Using Research About Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Indians To Create a Healthier Diet and Lifestyle for Indian People

Year: 2009

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Krohn, Elise, and Valerie Segrest

Institution: Northwest Indian College

Project Contact:
Elise Krohn
Northwest Indian College
2522 Kwina Road
Bellingham, WA 98226-9217
Phone: 360-485-3848


Research has shown that Native Americans are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, if traditional foods are consumed. In this study, Native foods experts and Northwest Coastal Indian tribal community members used existing archeological and ethnographic data to create a modern traditional foods diet that might improve the health of Indian people today. In addition, the study defined barriers to implementing a traditional foods diet and documented ways tribal communities are attempting to overcome those barriers.

The study builds on research from The Puget Sound Traditional Food and Diabetes Project, in which the University of Washington Burke Museum, The Tulalip, Muckleshoot, and Suquamish Tribes, and King County partnered to find archaeological and historic data that would provide a long-term picture of the traditional Native American diet in the Puget Sound region before European contact. While the findings of the study are of interest both to diabetes researchers and to tribal members, the results are difficult to interpret and use.

In order to make the dietary findings of the Puget Sound study more useful, the research team partnered with the Northwest Indian College’s Diabetes Prevention Through Traditional Plants Program. Since 2005, this program has facilitated monthly workshops and mentorship programs that emphasize lifestyle changes based on traditional foods. The program has served over 200 participants from 10 tribes in the Puget Sound region. The current project was created to meet the needs identified by these program participants.

Existing archeological and ethnographic data were analyzed to determine which historically used Native foods are still readily available and safe to use today. A team of experts, including tribal elders, ethnobotanists, and a nutritionist, worked together to develop a modern traditional foods diet.

Tribal cooks, food-related administrators, diabetes-prevention staff, nutritionists, diabetes counselors, tribal decisionmakers, welfare program administrators, elders, cultural specialists, and educators gathered at two roundtable discussions to address these questions:

Is your community/family currently accessing Native foods and local healthy foods? If so, how?

What are the barriers in your community/family to accessing these foods on a regular basis?

How is or how might your community/family increase access to Native foods and healthy local foods?

The discussions were documented by video and audio recording.

After the roundtable discussions, 20 tribal cooks from 8 communities met for 3 days to develop healthy and affordable recipes that could be easily prepared.

Many of the foods that were historically eaten by Northwest Coastal Indian people are still available. A few foods have become extinct and others, such as seagull eggs, are no longer accessible or considered palatable. To develop a modern traditional foods diet, the research team compiled a list of Native foods that are still available and added locally grown foods that are nutritionally similar to Native foods. For example, blueberries can be eaten if huckleberries are not readily available.

Although knowledge of the Native foods that kept Northwest Coastal Indian ancestors healthy is interesting, the information is only useful if people are able to access those foods. Over 90 people from tribal communities in the Puget Sound region gathered at roundtable discussions to explore issues related to accessing traditional foods. Many elders reported that they had harvested more Native foods in their youth. Some community members are still harvesting and preparing Native foods, although these activities have decreased significantly over the last two generations. Among the most important barriers to accessing traditional foods are toxins in the environment, a loss of traditional harvesting grounds, cultural oppression, and economic challenges. Participants shared ways that their communities are already increasing access to traditional foods and healthy local foods. Examples include community gardens, classes on harvesting and preparing traditional foods, plant restoration projects, a traditional foods bank, farm-to-elder programs, and partnerships with local landholders.

The results of the study, including a list of Native foods that were historically eaten by Northwest Coastal Indian ancestors, the modern traditional foods diet, results of roundtable discussions, and recipes from the tribal cook’s camp are being compiled in book format and are scheduled for release in March 2010. The book will be distributed to participating tribal communities and will serve as a resource for those interested in revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian traditional food culture.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.