Valerie Segrest, an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, is a native nutrition educator who specializes in local and traditional foods. She serves her community as the coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and also works for the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Plants Program as a nutrition educator. Valerie received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University in 2009 and a master’s degree in Environment and Community from Antioch University. She is a fellow for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Her career began as faculty for Northwest Indian College and as a Cooperative Extension Agent for the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program. She went on to found the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, a grassroots effort toward increasing access to traditional foods within the Muckleshoot community by identifying food resources, developing and implementing culturally appropriate curriculum focused on traditional ecological knowledge. Over the span of ten years, Valerie has co-authored several publications including the books “Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture” and “Feeding Seven Generations: A Salish Cookbook”.
The Indian tribes around the Puget Sound have practiced sustainable balance with its foods for thousands of years, but now the prairie lands and mountain berry meadows are disappearing and salmon’s runs are dwindling. Valerie Segrest, shares that it is time to listen to the salmon and cedar tree, who teach us a life of love, generosity and abundance, and to remember when we take better care of our land, we are taking better care of ourselves.
My name is Valerie Segrest and I am a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe located just south of Seattle, Washington, and my background is nutrition in herbal medicine and Food Systems specifically of the Pacific Northwest region specifically. After I got my degree in nutrition, I just felt like I couldn't be the kind of clinician who came home and counseled my people about a diet that I knew they didn't have access to and so I chose to focus on community nutrition efforts and specifically the food sovereignty movement which in our approach for by the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, founded in 2009.
That initiative is really about getting people educated, raising awareness around our traditional foods and cuisine, and helping to increase access to those foods via education or helping people with experiential learning intervention, to be able to be out there, to be hands-on in harvesting, learning about fishing and hunting techniques, and beautiful recipes that have been perfected over time to our people today. So, picking up that responsibility and handing it off to the next generation is the core of what that project is all about.
Can you share about the introduction of food, ingredients, of the land. What elders were important in your life as a child?
For me, both my parents are really into nature, outdoors, healing through the outdoors. Whenever my dad wanted to make memories, very intentionally we would be hiking or horseback riding or kayaking. My mom would talk about praying to the mountains every single day. My grandma tended her beautiful rose garden and flower gardens. That’s where she preferred to me. I guess all of my life led up to this point.
Other Elders I think about Hank Gobin from Tulalip and Inez Bill, who is also Tulalip and how much time and effort and energy that they have invested in me to do this work and really charging how important it is to revitalize and (and as Inez would focus on the word,) rediscover our traditional foodways so that we can help to change the story of epidemics and the end the health disparities that are so rampant in our communities today.
I was watching one of your TEDTalks and you had chatted about access to traditional foods, and how important that is. You mentioned, “traditional foods are a link to the living land and legacy”. I hoping you could talk about that. You also mentioned that when the treaties were being designed, it was the very first thing mentioned.
Several different tribes have their versions and perspectives of that history and I've read some testimony given by Jerry Keenum on the negotiation of the Point Elliott Treaty, that when the tribal leaders gathered to begin discussing or giving their insights on what they were about to do in this trade or ceding our land, the very first thing that was talked about was access to all of the foods, whether that be the elks, the roots, the berries, the salmon the shellfish, the fir trees because that was our identity and that we were willing (willing is the right word) but that during those negotiations that was a priority - making sure we always maintain access to those foods.
I don’t like to call them resources because our teaching is that they are not just resources, or food, or commodities, but that they are our relatives and our teachers. They help shape our world and help us think about how to be in the world and we are able to tap into our ancient ways of knowing and learning.
That is pretty different from Western education where we are put into a room with four walls and a chalkboard, reading off books in black and white, like if it’s not written somewhere it doesn't exist. It’s completely opposite from the time of birth, our children were able to to be immersed in the landscape and their first form of literacy was learning to read the land for the purposes of understanding how to live, how to take care of yourself, but also had to take care of the land. There’s an incredible opportunity for reciprocity to happen when we are mindful and aware and making sure to consider how a plant for food might grow and thrive on the land, and what these behaviors are, and how we can compare those behaviors to being good humans who also helmed intervening in a food system create abundance. Which is very different from our experience now in education. Now, we are fighting for the time to be outside and not necessarily always encouraging the wandering, and the amazement, and the phenomenon of nature.
