When wild salmon return from the ocean, climbing mountain currents to spawn in the rivers of their birth, they provide more than food for Pacific Northwest tribes. They also offer a vision for living selflessly. The creatures die, after all, for the sake of offspring they will not live to see.
“The Coast Salish people see this return as an act of love and a demonstration of generosity and a teaching of abundance,” says Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe south of Seattle. “And so we ask ourselves how we might live a life of such love, generosity and abundance, as the salmon do.”
Segrest answers that question with her work. As a tribal foods educator and 2009 graduate of Bastyr University’s Bachelor of Science in Nutrition program, Segrest helps Northwest tribes reconnect with traditional foods. She helps cooks bring healthier foods to tribal daycare and senior centers. She teaches wild harvesting of wild nettle and camas bulbs. She leads workshops on processing deer and tanning fish skin. She finds modern incarnations of ancient foods: huckleberry smoothies, nettle pesto and rosehip jam.
"People are tired of being so sick," she says (read a full profile of her work). "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."
She tells the story of her work in a remarkable TEDx Rainier talk, describing people who find a sense of belonging in reconnecting with ancient foods. One young man, helping plant an orchard at a Muckleshoot tribal school, says, “This tree will be feeding people long after I’m gone.”
"These are the moments of healing that we're hungry for,” says Segrest. “This is the medicine that we truly seek."
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