“Stories not only provide the knowledge we need to thrive in the world, but also solutions to the complex and major challenges we face in this modern world. There is cultural storytelling, and also just people stories; the stories people carry around on food traditions and how food has improved and changed their lives in positive or negative ways.”

                    – Valerie Segrest


In Northwestern Washington, between Seattle and Tacoma, lives the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. This federally recognized Indian tribe is composed of descendants of the Duwamish and Upper Puyallup people who inhabited Central Puget Sound for thousands of years before non-Indian settlement.

Valerie Segrest Institute for Agriculture and Policy
Valerie Segrest, Photo by Institute for Agriculture and Policy

To learn more about the Muckleshoot people and food sovereignty with Native Americans, UC Food Observer recently sat down with Valerie Segrest. Valerie is a Native nutrition educator who specializes in local and traditional foods. As a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, she serves her community as coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and also works as Traditional Foods and Medicines Program Manager.

In 2010, Valerie co-authored “Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.” Valerie received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University, and a Masters Degree in Environment and Community from Antioch University. She is a fellow for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy and a PhD student at University of Washington’s College of Built Environment. Valerie aims to inspire and enlighten others about the importance of a nutrient-dense diet through a culturally appropriate, common sense approach to eating.

Q:  Your work focuses on the ability of place-based and traditional foods to provide not only physical nourishment, but also to teach. Would you tell our readers more about this?

Valerie Segrest: As a Muckleshoot person, I’m always thinking of culturally appropriate and relevant ways to get the message to people. As a nutritionist, when it comes to dietary intervention, we’re really talking about changing people’s morals and values. For tribes –and possibly a lot of indigenous cultures – the morals and values that defined these groups of people, at some time, were prohibited or outlawed or went through a period of major change. These people were told their food cultures were wrong, and this has had implications on their health.

Today, native tribes suffer very high rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. But there were no reported incidences of these diseases in Coast Salish tribal communities 100 years ago. So we need to look at what we were doing 150 years ago and determine how we can bring those diets back.

What we see, time and time again, is that when native people are rekindled with their food cultures, they feel better. These people are reminded of who they are and where they come from, and these memories can also restore the land.

There is a great deal of reciprocity with the Muckleshoot tribe in this area, and I see this pendulum swinging. The earth is sick, and the people are sick.  But when I see people harvesting mindfully and sustainably, helping each other, the land feels better. So, my culture has a strong sense of reciprocity with nature.

I sometimes regret telling people I’m a nutritionist. That’s because we’ve done so much damage telling people what to eat and what not to eat, basically because we create the same bland diet that every person is supposed to eat. I think your diet needs to vary by the region that you come from, and that the earth provides for you the conditions you need to survive and thrive in an area in which you reside.

So, our biggest lesson is to understand that we need to take the time to work with the land we come from, and not just have dominance over it. That’s the big picture of why I do what I do. It really is about healing historical trauma, empowering people to feel comfortable in their own identity and helping people have the resources to walk in a modern world – with their ancestors beside them, helping them to make good decisions towards their health.

Q: How does the power of storytelling factor into your work?

Valerie Segrest: Before I was a nutritionist, I was a storyteller. That’s how we teach in tribal communities. Before there were TV and written word, there was story. So traditionally, you would be told a story, and you would go out and ponder that story in the world.

Children-in-Muckleshoot-Garden (1)
Photo courtesy of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project

I think our traditional stories, our creation stories, have metaphors and lessons that help us to understand better how things are supposed to be in the world. To understand very complex issues, they used really simple analogies. For the work with food, I think of food not just as a commodity, but as a teacher.

For instance, the story of salmon’s lifecycle can help us understand our own lifecycle.  These teachers have much to share with us, and they don’t even use a spoken word. They tell just by living their life as a story for those to come in the future.

You have this beautiful fish that is born in a river, takes a great journey out to the sea and we can only imagine what it sees out there and where it goes. Then the fish returns to its ancestral river with abundance and vision to get to the spawning ground, so it can give its children better lives. Our people would see that story and ask ourselves how we can live a life like that.

Stories not only provide the knowledge we need to thrive in the world, but also solutions to the complex and major challenges we face in this modern world. There is cultural storytelling, and also just people stories; the stories people carry around on food traditions and how food has improved and changed their lives in positive or negative ways.

Human beings have an innate desire to leave a legacy behind us, whether that’s having children, carving your name in a tree trunk or being responsible for a story. The story lives on, after the storyteller’s life is over.  And when we look around our landscapes, and we know our ancestors cultivated that land, and nourished prairies and plateaus as gardens, then we are looking at a living legacy of people who came a long time before us and left us a beautiful story that is medicine for us in 2016.

Q: You’ve had an interesting personal journey of discovering your roots. Can you tell our readers about this process?

My mom was a foster child. She was given up for adoption at 6 months old, during the time when native children were being removed from their homes on the reservations by the Catholic Family Services and put into boarding schools. The Edmondson family adopted my mother. They are wonderful and beautiful people. I never felt like a foster grandchild of this family. I always felt like I belonged.

But my mother spent years trying to find out who she was. Because of the nature of her adoption, we only knew the names of her grandfather and mother. We were told we were from the Swinomish tribe.  We were told we were Cherokee.  This story continued most of my mother’s life, and most of my life.

