Traditional Plants and Foods

Traditional Plants and Foods

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harvesting-120x90The Traditional Plants and Foods Programs promote self-sufficiency and wellness for indigenous people through culturally grounded, multi-generational, and holistic classes related to native foods and medicines.

Our History

Native foods and medicines help prevent many modern diseases, including diabetes, which are so prevalent among tribal communities. They also build cultural identity and healing relationships with the land.

In 2005 the Cooperative Extension Office responded to requests by numerous elders and tribal health theresa_makah-165x215care workers who wanted more knowledge about traditional foods and medicines by creating a training program that serves Western Washington tribes.  Initially, the Traditional Plants and Foods Program offered monthly gatherings that were hosted by participating tribal communities.  Each gathering highlighted the hosting tribe’s knowledge and resources. 

Participants learned not only about the cultural importance of the foods, but also how and when to gather them.  Cultural specialists, health care workers, educators, and tribal elders from over a dozen tribes came to the event.   Theresa Parker (Makah) helped organize the very first gathering. 

“It was such a beautiful day. After everyone toured our museum and cultural center, we led them on a hike on the ethnobotanical trail that was created by our youth and elders. For lunch, we had halibut stew, herring row on eel grass, mussels, goose-neck barnacles, Ozette potatoes, berries, and horsetail fertile shoots! The elders just lit up while they shared stories about the foods that were such an important part of their childhood.”

Theresa Parker (Makah)

blueberries-171x171Since 2005, gatherings have been hosted by over 15 other tribes.  Themes have included “Bringing Back the Harvest” at Quinault, “Spring Edibles” at Suquamish, “Creating Healing Gardens” at Skokomish, “Remedies for Arthritis and Inflammation” at Squaxin Island, and “Revitalizing Language and Traditional Plants” at Lower Elwha.

Over the years, a strong community of people actively interested in traditional lora_boome_pouring_lotion_into_jars_at_swinomish_reservation_2-145x227foods and medicines has developed.  After several requests to create more in-depth training, we initiated several “train-the-trainer” programs.  These include teaching a curriculum on diabetes prevention through traditional plants, harvesting throughout the seasons, medicine making, youth activities, and creating community healing gardens.  Happily, many participants have stepped forward to teach classes in their own family and community.

Lora Boome (Lummi) has participated in gatherings and train-the-trainer programs since the program’s inception.  She has gone on to train both her family and youth in her community.

“For the past year, I have been teaching my family about traditional plants and their uses. We make a variety of bath teas, teas, salves, lotions, and other herbal products for ourselves. I’m proud that I am sharing this knowledge with my family because it has united us. There are a number of stories I have heard about my family gathering plants and berries. Other stories reveal facts about the seasons, and what each season brings.”

Lora Boome (Lummi)

Traditional Foods of Puget Sound

It is well known that eating native foods diminishes the risk of developing chronic diseases, including diabetes. Yet many program participants shared their frustrations about accessing native foods for their families and communities. Also, many people do not know how to cook with native foods.

After receiving extensive input from a wide range of community members, we applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture RIDGE program. Using a community-based participatory research model, we worked with scores of tribal service providers and cooks to address this question: How do we utilize research about traditional foods of Puget Sound Indians to create a healthier diet and lifestyle for Indian people today? Through the project, we identified barriers and solutions that will help improve the health of Northwest Coastal Indian people by increasing their access to traditional foods and healthy local foods.

In the first phase of the project, we reviewed archeological data about Puget Sound Indian people’s traditional diet, ethnographic accounts, interviews with elders, and nutritional information. This allowed us to create a picture of a modern yet “traditional” healthy diet.

Next, we held two all-day community roundtable discussions to gather information on how tribal communities might overcome barriers to accessing traditional foods. Participants discussed the challenges they face when integrating traditional foods into their contemporary diet and the steps they and their communities are taking to overcome those challenges.

new_picture_1-165x208Valerie Segrest is a tribal cook and native foods educator for the Northwest Indian College and the Muckleshoot Tribe. She helped coordinate the final part of the project – a tribal cooks’ camp. She said:

“Getting so many cooks together to create and test healthy traditional recipes was simply amazing.
It was the height of my foodie experience. We ate gourmet food for three days straight. I learned
so much from the other cooks about how special our native foods are and how much
medicine they provide.” 

The results of this work are compiled in a book entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture. Over 1,800 copies of the book have been distributed to participating tribal communities.