I love what you said about that teaching by example and I'm wondering if you could share some examples with us.
Let me try to pick just one (laughs), So I like to think about we’re considered the Salmon nation, and Coast Salish people would witness this journey that salmon would make being born in these rivers and estuaries and tributaries then leaving and traveling the ocean, (participating in some kind of odyssey we all don't really know about), eating a long way, building their bodies to be mineral-rich, good fat-laden resources, and then upon their return to their ancestral rivers, the amount of dedication and stamina and endurance that they would display in copious amounts, returning to those ancestral rivers, not just to feed us humans but to feed all the living things that dwell on the land the bear, even the forest lands have salmon DNA in them because it was in a really rich fertilizer, but ultimately to get back home and spawn for the next generation.
Coast Salish people see this as an action and ask ourselves how we too, might live a life where we are welcoming of that kind of transformational journey, where we can display such abundance, and generosity, and dedication to the next generation, where we would be willing to bloody our heads on a dam to get back to and return to the land to be big medicine.
That is all teaching us through us observing but there are other ways for receiving knowledge. For salmon, it's so powerful. We've been organizing our lives around these salmon runs for thousands of years, and really grounding ourselves in the community that way for us to watch such abundance be diminished in such a short period of time, now we have to ask ourselves how we can be really good friends to the salmon people who have taught us what it means to endure and overcome and still succeed and be big medicine for the land because of that love and dedication.
I feel like it's all really romantic and pretentious and that's not what it's meant to be because it's really science. If we're looking at it through the lens of ecological knowledge, grounded in science and even ancient technologies, and sociology and psychology, the mental health pieces are involved. All of those things are involved and maybe the way I'm explaining it now sounds romantic but it's actually truth and deep lessons we all carry with us that are pretty accessible and attainable. It’s all about the practice of building that muscle and looking at the land through those lens.
One of your quotes was that for 10,000 years, salmon have served as the ‘cultural key stone’ species.
Yes, 10,000 years or since time began as most of us would say. If you've ever seen a salmon run happen, it's the most incredible thing. It's so beautiful to be swimming against the current. I think for so many of us we know what that feels like sometimes, it’s a real human experience to be going up against something, or just that adversity in our life, and to know well the salmon people do this thing that humans can't ever do we can't: we can't manufacture a mega 3 fatty acide, we rely on salmon and other food sources to do that. Without them, we can't live, or we’d eventually get really sick or diseased. We can't do that but them can. There's so many gifts that they have they we don’t have. So we try to emulate our life as if it were as dedicated to life eternal as salmon are.
I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and how you are connecting with elders and connecting elders with the youth of tomorrow.
The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project has taken on many different forms over the years and initiatives. It started out as grant funding that we needed to develop curriculum projects. I stepped away from the project, I mean everything I do is still food sovereignty works, it's just not like a “thing” or a “place” or an “organized group of people”. It’s become something that has been embedded into the structure of tribal departments and initiatives.
The most recent effort we're all working on is the tribal school has a K-12 curriculum that focused on traditional plants and social-emotional learning concepts. And I’m serving as a reviewer. The person who is spearheading that effort is that Lisa Wilson. She’s a PhD student at UW and a Muckleshoot woman who has just really taken on - believe it or not it’s really difficult to get these types of jobs done in the community. If it were easy it would be done already. So she is really taking it on with great passion. And that involves a hyper-focus on a plant every month. It was inspired out of a long conversation around trying to help prepare our next generation for the constant commitment to activism that you are just born with being a Native person. You are always having to be at the table with this filter like “don't forget the ecological knowledge - it's a really important thing.” So, instead of people feeling overwhelmed by that we wanted to help support the emotional stamina in our next generation to be able to handle that work and to also take that into their lives as leaders and the next generation of advocates.
And then Covid happened and that's when we really turned up the volume and got busy. Especially Lisa, because we knew that there were going to be so many unknown implications that came out of people being isolated for this long and for the struggle of a cog in the wheels of trying to continue education and growing a love for learning for students and we knew that outdoors and nature was a safe place. So, we wanted to give skills at a time when people were being told to isolate for folks to be able to go outside and find reprieve and source their strength from traditional plants that have helped us stand up for so long. I would say that is the most important initiative right now.
