Reclaiming land by growing Native foods

Native communities are advocating for land in Washington to grow traditional foods on as a means of reclamation and reconnection

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When Victoria Plumage first set foot on the near-acre plot of land in Tukwila that would become Sovereignty Farm, she did what she always does in spaces like these: She looked around. She did this carefully, noting every tree, bush or shrub she could find while inspecting the property. Nothing had been planted yet; instead, she looked at what was already growing.

“Part of that is Indigeneous philosophy,” she says. “You don’t just go into a space and start doing things — you go there and observe, take it in.” 

To the left side of the plot, she saw a sprawling fig tree. A bush covered in rose hips grew in its shadow. Rows of Himalayan blackberry brambles crowded the plot’s far end. And just outside the farm’s boundaries, she spotted a cottonwood tree — a tree she recognizes by its sap-filled buds, which can be made into a salve that tempers arthritis. 

Plumage, who is Assiniboine and Native Hawaiian, is a farmer of native plants. She’s spent years learning the names of this region’s vegetation and how to identify and cultivate them. That cultivation is particularly important for Native people living in an urbanized area like Seattle. Plumage says it’s frequently difficult, for example, to find the native plants often used in Indigenous dishes in grocery stores.

“They’ll have strawberries and raspberries, but if you’re trying to find camas or salmon berries, you can’t just always go to the store and find it,” she says. “So where can we grow and access it?”

Her goal is straightforward enough: Grow native plants to make them more accessible to Native people living in Seattle. It’s one path towards food sovereignty in Native communities, which Plumage describes as a movement that upholds traditional ecological knowledge and emphasizes the importance of Indigenous ownership of land and food sources. 

But Native people living in urban spaces have to fight to get these projects off the ground. She’s been part of Indigenous farming projects before (Indigenous Roots operated in Carnation, east of Seattle, from 2017 to 2020), but Plumage says it’s tricky to get the funding to keep it going. 

“Finding land in Seattle has always been hard and expensive,” Plumage says. “And you can’t just go to a P-Patch, because I want to grow more than just food — I want to grow them for crafting purposes, too.” 

It’s partly why she jumped at the chance to become the farm coordinator of Sovereignty Farm, a farm-to-table project put forth by Chief Seattle Club. The plot was donated to the organization, which now plans to use the space to grow a steady stream of native plants — enough to eventually make up the dishes the organization plans to serve at a cafe opening in the fall. Alongside Plumage, the farm will be staffed by residents of Chief Seattle Club’s transitional housing project, Eagle Village, starting with a group of three paid apprentices. 

It’ll be months until there’s anything ready for harvest — the first seeds were planted in March — but in some ways, the crop itself is a secondary goal. Olivia Morgan, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and descendant of the Chickasaw Nation, works with Plumage as a mentor on the farm. Central to her role, she says, is emphasizing that caring for native plants goes beyond simply growing them for food.   

“It’s about food, and our traditional medicines — about so many things that people don’t realize are connected to plants,” Morgan says. Native plants are central to crafts, like weaving, and used in ceremonies as well. “So not having access to our lands and foods doesn’t just affect our physical health,” she says. “It affects our spiritual and mental health as well.”

Even though Plumage and some of the apprentices have ancestral lands that lie outside the Pacific Northwest, she adds that deepening this relationship remains central to their identities. 

“The intention I try to bring is that what makes people Indigenous is their connection to the land,” Plumage says. “Even though I’m kind of a traveler, I can still have a mindset that when I’m in a particular place, I need to respect the people and the teachings of that area — so for me, I love plants, and I do my best to know about them.”

For centuries, the very land in the Pacific Northwest was formed by human touch. Native people throughout the region carefully cared for and cultivated it, maintaining it through Indigenous practices of forest management like controlled burning. 

The land changed after settlers arrived. Settlers forced many Native communities to leave their ancestral territories or stop these practices altogether, disrupting millennia of care. Morgan says she’s seen the impact of this separation generations later.

“We have lost access to many of our traditional foods,” she says. “We’re not able to utilize the land in the ways that we have done traditionally.”  

Threats to this relationship are still abundant. While some native plants aren’t yet popular in grocery stores, others have been the subjects of mainstream fascination — at times, to their detriment. 

