Feeding the Spirit: Nutritionist Helps Tribes Rediscover Traditional Foods

Segrest smiling with students

The boy asked for moose soup — he wouldn't eat anything else. He was a 12-year-old patient recovering from a liver transplant at Seattle Children's Hospital. He wanted the food of his home, a tribal village in remote Alaska. And Seattle, for all its culinary riches, didn't have moose meat.

A hospital caretaker called a public health worker in Anchorage, who contacted native Alaskans. Meat was retrieved from freezers, shipments were arranged and within days the boy was eating protein-rich food that helped him regain strength. When he asked for seal oil — another comfort food — the network came through again.

Such networks are a vital resource among tribal communities, says Valerie Segrest, a member of Washington state's Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. She would know. Segrest, a 2009 graduate of Bastyr University's Bachelor of Science in Nutrition program, teaches classes on traditional food and medicine for the Northwest Indian College’s Cooperative Extension Department.

"I'm trying to show my students ways they can eat like their ancestors did," says Segrest, 28.

That's a simple description of a complex job. Segrest travels around the Puget Sound, from Lummi Island to the edge of the Cascade Mountains to the Olympic Peninsula. She explains the healthfulness of fresh salmon and wild greens. She roasts camas bulbs and sautés fresh stinging nettle. She shows why organic food isn't just for yuppies. She organizes workshops on processing deer and tanning fish skin (see the photos above), learning as she goes. She helps tribal schools plant gardens. She tries to figure out how those schools can serve elk meat and seafood when the USDA prohibits donations from hunters and shrimpers. She writes curricula so others can teach with her.

The need is clear: American Indians have disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, obesity, infant mortality and other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Segrest began talking about reconnecting with traditional foods, she found intense interest in tribal communities. That desire is born out of both hope and frustration, Segrest says.

"People are tired of being so sick," she says. "They're just tired of it. 150 years ago, diabetes and heart disease did not exist in tribal communities. That's because we were eating a diet based on the land and the seasons and a protocol that ensured an abundance of foods. That's the picture we want to get back to."

The picture she has in mind reflects Bastyr's whole-food nutrition philosophy, which emphasizes eating a diversity of unprocessed foods. Her vision is not about returning to the past but finding modern incarnations of ancient foods: things like huckleberry smoothies, nettle pesto and rosehip jam.

Learning from Elders

Segrest has bright eyes and a quick, contagious smile. Her mother managed stores on U.S. Navy bases, so Valerie lived in Guam, Greece and Nevada until she was 20, when they moved to Washington. She took a job on the Muckleshoot reservation 30 miles south of Seattle, driving tribal elders to doctors’ appointments. She sat in on the brief, hurried visits and saw the way her elders felt afterward: "Not angry, just disgruntled."

When she asked them what they needed for better health, she kept getting the same answer: traditional foods. And not just salmon. "Ooligan grease, elk heart, things not easily accessible," she recalls.

Segrest had studied history at Northwest Indian College and knew how colonialism forced a drastic change in American Indian diets. "It's unprecedented how quickly we've changed our foods," she says. "Typically in history people change them much more gradually."

It's no wonder their bodies were unprepared for sugar, simple carbohydrates and industrial foods, she figured. She also knew of many Muckleshoot elders who drank traditional teas and used other natural medicines but didn't tell their doctors because they didn't expect to be understood.

She was already looking into natural medicine when she discovered Bastyr and its position as a bridge between the natural and conventional health worlds. "I thought, 'This is it,'" she says. "This is what I need to know: to learn how to navigate modern-day health systems and be that translator between ancient healing practices and modern ones."

In a foraging class taught by Jennifer Adler, MS, CN, she learned how to harvest nettles in the early spring, as her ancestors did. After a winter of eating dried fish, meat, nuts and berries — foods that are nourishing but tough on the digestive system — nettles clean the digestive tract, detoxify the liver and replenish blood supplies, strengthening the body for the active season.

The idea of eating seasonally hit home. "That's when I realized food is more than just a commodity, and it is more than calories," says Segrest, who shares the discovery on her blog. "Food is our connection to the land and can be a teacher."

After that, she could see how her time at Bastyr connected to her sense of calling to work with her people.

"If you want to be gifted at something, you have to work really hard," she says. "That can mean you have to leave your community for a while. I didn't go back to Muckleshoot more than two times during the two years I was studying at Bastyr. At first the elders were mad at me and asked where I had been. I had to explain to them that I was studying nutrition because I thought that was the answer."

Unearthing a Lost Diet

To reconnect to the past, Segrest had to understand it better. Through an independent study with nutrition faculty member June Kloubec, PhD, she worked with a native plants educator and herbalist at Northwest Indian College, Elise Krohn, who was asking the same questions. The two contacted the archaeology department at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which had access to records from Puget Sound dig sites.

Together they unearthed evidence of an astonishing breadth of foods — more than 200 sources. Segrest and Krohn took these findings to tribal leaders, who urged them to construct a plan for helping Puget Sound tribes improve their health. The two turned that charge into a book, Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.

It's structured around eight "Traditional Foods Principles":

  1. Food is at the center of culture
  2. Honor the food web/chain
  3. Eat with the seasons
  4. Eat a variety of foods
  5. Traditional foods are whole foods
  6. Eat local foods
  7. Wild and organic foods are better for health
  8. Cook and eat with good intention

These form the basis for Krohn and Segrest's teachings and also for the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, a community action plan. The Suquamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie and Tulalip tribes have also started their own native food programs. Segrest spends much of her time attending their meetings to nurture potential "trade routes."

She also applies for grants in hopes of gaining more colleagues who can share the work. In April 2011, Segrest was named a Food and Community Fellow by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota nonprofit that promotes resiliency in food systems.

Most of all, she wants young tribal members to see career options, not just hobby projects, in gardening, cooking, teaching, healing and other pursuits that enrich their community.

"Val started not really knowing much of anything about plants," says Krohn. "She learned really, really quickly and started teaching really fast. She's got a tremendous amount of energy. When you're learning about plants, you have to be out there in the seasons to experience them and be ready to harvest when they're ready. She really loves her work, and that's very contagious. That becomes medicine in itself."

Teaching by Listening

That love was clear last fall when Segrest addressed a room of Seattle Children's Hospital leaders. After the Alaskan patient who asked for moose soup, they wanted a more organized method of providing native foods to native patients while still meeting health regulations.

Segrest explained the principles of traditional foods, peppering her talk with pointed stories. In making the case for eating local foods, she said: "One of my teachers, Cynthia Lair, would say: 'How do you feel when you get off an airplane? I feel tired and sore and I want to shower because I've been sitting in everyone else's breath. That's how a blueberry feels after it's flown from New Zealand.'"

Segrest says she's learning that good teaching allows students to make their own discoveries.

“My biggest learning in the past few years has been just how important it is to work with people where they are," she says. "Instead of coming in to a community with a solution, empower others to take charge of their health by asking them what they think the solutions are. There is no need to bombard people with statistics and fancy scientific words. Eating should be fun and a lot less confusing."

When a pre-diabetic tribal member, a logging truck driver, asked for diet advice, she asked what he ate for breakfast.

Usually the Arby's five-roast-beef-sandwich special, he said.

Try stopping to eat at a table, she suggested. Don't eat while you drive.

After a week, he said he could only eat two and a half sandwiches. After two weeks, he discovered he didn't even like them (too salty). Now he's eating better. Segrest offers the story as an illustration of how people change their behavior. If she had lectured the man about cholesterol and clogged arteries, she says, he would never have listened.

"Ninety percent of my work is listening to people," she says.