But there are lots of other initiatives that tribal members have taken on over the years. When we start these sort of social movements, that we find a way to learn when to leave and get out of the way for other people to be able to take on their own initiatives. When we have just one person doing it all the time, it makes the whole movement very vulnerable.
So, from day one, it has been about empowering my community members to be able to stand up and see themselves as more than just fishermen or more than just a mother. Being able to help them feel that they have the confidence and the knowledge and the wealth of knowledge to believe in themselves and pick up those recipes and hand them off to the next generation.
I'm curious, during the COVID time, you mentioned bringing folks together, bringing them outside and really working with traditional medicines and plants, native plants. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about some of those plants, some of what, as individuals are kind of guided through coming outside and encouraged to really find those medicinal components, wonder if you could share a little bit more about that? What are some of those plants? What are some of those herbs, those berries that individuals would be seeking?
More in the healing. I guess I'm coming back to just as the traditional healing components and understanding that there's plants and there's herbs. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about what those are?
Sure. I'm just going to say it. So, throughout history whenever pandemics would happen, there would also be this paralleling of a social attack on traditional medicine systems. That's not just here in the Northwest, that's a global issue. I think about the witch trials, the black plague, there's always been this sort of questioning of how our medicine actually works. I think we're very publicly and very painfully going through it right now in our American medical system. Everyone's questioning it.
That's a healthy reaction, but I think for folks like myself who carry knowledge of herbal medicine, be it tribal medicine, tribal community medicine or Western herbalism, we're very cautiously showing up in these spaces because of historical trauma, I believe. When you carry this sort of knowledge, there's just tremendous persecution that comes with it during pandemic times or just before it, and then it happens.
So we were very careful to not say that we have cures for this, because honestly at one point ... I'm in a group of other native herbalists from across the country, we've been checking in with each other constantly about it. At one point, I sat down and wrote the list of all the plants that were mentioned in our group chat, and it was basically every plant out there. We were all throwing the kitchen sink at this thing trying to figure out ... first, droplet infection was the issue and high amounts of vitamin C would support that.
First it was that, but then it was the aftermath. It was the inflammation, the internal inflammation in the body and the real interesting skin eruptions that were happening for some folks, or I believe that there was this manifestation of it in shingles. I treat shingles in my community, I don't know, maybe once or twice a year, but I realized about midway through 2020, I had treated it 15 times, which was really weird.
There was a lot of head scratching around what was actually an effective remedy, and because of that we really took the stance of building your immune system and keeping your environment clean, as clean as possible using plants that were sterilizers and not that gross hand sanitizer stuff that's everywhere now that smells like stale beer. It's just terrible. I don't use anything on the shelves anymore. It's like, "What is this stuff? It's terrible."
Anyways, because of that, we knew that conifer trees, like Doug Fir and Cedar have essential oils, that when they're released into the air will naturally purify the air. The same with Sage. We knew that a lot of our foods like rose hips and huckleberries, and even Doug Fir tree tips, that they were really high in vitamin C. So if we helped promote that people sort of build their armor by supporting their immune system, which is this system in our body that interfaces with the external environment, if we could just strengthen our shields, then we would be better off or more set up for success if you were to contract COVID.
We also did a lot of immune supporting herbs or immune supporting recipes like bone broth, and we knew that onions were really good at supporting respiratory health as well. So the bone broth had a lot of onion and garlic in it, and we would make big batches of it and put them in kits for people who were being quarantined or who had gotten it. So those kits would have a lot of foods with vitamin C in it, some fresh Cedar leaf for them to sort of simmer on their stove and sterilize the air and bone broth. Trying to think about what else. Oh, maybe a tea to support lung health that had Mullein leaf in it, but we were really being cautious about really how to market that to people.
Keeping it within the community, keeping it within the tribal community.
Yes, of course. It's always my number one priority.
There has been so much come up specifically with COVID, but just I think in Western culture of what works, what doesn't work, and so much if I dare say ridiculously has come up, right?
