For the past three years, the Institute of Indigenous Foods & Traditions at the Northwest Indian College has been holding an annual conference called “Our Food is Our Medicine.” This year, the Suquamish Tribe hosted the conference from September 24th to 26th at the beautiful Kiana Lodge on the shores of the Salish Sea. The event draws people from around Indian Country to discuss and learn more about how American Indians and Alaska Natives are revitalizing traditional food systems in their communities. Along with Brett Ramey (Ioway Tribe of Kansas), I attended on behalf of Partnerships for Native Health to join this important conversation. The seaside location seemed especially fitting for this conference as we listened to members of the Suquamish Tribe describe the changing marine environment and how it affected their lives.

The Suquamish shared stories about the decline of fish and sea cucumbers in the Salish Sea because of various forms of environmental violence, including unjust governmental policies, overfishing, pollution, and climate change. All these threaten the traditional Suquamish food system, as well as other Native communities that depend on subsistence lifestyles for mental, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

A plant walk was scheduled for the afternoon. It was led by Miguel Hernandez, from the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Initiative along with Brett Ramey, the Community Engagement Coordinator for Native People for Cancer Control.  As there were no trails located near the lodge, they took us into a nearby wooded area to identify indigenous plants. Species that I would normally identify as weeds turned out to be very useful medicines.

We learned about the wound-healing properties of plantains, the liver-cleansing effects of dandelion root, and the abundance of vitamin C in wild rosehips. More important, we discussed our personal relationship with plant medicines and traditional practices to ensure that gathering methods respect the significance of these plants to Native people. Participants learned that, when we are out gathering, it is important to express gratitude for the earth and respect for the plant, and to be generous with what you receive from the plant. Sharing what you gather with others is essential.

As the day passed, participants articulated the considerable difficulties that Native communities face as they seek to regain and maintain sovereignty over their food systems. With the sun beginning to set, we circled around a mountain of freshly steamed clams and listened to stories told by esteemed storyteller Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha S’Klallam). Sitting together around our deliciously fresh meal and listening to the stories of the elders brought me hope for the future. This future will require all of us to come together as a community to share our knowledge, wisdom, and messages of hope to ensure a better world for the generations to come.