Libby Nelson, a senior environmental policy analyst with the Tulalip Tribes, cites the cascara plant as an early example of this. Settlers learned that Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest traditionally used the plant for medicinal purposes. By the late 1800s, pharmaceutical companies sought out the plant for their own products — eventually causing widespread damage to cascara populations through overharvesting. 

“There have been other plants that were hammered once there was a pharmaceutical interest,” she says. “[Tribes] have felt like talking about some of the plants, in the past, [has] led to them being desecrated in some areas.” 

Ryan Miller, who works in the Tulalip Tribes’ treaty department, says the tribe has worked to preserve mountain huckleberries from a similar fate. The berry, long a cultural staple for members of the tribe, has grown in popularity. He says the tribe has noticed more commercial wild harvesters interested in the berries, as well as growing regional populations in the areas where they grow. The tribe has studied these huckleberries in recent years, concerned what that might mean for tribal gatherers. 

“So you combine that with pressures from increased populations and recreation on public land … and I think that is a recipe for problems,” Miller says. “That has made this a bit more of an urgent issue.”

For the Tulalip and other tribes in Washington with treaty rights, the right to gather on their ancestral lands is a legal protection many tribes fought to include in their treaties alongside the rights to fish and hunt. It’s also another example of the long-held importance tribes have placed in the cultivation of their lands, Miller adds.

“The reality is that tribal people have been actively managing the forest in the Puget Sound for 15,000 years,” he says. “Every species and landscape and ecosystem that exists here today exists the way it does because of tribal management of those important resources.” 

The Tulalip have collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service in recent years to co-manage portions of their ancestral land. One example is the Huckleberry Enhancement Project, a 1,280-acre parcel in the Skykomish watershed that lies within Tulalip ancestral lands in an area where huckleberry bushes are abundant. Members of the tribe are encouraged to harvest in the area, and the tribe leads a youth camp where younger members can learn about traditional management practices while caring for the huckleberry bushes in the area. 

“They’re able to go to this place and participate in that management,” Miller says. “We’re trying to, in that way, continue that traditional education to those kids about these management practices.”

Since the project’s inception, the tribe has reintroduced traditional practices to care for the huckleberry bushes in the area, many of which boil down to keeping the area clear for the huckleberries, which thrive in open spaces. This is what the tribe did traditionally, Miller says, usually keeping areas clear of encroaching conifers that would shade the plants out and by conducting controlled burns to make space for them. 

Joe Neal, a forest service ranger for the Skykomish District who has worked with the Tulalip in this area, says that these practices are still new for the Forest Service, especially in Western Washington. They’ve started to conduct controlled burns of conifer trees in recent years, but it’s taken time to untangle Western notions of what management should look like: “It’s an educational process as we try to educate our fire managers that it’s all right to do [controlled burns]. It was something that the Indigenous people did forever.”

At least now, Miller says, they’re having these conversations. And with them, he’s seen a change. 

“There’s starting to be more of a shift in Western science to understanding that some of these traditional management practices were really what was right for the landscape,” he says. “I think that for the first time since Euro-American contact, the dominant Western culture is starting to see that, yeah, that’s 15,000 years of experience and knowledge on these landscapes. They had it pretty much figured out.” 

The aftermath of settler destruction remains today. Miller says it can be difficult to bring this knowledge back when tribes have been prevented from exercising it for so long. 

“We don’t always have all of the traditional knowledge that we used to have around these traditional management practices,” he says. “So, there is some of that that is maybe — I don’t want to say it was lost, but not the extent of the knowledge that existed before. It’s not now what it was.” 

The question of rebuilding that relationship today is one that Plumage has often considered in her work with native plants. Her own ancestral lands lie far beyond Washington, in parts of Hawaii and Montana. Each has its own unique natural environment, and it’s something she’s mulled over as she builds her life around teaching others about plants native to the Pacific Northwest. 

“It’s been an interesting journey,” she says. “I’ve always felt like, well, maybe it’s not my place to talk about Indigneous Northwest plants because I don’t have that Coast Salish background.” 

The dissonance is one she’s felt in her own name: Victoria Ku'uleiloke Plumage. Her middle name is a Hawaiian phrase that means “wreath of roses” — a name she disliked when she was younger. 

“It bothered me,” she says. “I had a Hawaiian name, but it wasn’t a Hawaiian flower.”