No, at the beginning of this I would get these forwarded messages from people posting on Facebook, like, "Look, they're saying this and it's all wrong." I just really was careful about taking the stance, very intentional taking the stance of saying I am not going to cut anyone down for their opinions on plants or how they're using it, unless I know it's a poisonous plant that they're encouraging people to take. If that's what you believe, that's what you believe. Right now we all need to stand together in that. And not start tearing each other down for the way we carry knowledge or what, and in what capacity over what plant. Yeah, on top of all that, the way we've been able to weaponize social media to just tear down entire knowledge systems and instill even more fear into society has just been really toxic and scary to be honest. It's just not a place that we ever wanted our plant knowledge to be infused in.
So, I was really trying to protect it as much as possible.
Thank you for sharing the work that is going on with the Food Sovereignty Project. I wonder, as we look ahead, how blessed do you see more and more youth diving in and becoming involved?
When I first started doing this work, there was this common sort of narrative that kids don't care, they're just into technology, that's all they want to do. Then when I started, I have done various youth projects over the years, I noticed that youth are actually really into this stuff. It's like they're at a time in their life when they're trying to figure out their identity, and going back to that conversation around treaties and the negotiations and what those testimonies were like when they were given at that time, how important it was for us to prioritize foods and medicines, because it was who we are.
So, when you talk about it through that lens with youth, they get real grounded and settled in a piece of what it feels like to know who you are and where you come from. To watch that is sort of ... I need that to happen every day in my life. You know what I mean? When you see it happen for someone, it's such an honor and you just want more and more people to feel that way, just really settled in a sense of belonging and purpose. These teachings help our youth find that.
There are other ways in which they find it too. This is not a silver bullet or anything, but it impacts kids so much. In fact, when we started doing this K-12 curriculum, the social-emotional learning piece is the newest phase of it, but when we started it with the Cedar Box Teaching Toolkit, which is available at the OSPI website now, since we implemented it, has doubled our graduation rate at our tribal school.
There have also been some other organizing and administrative changes that I think have helped support the success of our students ultimately but being able to translate the concepts of what they're learning in the classroom to real life actual physical embodiment concepts that are grounded in ancestral traditions has kept their attention and is keeping them coming back to learn more.
So, I will always make myself available to youth in whatever capacity. These projects are not something that I just dream up, they're things that through listening to my community, I try to make happen. Not by me doing it all, but by creating spaces for other people to come together as well and work collaboratively to lift up this next generation. I guess the next project that
I'm really working on is leaning more into the lessons from the land work, making more resources that are available to our Muckleshoot community members that are grounded in our traditional classrooms, which are the wetlands, the huckleberry meadows, the saltwater beaches, the food forests, the ancient food forests that are out there.
To do those through different forms of media mediums, or be able to ... what do I want to say? Curate those areas with resources and tools that they can just pick up and take with them while learning in the forest gardens and in the saltwater beaches, so that they'll have resources available to them to be able to learn and discover on their own, and not always have to wait for me to have time on my schedule or some other person, that they're just accessible to community members.
We're also training up our mental health counselors to be able to do that. So instead of just going to a counseling session in an office, they could provide them with materials that would help them find healing opportunities in these spaces as well. So, we're really leaning into the mental health aspect next. Not that we haven't been all along, but this is the first time we're making formal progress with our behavioral health programs at the tribe.
It's so important and so top of mind right now, which is wonderful. I'm seeing that a lot too in schools, and yeah, that mental, emotional, spiritual health is where I think a lot of us are right now in seeking out those resources, if you will, right?
Yeah, I think we've all got a different lens on life and I hope we stay there, because I was really concerned with the way people were just ready to blast back into that 2019 or pre-2020, got to get back to normal. It's like, do we? Because I've had a lot of time to think about how manic my life was before this. I was traveling a lot and doing a lot and carrying a lot, and the hardest part for me, besides being on Zoom 12 hours a day in some capacity and the fear of the unknown a lot but was really learning to be okay with sitting still and not wearing my busyness like a badge of honor. I don't know. I think that that wasn't true for just me, that was all of us. So, getting right back into it without processing what happened, what is happening, how we are going to learn to live with this is really a dangerous slippery slope that we're all heading towards. We're going to miss it, the opportunity to learn something here and to restructure our world and society to prioritize things that are just frankly more important than trying to be the yes to everything all the time.