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Farewell Frybread, Hello Camas; First Nations Revisit Traditional Foods

Brian Bull

The modern American diet – with its on-the-shelf processed foods in grocery stores, Big Macs and Doritos Locos Tacos at drive-through eateries – has sparked super-sized health problems. That’s bad in itself, but data shows Native Americans suffer higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease than the general population, and diet is a factor.

There’s been a push among tribes to promote traditional, indigenous foods to offset these issues, as well as instill cultural identity among members.  As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, this effort isn’t without its challenges.

It’s a cool, overcast morning in Siletz, Oregon. 72-year-old Lizzy John is checking on her plants at the “Healthy Traditions” garden.  She sprinkles fungicide on some, then spots a bug eating leaves.

“Oh! There’s another one here too, on my pepper.  Oooh, yeah, he’s nibbling good.  I better put some on everything (LAUGHTER) just to be safe.” 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
72-year-old Lizzy Johns sits before her tomatoes and carrots. She says she doesn't trust processed foods, and wants more members of the Siletz Tribe to look into growing one's own vegetables as a way to offset health issues.

Bugs aside, John is happy with her sprouting peppers, carrots, corn, and tomatoes.

“You gotta make sure those little varmints don’t be chowin’ around…(There’s a potato) Where’s the potato? (Right there?) Oh dear, pull’em up! (LAUGHTER) Pull it up! (Really?) Yes…”

John is even less keen on processed foods, which she fears can harm her community’s health.

“I’ve always cooked from scratch most of my life. I’ve even gotten my daughter out of processed foods by doing this.  Processed foods and stuff, you never know what they put in it.”

Joining John is Kathy Kentta-Robinson, coordinator for the Siletz Tribe’s Healthy Traditions Program. Launched a decade ago with a $100,000 dollar grant from the CDC, its mission is to educate tribal members about nutrition.  

Credit Jeffreyw / Flickr.com
Frybread is a popular delicacy at many tribal gatherings, including pow-wows. But critics say this puffy delicacy is bad for the waistline and arteries.

Fry bread - a common delicacy along the pow-wow trail - isn't on the menu. While associated with early Native American innovators who were experimenting with government-issued commodities including lard and flour, some also associate it with many dietary issues affecting Indian people. Some nutritional advocates and activists have even proposed banning fry bread

In another part of the garden, Kentta-Robinson shows me plants historically important to regional natives, including camas, biscuit root, and more.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Kathy Kentta-Robinson, Coordinator of the Healthy Traditions program, stands near a pot of camas plants. Their bulbs were traditionally harvested by many Indian tribes across the Pacific Northwest.

“This is called soap root," she says, gesturing towards a small pot of slender-leafed plants.  "These were from the Umpqua Forest, so this is an important plant species we’re trying to get started again on to tribal land properties.  So we’re doing what we can to propagate or gather seed, and get starts from either Forest Service or BLM botanists.” 

Kentta-Robinson stresses that besides collaboration with state and federal agencies to access these plants, many of the Siletz tribe’s programs involve travel. That means visiting valley floors for camas, mountains for huckleberries, waterways for fish.  Even then, there are regulations outlined under treaties or consent decrees.

Credit USFWS Pacific Region / KLCC
Spring chinook salmon.

“We are allowed to issue 200 fishing tags to tribal members, which we have around 5,000 on the roll," she tells KLCC. 

"And we are allowed through the Natural Resources Department, a 60-day time limit for tribal members to go fish only on three different sites along the creek, feeding into the main stem of the Siletz River.  We are not allowed to fish on the river or in the ocean.”

And some traditional food sources are now illegal to gather, says Robert Kentta, Cultural Resources Director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.  Seals, sea lions, and whales are off limits, including ones that wash up on the beach.

“They dig a big trench with a CAT, and roll the body in there and then they try to burn it, and…instead of it being treated as a valuable resource, it’s been treated as a hazard," says Kentta.

Credit Eric Neitzel / Flickr.com
Gray whale breaching.

Some tribes have negotiated their way back to tradition.  After 25 intensive years, Washington’s Makah Tribe is nearing the right to harvest two gray whales a year for a decade. A federal judge will determine this summer if the tribe can renew their hunts, something many coastal natives argue are rights assured by treaties and similar agreements with the government. 

“How are these state and federal policies impacting the access of these traditional foods?” asks Norah Frank.  She's a Nez Perce Tribal member who’s with the Northwest Tribal Food Sovereignty Coalition. She and Buck Jones of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission are helping native communities in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington develop ways to protect and promote their resources.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Clockwise, starting from top left: Acorns, myrtle nuts, baked camas bulbs, and acorn soup adorn a table during a recent TTEK gathering.

“Y’know, we’re looking at not only taking care of the foods, but also looking at the environment that sustains those foods," says Frank.  "And so I think that’s why it’s a great collaboration.”

“The water temperature is just increasing," adds Jones. "Three years ago, there was a real bad year for the water and the high temperatures, so some of the tributaries that some of the salmon would return back to, they would have little or no water.  They had nowhere to spawn.”

Jones says if the salmon fail to return, his people – the Cayuse-Umatilla – won’t exist, either. Pesticides, development, and food deserts also threaten traditional foods. Both Jones and Frank hope their efforts resonate with tribes regionwide, especially youth.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Members of TTEK prepare to plant camas at the Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Reserve.

Atop the Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Preserve near Eugene, a dozen people – mostly indigenous teens and children – are planting camas bulbs. 

Joe Scott is a Siletz Tribal Member who oversees the curriculum for Team Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TTEK).

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
TTEK Curriculum Director and Siletz tribal member Joe Scott with a container of myrtle nuts.

“These are camas plants with camas flowers," Scott explains, pointing to a box with green stalks.

"Pretty small ones, normally a bit later in the spring they would be two, three, sometimes even four feet tall.”

Scott’s group has also dug a camas oven on the site, which will be used to bake the camas bulbs.  He says among the many challenges facing traditional indigenous foods, is just people losing the connection between past and present.

“We are what we eat in more ways than just sorta that trite statement," says Scott. 

"We’re made of the bones of our ancestors, these plants grow from the ground, and the ground holds our ancestors.  And that cycle just continues as our people in the ground provide nutrients for the next generation of plants, that sustains the next generation of people.

"And it’s a cycle that continues on and on and on.”

WEB EXTRA: Watch TTEK members planting camas bulbs at the Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Preserve

Funding for KLCC’s “Borders, Migration, and Belonging” series provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.

Copyright 2019, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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