It wasn’t until high school that she remembers having a Native mentor — Gail Morris (Nuu-chah-nulth), the Native American education program manager at Seattle Public Schools — to help her navigate this relationship. In college, she met other Native students who, like herself, were navigating their lives with similar stories of disconnect. 

Over the years, she says these experiences have made her look at her middle name differently: “I kind of realized that it matches me. I’ve always felt like I’ve grown up away from where my family was.”

Like Plumage, many urban Native people have similar stories of being separated from their ancestral lands for a host of reasons — many of which can be attributed to the U.S. government’s attempts to remove Native communities from theirs lands or to assimilate them into Euro-American society. Morgan says she can see this in her own history: Many of her Choctaw ancestors were forced to leave their ancestral lands in Mississippi and move to Oklahoma during the “Trail of Tears” era in the 1800s. 

This long history of displacement and disruption makes it hard enough to reconnect to the land. In cities, spaces to develop this relationship are already scarce — unless projects like Sovereignty Farm, Morgan says, make room for them. In her own life, she has found connection when she’s had access to native plants important to her own cultures, and by making traditional foods like walakshi,  corn dumplings. 

“When I’m able to access my traditional foods and my own plant medicine … it brings in this deeper connection to not just my people, but to my ancestors as well,” Morgan says.

For the farm apprentices, she says that beginning this relationship starts with figuring out what they already know. Even if they have ancestral lands elsewhere and claim to know little about the native plants here, most know more about what it takes to care for them than they think. 

“No one’s ever coming as a blank slate,” she says. “I’m really hoping that I can be a partner with people … in discovering the knowledge they already have and applying that to what we’re doing in the farm.”

It’s mid-March when the apprentices first get their hands in the soil, dark after weeks of on-and-off rain. Before that, Plumage and Morgan had visited them at Eagle Village, chatting about the native plants they could possibly grow to see what sparked a memory. 

When the apprentices first arrived at the farm, Plumage had a collection of potted plants awaiting them. The array of native species she collected included devil’s club, stinging nettle and Washington’s native blackberry species (a different variety than the common and invasive Himalayan blackberry that serves as the bane of all Seattle gardeners). 

Unlike the invasive species, Plumage says, this variety, called the trailing blackberry, often grows slowly, making it unattractive to farmers looking for a quick crop. It’s a similar story for many of the native plants she’ll help cultivate at the farm. 

“They’re just a little more slow,” she says. “They take their time.” 

They started their first day of farming by repotting strawberries and figuring out where each plant would be placed in the plot of land. Here, Plumage says, the apprentices began to open up, mentioning previous experience with rooted plants and camas. 

“At least two of them mentioned devil’s club,” Plumage says one day at the farm after checking up on the plant sprouts. She points toward it in a pot, a young plant with a prickly stem. Some tribes have turned to the plant for its medicinal properties; parts of it can be used to treat infections or for gastrointestinal issues. She’s still learning about it herself, she adds, “But I know it’s popular around here, so I wanted to learn more about it.” 

Here in Washington state, Plumage finds connection in overlap. While tribes throughout the continent use different plants for crafting, some of their crafts, like weaving, are conceptually similar across landscapes, cultures and ecosystems. She’s seen some people weave with cedar, while others weave with nettle. And some plants, like cottonwood trees, are native to many areas. 

“And so cottonwood, you find out in Montana, but it’s also here as a native plant species,” Plumage says. “So it helps bridge that connection.” 

These, for Plumage, are core to food sovereignty in real life. As she has developed her own relationship with the land, she leans on the tenets of this philosophy that she’s learned from others before her. 

“We’ve been trying for so long,” Plumage says, “trying to have land access again, to grow our own plants and foods.” 

She knows she won’t be the last to find connection through land — and so, by making space for others to care for native plants, she hopes they can seek it out, too. 

“And part of that is being willing to grow it,” she says. “Because no one else is growing it.” 

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AJoytoknow

This is awesome! We can all learn from programs like this, I hope nothing but success for all involved! Now if those seas of parking lots that comes with casinos could be taken up and returned to nature in the same way I would find reason to truly feel hope. I'm a little sick of hearing how land is hard to find. It's all around us, return it to a natural state! I think what they mean is land not being used to help destroy our ecosystem, and or used for profit is hard to give up for better but less profitable uses.

2 days ago