Growing up in Winlock, Cowlitz tribal member Emma Johnson went to Cowlitz kids summer camp but didn’t know much about the tribe’s traditional foods — like camas, a purple-petaled member of the lily family with edible bulb-like roots.
Years later, while interning with the tribe, Johnson was tasked with leading dig for camas, which she called a “super important,” but little known traditional food.
“When I get to see folks harvest camas, make nettle cordage or weave with cattail for the first time, I get really emotional,” she said. “What a way to honor our ancestors who fought so hard for us to be here today.”
Many tribe members say they have lost connection with the group’s traditional foods, instead relying on grocery stores that don’t include Native produce or proteins. Today, Cowlitz tribal leaders are working to ensure members can access traditional food to both strengthen their culture and health.
What Is Food Sovereignty?
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe published its first food sovereignty assessment in September — in collaboration with the tribe’s Wellness and Diabetes Program and the Urban Indian Health Institute of Seattle — to determine, in part, who has access to and interest in the tribe’s traditional food.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says food sovereignty is the ability of communities to determine the quantity and quality of the food they consume by controlling how their food is produced and distributed.
Johnson, who is pursuing a masters in sociocultural anthropology, said food sovereignty can mean different things to different people.
“To me, it’s really just reclaiming our ability as Native people to manage our own food systems and have access to places where we need to gather certain foods that are only in those areas,” she said. “And knowing what’s in our foods, who is tending to them, how we can care for them and how they care for us.”
Cowlitz program staff started work on the assessment in 2019 after receiving a grant from the Northwest Portland Area Health Board but was delayed a few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Alyssa Fine, program coordinator.
Fine said the assessment can strengthen the tribe’s culture.
“Cultural and traditional lifeways are key elements but it (food sovereignty) also incorporates gardening, distributing food, food access and resources,” Fine said. “It encompasses a lot, but it goes back to tribal sovereignty, having control of your own resources and land. Food, as we all know, is a critical part of culture, no matter what culture you come from.”
History of the Cowlitz
Many of the Cowlitz people left their local homeland in the early 1800s to find jobs following European contact, Johnson said.
The Cowlitz Tribe didn’t sign a treaty with settlers because the group didn’t want to give up its ancestral landscape, but people had to go to where the jobs were, and many ended up in Pierce County for railroad or forestry jobs, she added.
As Cowlitz people did what they had to survive, they lost traditions and connections to the land, Johnson said.
“The strategic colonization of our landscape really made it so we couldn’t access traditional foods because we were no longer allowed to follow traditional ways of living,” she said.
Some Cowlitz families have stories passed down from grandparents of how they continued some traditional practices like salmon fishing and huckleberry harvesting, Johnson said. But many members are not as familiar with first foods like camas and wapato, she added.
Education to restore the traditional practices empowers members, she said.
“Today, a lot of folks are trying to revitalize that work because they know how healing it is for us and for the lands,” she said. “As you explain to people they can know what food is, how it’s grown, how to cook and consume it, it’s just magic. It makes me so hopeful.”
The tribe’s food sovereignty assessment includes data from a 2021 survey of 525 Cowlitz tribe members, who answered questions about food access, health, knowledge of traditional foods, and participation in and awareness of existing programs.
Elders, those 60 and older, were the largest responding age group, Fine said. Along with the survey, staff writing the report interviewed tribal members, she said.
“Elders talk about how certain smells remind them of things, stories about growing up and preparing traditional foods with their grandparents,” Fine said. “Doing this assessment allowed us to capture all of that, while also capturing the public health side.”
Nationally, American Indian and Alaska Natives have a disproportionately high rate of poverty, food insecurity and chronic diseases, according to Census Bureau data. In Cowlitz County, 40% of the Native population are in poverty, compared to 13.3% of overall residents.
About 30% of those responding to the food sovereignty assessment survey reported they sometimes feel they don’t have enough food.
Respondents also reported a handful of different chronic health issues, including overweight or obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. About 42% rated their health as very good and 43% as fair, compared to 5% who said it was poor.
Fine said this information wasn’t available before and gives her direction on how to develop wellness programs to better serve tribal members.
Community Wellness Garden
Since 2019, Cowlitz Tribe Health and Human Services has worked to help address food insecurity and promote a healthy diet through its Community Wellness Garden.
Three full-time staff operate the garden, located at the tribe’s property in Toledo, and distribute produce to tribal members and use it in Cowlitz elders program meals. Garden staff and volunteers in 2021 harvested just over 7,300 pounds of produce and distributed to 430 individuals.
About 70% of survey respondents wanted more access to fresh produce, but only 9% participated in the garden distribution. Fine said getting the word out about the program is the hard part, but the survey gives them a good starting number to work on.
The garden is working on expanding access, and since opening, it’s grown from distributing at three sites to eight, from Vancouver to Tacoma, Fine said.
The survey polled members on what type of workshops interest them. The top three were plant identification and gathering, gardening and cooking. Fine said not knowing how to prepare healthy or traditional foods is a common barrier to eating them.
Salmon is likely the most well-known traditional food for the Cowlitz people, and one that’s available for free to tribal members.
The Cowlitz Tribe’s Natural Resources Department runs a fish distribution program, which provides excess salmon and steelhead from Washington state hatcheries.
“This program is all about connecting members back to their culture, providing a first food for Cowlitz people, one of the most culturally significant species of the tribe,” said Dalton Fry, fish distribution and lands manager.
About 19% of food sovereignty survey respondents received fish through the program, with elder participation at 21%. That’s about double the participation of the garden program, but the fish distribution has the advantage of nearly 20 years experience.
In 2003, two tribal members started the program, which provided whole, fresh fish for about 15 years. But fresh fish aren’t available year-round and access was limited to certain times and locations, Fry said. A 2016 pilot program distributing frozen filets through the elders nutrition program was a huge success, with participation doubling in its second year, he said.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tribal council began offering the frozen filets to all members, Fry said. That change expanded access to members living outside the area, sending frozen fish across the country to Florida and Georgia, he said.
While the program has grown from serving 120 people to more than 500, staff hope the food sovereignty assessment helps more tribal members learn about it, Fry said. They also want to starting teaching members how to clean, filet and vacuum seal their own fish, he said.
For tribal member Johnson, interest in the survey shows the tribe is moving in the right direction.
Johnson said while she is no longer a tribal employee, she sees Native and non-Native food sovereignty champions within the tribe who need more support. That could be through grants, council funding or community partnerships, she said.
Continuing to teach about and care for traditional foods is an expression of sovereignty but is also a way to fight for the seven generations, “to ensure our children, their children and grandchildren are able to access traditional foods and harvest,” Johnson said.
“As Native peoples are gathering to do this work, it fills us up to continue sharing and teaching,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about and how we work toward food sovereignty.”
By the Numbers
• 525 Cowlitz Indian Tribe members responded to a 2021 survey.
• 30% of respondents reported they sometimes feel they don’t have enough food.
• 70% of respondents wanted more access to fresh produce, but only 9% participated in the tribe’s garden distribution program.