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Muckleshoot Tribe is Reclaiming Their Health

Muckleshoot Tribe is Reclaiming Their Health

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most diverse and bountiful bioregions in North America, and encompasses hundreds of varieties of edible plants, fishes and animals. The peoples native to these lands consider this affluence “food gifts.” Historically, they were the benefactors of extensive cultural knowledge about their foods which had been handed down from generation to generation.


Much of that heritage was lost when they were forced to live on reservations and attend boarding schools in a tragic attempt to destroy their culture. Children were not allowed to speak their own languages. And while being cut off from their traditional foods and cultural wisdom, they were provided with denatured, industrialized commodities for consumption. Today, health issues such as diabetes and substance abuse are the bane of their communities.

Food activist Michael Pollan effectively pinpoints the industrialization of food as a fundamental factor in the escalation of chronic diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries in his 2008 bestselling book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:

Chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and low quality fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops … Early in the 20th century a group of doctors noted that when people gave up their traditional ways of eating and adopted the modern Western diet they developed modern diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Traditional food diets all over the world were linked with low incidence of chronic disease and greater health.

Muckleshoot Tribe is Reclaiming Their Health - Native American School Chefs Make Breakfast and Lunch From Scratch
Illustration: Heidi Bohan from her book, Pacific Northwest Seasonal Rounds Calendar

Regional archaeological projects have uncovered evidence that 200 years ago, and before European contact, chronic disease did not exist in North America. The drastic changes in diet and lifestyle since have taken a huge toll on the native peoples. But instead of relying exclusively on modern pharmaceutically based medical practices to address their health issues, decisive action has been taken “to improve individual, family, and community wellness by reviving their communities’ traditional foods.” Today, ancestral knowledge of how to live in partnership with the land has begun to find reconnection with the spirit of the people who have survived great hardship.

The Northwest Indian College became involved and helped to facilitate the Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Project. This and other programs have helped to bring native students together with their greater community of elders, cultural specialists, and local plant experts to restore and increase knowledge and understanding of indigenous foods and medicines. Their goals were to improve the overall health and well-being of the Pacific Northwest tribes by increasing access to traditional foods, food-related exercise, community interactions, and pride for their traditional knowledge and culture.

Muckleshoot Tribe is Reclaiming Their Health - Native American School Chefs Make Breakfast and Lunch From Scratch
Elaine “Doy” Sandoval and Valerie Segrest

Most of all the emphasis of the movement was for the people to improve their own health, the health of their community, and the health of the land that supports them.

Prevention is also being addressed. Community nutritionist Valerie Segrest, member of the Muckleshoot tribe and Bastyr University graduate, is all about “getting connected to the source of food and rekindling our sense of place.” Along with the help of long time cook Elaine “Doy” Sandoval, she has helped to bring healthier and more nutritious foods into the new K-12 Muckleshoot Tribal School, an ecologically responsible compound of buildings that reflect and inspire their culture and traditions.

Every school day around 400 students are served hot breakfast and lunch on campus. A great deal of effort has been put into creating a healthy menu by preparing meals with natural ingredients, and making all foods from scratch — a revolutionary undertaking by the Tribal School cafeteria staff. In addition to providing a menu that includes traditional foods, students are also taught about their important health benefits in the classroom.

The logistics for preparing 800 meals a day can seem daunting and necessitate reexamining every aspect of preparation and procurement. In addressing the issue of traditional foods, Segrest encourages her people to look deeply at the source of the ingredients. She states:

Muckleshoot Tribe is Reclaiming Their Health - Native American School Chefs Make Breakfast and Lunch From Scratch
Native Landscapping at Muckleshoot Tribal School

I cannot buy elk from the tribal hunters for the kids at the tribal school because of the laws that we have created at Muckleshoot. I have to purchase our food from big corporations instead of supporting our own tribal resources. It is time to restructure our community food system so that it will support the health of our people.

While reality TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver makes headlines with drama-filled face-offs against large metropolitan school districts, this small, forwardthinking group of native and non-native peoples have come together quietly to lay the foundation for a healthier future. Combining traditional values with modern knowledge, ancient culture is being reintegrated into their daily lives. This not only helps to address current health issues, but creates a template for future generations.

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