First Salmon ceremony being performed.
(photo U.S. Department of Agriculture, CC BY-ND)
The U.S. Supreme
Court upheld a lower court ruling, on June 11, that asked Washington
state to remove culverts
that block the migration of salmon. The ruling has significant implications
for Northwest Coast tribes, whose main source of food and livelihood
The legal decision stems from the 1855
Stevens treaties when Northwest Coast tribes retained
the right to take fish from their traditional homelands.
Fighting to protect salmon habitat, however, is more
than just upholding tribal rights. Salmon is viewed as sacred.
As a scholar
of environmental history and Native American religion, I have looked
at how indigenous people find religious meaning in the natural world
and traditional foods.
This latest Supreme Court case coincides with a resurgence of
interest among a new generation of scholars and activists who are
learning about and reviving indigenous food systems.
Indigenous foods in the New World
Indigenous people from around the world revere certain traditional
foods as sacred. Like salmon in the Northwest U.S. and Canada, corn
or maize has, for millennia, been the most important food for indigenous
communities, in Mexico and Central America.
vase with dancing Maize God, Central Mayan area earthenware,
Mexico. (photo Daderot)
Contemporary scientists believe the ancient Mayan were skilled
agriculturalists who strategically developed corn around 6,000 years
ago. Science writer Charles Mann for example, describes that
the creation of corn was not accidental but a bold act
of conscious biological manipulation by the Mayan.
The Mayan, however, believe that corn is primordial and a part
of their creation stories. They tell how the gods successfully created
humans out of corn in the Popul
Vuh, a written version of their timeless oral narratives
one reason corn is deeply revered.
Today, the Mayan and other indigenous groups of Mexico and Central
America hold ceremonies
for corn at planting time, throughout the growing season and at
Plant foods as sacred
The stories of sacred foods have deep value in indigenous cultures.
As I learned
from my grandmother, the Blackfeet viewed the wild prairie turnip,
known botanically as Psoralea esculenta, as sacred.
The Blackfeet believed that the prairie turnip came from the
Sky realm. It was Kokomikisomm (the Moon) who taught
her daughter-in-law Soatsaki (Feather Woman) how to harvest prairie
turnips. When Feather Woman returned to the earth, she shared her
knowledge, and the prairie turnip became a staple food.
But colonization had an impact on how this knowledge passed
down. My grandparents attended a Catholic boarding school on the
Blackfeet reservation. The priests discouraged the use of indigenous
foods and taught them about American foods.
They exchanged wild prairie turnips for garden vegetables, like
carrots, and wild game meat for domesticated beef. My grandparents
also learned about completely new foods such as wheat flour and
dairy products. The nuns taught my grandmother how to bake bread
and churn butter.
My grandparents, however, continued to learn about Blackfeet
religious practices and Indigenous foods from their grandmothers.
They passed that knowledge on. Although, as a Native American, I
know this is not true for many homes today.
The good news is that there is renewed interest among young
indigenous activists, scholars and chefs to research and write about
this ancestral knowledge.
woman teaches the younger generation. (photo Max Pixel)
Activist and writer Abaki
Becks oral history project,
for example, explores the impact of colonization on indigenous food
systems. She interviewed Native American elders to help the next
generation understand the health benefits of indigenous
foods. She learned how some traditional indigenous herbs could
replace over-the-counter medications and wild berries could be a
healthier substitute for sugar in muffins and smoothies.
Similarly, Lakota chef Sean Shermans cookbook The
Sioux Chefs Indigenous Kitchen also seeks to fill
a gap in knowledge about indigenous foods. Sherman learned from
ethnobotanists and elders about indigenous
plant foods traditionally gathered by women in his research,
details often ignored by male scholars.
elders and the Mohawk community about their fight against contamination
of their land in upstate New York. She highlighted the resistance
of indigenous people to safeguard their traditional food systems.
The recent Supreme Court case is a reminder that traditional
food, such as salmon, is more
than just food it is a connection to ancestral knowledge
that holds a deeper religious meaning within the natural world.
About the author:
Rosalyn R. LaPier - Associate Professor of Environmental
Studies, The University of Montana
Rosalyn R. LaPier is affiliated with Saokio Heritage, a community-based
organization, founded by Indigenous women on the Blackfeet reservation.