My mom worked in government, and we lived all over the world – Guam, Greece, Japan, Puerto Rico, Nevada, California and then finally back to Washington about 12 years ago now. Later, my mom took a position at a homeless shelter for Native Americans in downtown Seattle. One day she typed her last name into the database; her dad’s name came right up. He was living a few blocks away from her work. So, she knocked on his door and learned he was in the ER suffering from final stages of liver disease. When she went to the hospital and met him, he said, “I’ve been looking for you for a very long time. You are part of the Muckleshoot Tribe.”

So, I got involved in the tribe, pretty much overnight. I had a superficial knowledge of Native Americans from my high school, so I changed my degree from creative writing and business to study Native American Studies.

USDAgov on Flickr Creative Commons
USDAgov on Flickr Creative Commons

During that time, I worked for my elders program at the reservation.  The program offers reverence to elders by taking them to beauty appointments, cleaning their houses and doing their grocery shopping. I had six elders assigned to me, and they were all suffering from colon cancer, diabetes, asthma, all kinds of stuff. They each told me that they believed that if they ate their traditional foods, they would be healthy and able to take care of themselves.

So, I went to Bastyr University for nutrition and to study dietetics and better understand the human system, the scientific language.  This was a way for me to help those in this community.

Q: What challenges face members of the Muckleshoot community in terms of accessing traditional foods? Do these things hold true for other Tribal Nations?

Valerie Segrest: It’s important to look at our history. In 1854 and 1855, when treaties were negotiated, a significant amount of land was lost during that time. People were displaced; and the Muckleshoot Tribe was formed. Previously we were several villages from the White, Green, Black and Duwamish rivers, and we were also Upper Puyallup from all around our area here. It became illegal for us to live outside of reservations, making it mandatory to reside here or denounce our identity. So you have a loss of land, a displacement issue and a situation where many of our food traditions became illegal in the late 1800s. People were actually put in jail for practicing these food traditions.

Those treaties said that we could take all of the area salmon, because at that time the Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who drafted these treaties, didn’t see salmon as the money-making product that it is now.  Well, after the commercial fishing industry started shipping salmon all over the world, and making a lot of money doing it, native people were not only excluded from that lucrative venture but it also became a very hostile environment for them to fish salmon. Native people were fishing in the middle of the night for their safety.

Editorial Note: The Fish Wars resulted from this situation in the 1960s and 1970s. In the case, United States v. Washington, the Supreme Court upheld that tribes were entitled to take 50 percent of available fish for harvest at tribal fishing and local waters.  Learn more about the Fish Wars.

Valerie Segrest: So, you have a strong case of restricting access to traditional foods, and the commercial industry wants to keep things secret, but we’ve seen what has happened to salmon and herring.  Some say that herring was a more revered and eaten fish than salmon was here, because you see herring in many old drawings.  And now there’s hardly any herring runs here. So, environmental degradation has happened and environmental toxins have reduced the number of fish.

The Environmental Protection Agency has much better research on toxins and PCBs than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but they don’t have the manpower or resources for these government employees to do the jobs they have. You also have people measuring the toxin levels in salmon and saying that having more than a half an ounce of fish a week will give you cancer. But nobody is testing the fast food cheeseburger, which might have as much flame retardant and PCBs as salmon and doesn’t get the media attention and scrutiny in native communities.  So, we are hearing that these traditional foods have toxins, and don’t eat them, even though our culture considers these foods to be medicines.  That is another big issue.

I’ve had the great fortune of traveling to different tribes in Indian Country to hear about their food challenges. Their names may be different, but the stories are the same.  For Southwestern tribes, water is an issue. For other tribes, corn is their sacred food; now with so much genetically modified corn, there is a health risk for people who are chemically sensitive.

Q: As a native food educator, what advice would you give to those wanting to learn more about native foods in their area?

Valerie Segrest: I do a lot of archival research on ethnobotany and anthropological studies. Every tribe is doing something with food sovereignty, even if they aren’t calling it that. They are doing something to raise awareness of native foods in their area. First Nation Development Institute has a really wonderful knowledge center online via their website, which has information on everything from Indian agriculture to boiling corn in a box.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

Valerie Segrest: For us, the major issue now is genetically engineered salmon, for which the FDA has a one-year deadline to develop a label to go on that fish specifically.  We actually passed a resolution with the National Congress of American Indians opposing the production of genetically engineered salmon, because of the irreversible physical damage it could cause in our environment.

aquadvantage salmonThere has not been an environmental impact study on this food product, because the FDA is allowing it to be called a veterinary drug. But the eggs are going to be produced on Prince Edwards Island, and then they will grow to full size in Panama. These fish will be put on store shelves within the next couple of years, and tribes haven’t even been consulted.

The FDA is mandated to speak with tribes on issues that affect them. When you consider salmon has been managed and consumed by these tribes for at least 10,000 years that we should have been consulted in a more professional way. It’s rude, it’s disgusting and it’s a direct attack on our tribe and its traditions.

To help educate the younger generations, I’m working right now on a lot of curriculum development, K-12. It’s a bit tricky, because you don’t see many River to Table books or Forest to Table books. It’s not like Garden to Table, where there are already many resources.  We’re still trying to figure out culturally relevant curriculum.

But I see it every day: there are families who keep these food traditions alive and teach their children how to cook. It’s not as prevalent, but there are awesome family initiatives going on. That gives me hope.

Learn more about Native food and agriculture issues – Our two-part series with Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M., founding director of Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, the nation’s first law school-based initiative focusing on tribal governance, strategic technical policy assistance and Native youth and professional education supporting Native food systems. Janie is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.