Nisqually Tribe Creates Sovereign Food Program


During each of this summer’s three king salmon openings for the Nisqually Tribe, the tribe has purchased between 7,000 and 10,000 pounds of fish to distribute to Nisqually members as part of its new Sovereign Food Program.

Leighanna Scott, Nisqually Tribal councilmember, said the program is in its infancy, but along with its weekly community garden distributions and potential shellfish distributions, the tribe’s work in the area of food sovereignty is poised to be a major help to its people.

“What we have right now, is we are mid step in cultivating this program,” Scott said. “We’ve identified the need. Throughout COVID, there’s been, and will always be, a general need for our own sustenance from our own resources available. So in moving toward that, we’ve been buying fish from our own Nisqually fishermen.”

She said the purchases have taken place entirely through the tribe, through its own programs.

“We’ve been purchasing every bit of fish that our fishermen brought in, which helps sustain our households, but also we’ve been purchasing it and sending it to process, making sure that it gets packaged and frozen, and then we store it,” Scott said.

She said that 10,000 pounds of salmon become 6,000 pounds of processed fish.

“We have three events coming up this year, before the end of the year, where we’ll be handing out salmon as part of those events,” Scott said. “It’s part of our efforts to get our own resources, part of food sovereignty, out into our community.”

She said salmon is just one part of the food sovereignty program.

Another arm of it can be found at the tribe’s community garden that was started about four or five years ago.

According to Scott, the garden started out small, at first yielding onions, green beans and tomatoes. But as the tribe ensured the garden was fully staffed with folks dedicated toward reproduction, more vegetables have come out of the garden in recent years.

Each week, the tribe sets up a garden stand on Thursday or Friday outside the tribe’s administration building, where it passes out produce to its members and employees.

“It was never a promise of, you know, ‘We’ll have carrots every time,’” Scott said. “It was what was seasonal, what came through, what was ripened. And it’s been the most positive thing, because there’s never been a downside to having us handing out our own resources from our garden that we’ve cultivated ourselves.”

She said many communities don’t have programs like the sovereign food program, where food is sourced from local resources. 

Another thing that could be rolled out with the program is the distribution of shellfish, though the offerings would be seasonal like the salmon and would be dependent on the tribe’s yield of the resource.

“When we have those opportunities, we plan on putting them into our food sovereignty program,” Scott said. “Whether it's one distribution, or it’s available for all three, it’s never going to be on a schedule. We’ll never be able to foresee this in six months, but we do have a general idea of food sovereignty being from what’s available, and what resources we have the capability of harvesting at that time.”

She said the Sovereign Food Program is not a new idea. It’s something the tribe has always done for its people in hospitality-driven initiatives like community dinners, but those offerings have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The tribe is simply putting what it has always done in one form or another into the status of a tribe-run program, Scott said.

“It’s actually putting it into a program status, because it’s more or less that we have a responsibility, and that’s leadership,” Scott said. “We have a responsibility of looking after our community and our members first and foremost.”

Scott said the Nisqually Tribe has created a way to maintain its own resources so it can ensure its items are available locally.

The Sovereign Food Program is especially important in light of the tribe’s diminished openings for salmon fishing in recent years, Scott said. 

“Not too long ago, Nisqually used to enjoy upwards of 90 days open for king salmon fishing, a number that has since been decimated,” Scott said. “When we look at what we’re going to harvest for fish, what we’re going to harvest for shellfish, and even from our garden, we look at what we can harvest with it still being sustainable. We have to take that into account. It’s why our openings have shortened. Right now, we have to adapt and cultivate what we have and what we have left. That’s with extreme care.”