has been given to nourish our bodies.  We are connected to the food culture around us, and the food we consume ties us to our place as well as our purpose in that place.  Good intention becomes a part of what we prepare, serve and consume, and that’s why it is important to thank the plants and animals that gave their life for you to sustain yours.  

The way we eat is just as important as what we eat.  We are frequently eating while on the go and hurrying on to the next task.  This takes the pleasure out of eating our food, and it does not allow sufficient time for our body to relax enough to savor and digest, leaving us hungry for more. 

These guiding principles help hold up the movement to revitalize the Northwest Coastal Indian food culture by helping people to walk with their traditions as they carry on in a modern world.   They remind us that these foods are not just nutritious.  Of equal importance are the links they provide to the culture and to place.  It is also clear that, as we move towards a more sustainable food system for the future, the scarcity or abundance of this new system completely depends on how well we honor these old-world values. 

Elise Krohn, co-author, is a traditional foods educator and herbalist who teaches classes and develops curriculum for the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Plants and Foods Program.  She also coordinates the Native Foods Nutrition Project at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center.  Elise has a Master of Education from Leslie University, a Bachelor of Science from The Evergreen State College, and a Certificate in Ethnobotany from the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She is the author of "Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar" and the co-author of "Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture."