October 15, 2015

First Foods Guide Tribal Decisions in Oregon

Jackleen de La Harpe

Jackleen de La Harpe

Freelance Journalist

Portland, Oregon

Cheryl Shippentower is a plant ecologist for the Umatilla Department of Natural Resources and a First Food gatherer for the Tribe.

Cheryl Shippentower is a plant ecologist for the Umatilla Department of Natural Resources and a First Food gatherer for the Tribe.

The Umatilla Tribal lands in northeastern Oregon are a wash of golden yellow in early July. The 172,000-acre reservation at the foot of the Blue Mountains is in the middle of wheat country, a fertile grain belt and major agricultural hub that spans Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The wheat harvest is underway early this year, prompted by record heat and an early summer. From a distance, a cloud of chaff follows a combine and looks like smoke against the harsh blue sky.

The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), near the border of Washington, is a prosperous tribe and one of the largest employers in this part of the state. The tribe has retained their hunting and fishing treaty rights, owns and manages the Wildhorse Casino and Resort, operates the Wildhorse Foundation, and has invested strategically in economic development and microenterprise. As a sovereign nation, the Tribe is known for its collaborative approach with local counties and municipalities and is an integral factor in the regional economy from farming to software development. Some of this success can be attributed to the importance they place on traditional values and cultural knowledge to guide planning and management.

One of the most innovative ways that this belief system is applied is within the Department of Natural Resources. Cultural considerations are both the priority and a tribal mandate when determining the tradeoffs of how best to use the tribe’s resources. Decisions about water, salmon, timber—even wind—are informed by science, economics and the highest priority, First Foods.

First Foods are the traditional foods that the Tribes rely on today and also represent how Indian people have been sustained throughout their history. First Foods are ordered by the way they are served in a tribal meal—water, fish (salmon, lamprey), game (elk, deer, moose), roots (celery, camas, bitterroot) and berries (huckleberry, chokecherry). This order follows the belief and recognition that these foods promised to take care of Indian people. These foods describe nourishment, trade, health of the land and water and, by extension, the resilience and longevity of the Tribe. First Foods were protected and cared for by tribal ancestors and, in that way, they are also a gift from the past.

They are a high priority for the tribe and carry so much weight that in 2007, this framework was adopted by tribal law, a management structure that calls attention to ecological processes that may be devalued outside of tribal culture. This framework emphasizes the restoration of culturally meaningful ecology. These are not new ideas, said Cheryl Shippentower, a plant ecologist for the Umatilla Department of Natural Resources and a Umatilla tribal member. Rather, it is a system based on the Umatilla way of life that has been made more formal.

“It’s our responsibility to the First Foods,” she said. “It is something that was orally passed down and is now guiding our natural resource management and is more community-based.”

Focusing on First Foods order as a management structure was the idea of Eric Quaempts, Director, Department of Natural Resources, a biologist and enrolled Yakama tribal member who oversees the department and translated this elegant and centuries-old system into a management tool. This same framework is on track to be adopted as part of the zoning practices to inform decisions about zoning and other land use on the reservation.

The Natural Resources department at Umatilla is not just philosophically aligned with First Foods principles but physically—the offices are arranged in the order of First Foods—water expertise at one end of the office, fish and wildlife biologists in the middle, and range and forestry at the far end. Each category of food is directly correlated with a program and mission: water to the Water Resources program, fish to the Fisheries Program, big game to the Wildlife Program, roots and berries to the Range and Forestry programs. DNR’s strategy to manage their resources is contained in the First Food Policy Program, Cultural Resources Protection Program and Administration.

“It is Tamánwit, how we live our life, in that food and water take care of us,” said Shippentower, describing the harmony and balance that is central to the Umatilla people. Shippentower, who earned a degree in botany, is also a gatherer for her tribe.

This delicate web of water, land, plants, animals and people is some of how Tamánwit is defined, a single word that describes a philosophy and spirituality about place and the Tribe’s connection to their lands and all that it provides. It describes gratitude for the food produced by land and water, and it describes the people from many generations past who made it possible so that today, families can pick huckleberries just as they did decades ago.

First Foods are significant in all ways—culturally, socially, and spiritually and, as such, are recognized and honored through trading and ceremonies that expressed gratitude and respect for the nourishment they provide. Every year, these same foods are honored with ceremony, prayer, and in a specific order—first water, followed by fish, game, roots and berries. As a hunting and gathering culture, the well-being of the land and water determined the well-being and prosperity of tribal people. Food and trade were predicated on the ability to gather and hunt.

First Foods are “for us to gather and nourish our bodies physically and spiritually,” said Shippentower. “We consider them our sisters and brothers — we have respect for our foods, so we take care of them. We are all part of this landscape, part of this land. We were created from this land, and we’ll go back to this land.”

Image by Jackleen de La Harpe, 2015.

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This work by Jackleen de La Harpe and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on work at www.livablefutureblog.com. Images in this post are not included in the Creative Commons license.


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