Through a new ongoing project, we are creating a training program to meet the cultural, educational, and job-related needs that have been identified by project participants. The training program will be tested at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center and will be replicated in tribal communities by the fall of 2011.

Current Traditional Plants and Foods Programs

flower_plants-182x137Tribal communities continue to host bi-monthly gatherings for the Traditional Plants and Foods Program. Upcoming events will focus on topics including landscaping with native plants, seaweeds and herbal remedies for first aid.

Through a partnership with the Northwest Indian Treatment Center in Elma, Washington, we run the Native Plant Nutrition Program.  Classes on traditional foods and medicines are offered to inpatient residents, including methods for growing, harvesting, processing, and preparation. Tribal elders, storytellers, and cultural specialists speak as part of the program. Patients gain hands-on experience by working in three on-site teaching gardens.

In 2009, we began a program to increase access to healthy local foods and traditional foods in the Lummi community. Fifteen Lummi families receive boxes of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables throughout the summer and fall.  The box includes recipes and instructions on how to prepare and preserve the foods.  Hands-on workshops on using local and native foods are an important project component.  Through interviews of participants, data is gathered on the use of traditional foods, usual and accustomed resource sites, typical meals, meals for special gatherings, food preparation methods, and more.  This project is creating a model for community-based participatory research on food and nutrition that can be used in other tribal communities.

In 2010, we started a project in the Muckleshoot community to build community food security by examining that tribe’s food assets and accessibility. Monthly hands-on workshops that address traditional food principles and a modern approach to a traditional foods diet are offered. Traditional foods feasts are planned that feature seasonal foods and offer community members a chance to learn more about when, where, and how to harvest each food.  Click here to learn more about this project.

Our Future

The Traditional Plants and Foods Program staff continues to strive to meet the educational needs of the tribal communities we serve. In 2011, the projects at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center and the Lummi and Muckleshoot communities will continue. Plus, we will continue to offer seasonal classes at hosting communities and train-the-trainer programs on a variety of topics. We will also host our annual Harvest Celebration in the fall.


Program Books Our program staff wrote and published two books related to traditional foods and medicines. To honor the cultural property rights of the tribal contributors, the books are available only within tribal communities.

Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar: The Gifts of the Northwest Plants 
By Elise Krohn, 2005, 148 pages.
The people speak as one when they say, “Our traditional foods matter.” Not only are they nutritious, but traditional foods also provide an important link to culture and to place. This book is a testament to the movement among tribal people in Western Washington to improve individual, family, and community wellness by reviving their communities’ traditional foods.

Train-the-Trainer Programs
We offer several train-the-trainer programs that can be tailored to the needs of the communities we serve. People who participate in the trainings gain the skills needed to become effective community educators on topics related to traditional foods. Ongoing trainings include:

  • Diabetes Prevention Through Traditional Plants Curriculum

Educators use this curriculum to teach teenagers through adults about native foods and medicines that are traditionally used by Indian people in Western Washington. It includes four two-hour lessons. Each is taught in a hands-on and multi-sensory style with interactive activities, games, and group projects. Because plants communities vary by region, the curriculum can be modified to suit tribal communities in other regions. Lesson plans can also be modified to fit plants that are available during different seasons.

  • Creating Tribal Community Healing Gardens

This two-day class helps people plan and run gardens in their communities. Vegetable, herb, and native food gardens are discussed along with how to initiate and sustain community participation. The first day takes place at the Northwest Indian Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Elma. The second day includes a tour of different types of community gardens.

  • ‘Pea Patch Gardens’ Training:

Learn how to create small-scale ‘pea patch’ vegetable gardens for beginning gardeners in your community. Pea patch gardens provide an opportunity people of all ages to easily learn skills and gain appreciation for growing healthy organic produce. Learn about basic techniques for preparing and planting a garden, creating healthy soils, composting, garden design, growing seeds indoors and direct sown, planting the garden, caring for the garden and extending the season using hoop houses and cold frames.


Please view our videos on Traditional Foods and Plants below.

Partners and Funders

Our programs have been funded through various sources, including the Washington Health Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Potlatch Fund,the Fruit Tree Foundation, and several Western Washington tribes, including Nisqually, Lummi, Tulalip, Muckleshoot, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Squaxin Island, and Stillaguamish.

The Puget Sound Traditional Diet and Diabetes Project:

Washington Health Foundation

Washington Master Gardener Program

Washington State University Cooperative Extension

Community Food Security Coalition 

White Earth Land Recovery Project

First Nations Development Institute

American Native Food

Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems