These short, cold, rainy and sometimes snowy days of winter always make me think about our treaties. It was during this time of year more than 150 years ago that the U. S. government negotiated most of its treaties with tribes here in Western Washington.
The federal government wanted our homeland. They viewed us as sovereign nations with independent authority to govern our people, lands and resources. We were treated the same as any free nation in the world because that’s what we were then and still are today.
Through the treaties, we reserved the things that were most important to us as a people. Among them was the right to fish, hunt and gather shellfish and other traditional foods to feed ourselves and preserve our cultures.
That’s why I am excited about the new hunting department at the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. It’s aimed at strengthening the tribe’s traditional connection to wildlife by improving hunter access to deer, elk and other game for tribal members to eat. The tribe also is promoting hunting by educating young people.
Wildlife habitat in Western Washington is disappearing rapidly. Deer, elk and other wildlife are being crowded into smaller and smaller areas in the remaining good habitat, making it difficult for tribal members to exercise their treaty hunting rights.
If we lose our ability to hunt, we lose an important source of traditional food, and we can’t afford to do that. Indian people evolved eating traditional foods like elk, salmon, clams and berries. These are the foods that are best for our bodies.
That’s why part of the hunting department’s mission is to help connect tribal members with sources for game meat. Tribal hunters hunt for food, not for sport. They traditionally hunt not only for themselves, but for their extended families. It’s common for tribes to designate hunters to harvest wildlife for ceremonies, as well as for tribal elders and others who are unable to hunt for themselves.
Helping tribal members incorporate more traditional foods in their diets is also the goal of the Food Sovereignty Program at Northwest Indian College’s campus on the Muckleshoot Tribe’s reservation near Auburn. Food sovereignty is the right of people to eat healthy traditional foods that are produced sustainably and don’t harm the environment.
The program grew from a project by the Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Suquamish tribes and the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. The museum developed a list of traditional foods that Indian people ate before non-Indians arrived in Western Washington. The Food Sovereignty program helps tribal members make those foods – such as nettles, camas, huckleberries, salmon and wild game – part of their everyday lives.
The project reminds us that to have traditional foods, we must continue to be good natural resources managers. Our treaties recognize that food is at the center of our cultures. Indian tribes are sovereign nations, and part of that sovereignty includes access to the traditional foods needed to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and strong.