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January 23, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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Salish Bounty: traditional foods exhibit at the Burke Museum

Native people of the Salish Sea have lived off the bounty of this place for thousands of years. A new exhibit at The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington campus, created in collaboration with area tribes, explores and explains the indigenous foods of the region as well as their gathering and use.

Salish Bounty: Traditional Native American Foods of Puget Sound focuses on the revival of traditional food gathering and use in the region, but also provides an intimate look into the past. From herring rakes to gathering baskets, the tools for gathering nature's bounty adorn the exhibit and are a feast for the imagination. Even everyday things surprise: the name Tukwila, it turns out, comes from the Chinook jargon trade name for hazelnuts. gathered from the trees that used to thrive in that now paved-over place.

Showing the resilience and survival of traditional food ways, the exhibit also includes videos and audio interviews with tribal members about the meaning of traditional food and the culture that informs their gathering and use.

The exhibit kicks off with an opening celebration Saturday, January 28 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is part of a larger exhibit Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, at the Burke from Jan. 28 to June 10.

Along the way will be a series of special events for the public, including a teach-in on March 31 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on traditional Northwest native foods and diets.

Teachers from the Northwest Indian College will join members of local tribes to present activities, food walks and talks about the renaissance of interest in traditional foods. Demonstrations and discussions about traditional foods, plant medicines, basketry, cordage, netting and tool making, as well as recipes for wild green salad, acorn bread, and crab apple butter will be presented. There also will be a chance to learn how traditional foods were gathered, stored and prepared, and discussion of traditional foods as a healthy alternative to the conventional mainstream American diet. The session is included free with museum admission fee.

For a complete list of events, which are still in the making, go online to the exhibit's website.

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Making kelp pickles. Photo courtesy of Elise Krohn.


Thimbleberries are one of the first fruits of the season. Photo courtesy of Elise Krohn, Burke Museum

Berries always have been a central food in the Coast Salish diet, prized for their flavor, versatility and nutritional value. Berries were eaten fresh, dried and mixed in with other foods, especially as a pemmican with pounded dried salmon. They typically were gathered in handmade cedar baskets and often still are today. For many tribal members a fresh, hand-gathered, homemade berry pie, particularly of tiny berries such as huckleberries, is a special treat reserved for honored guests at gatherings large or small.

For more about berries and their importance in contemporary Coast Salish life, and to see photos of some some beautiful heirloom gathering baskets, read my Field Notes post on berries last spring.

I remember once spending an evening with members from the Jamestown S'Klallam and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe to sample a Klallam language class taught by Lower Elwha Klallam tribal language teacher Jamie Valadez. We left the reservation in Port Angeles for the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe's tribal center in Blyn late in the afternoon, and I was kicking myself for not bringing something to eat. How funny that I would have worried.

As soon as students for the class started arriving, so did the food. Buckets of clams, fresh off the beach just outside the classroom door, was the featured dish. Baked on a cookie sheet in the oven in a kitchen adjoining our classroom, the clams emerged hot, fragrant and steaming.

We ate the shellfish with buttered bread, the door to the classroom open to the soft swishing sound of the incoming tide. The taste of those clams and the sound of the tide went together perfectly with the sound of the language. It was a dreamy, timeless feeling to experience the tribal language, food and landscape all together, as of course, they had always been.

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Salish Bounty Co-curator Elizabeth Swanaset holds clams collected on a Puget Sound beach last summer. The clams were then smoked and preserved for winter use. Photo by Warren King George. Courtesy, Burke Museum

The learn more about the central role of the cook and traditional foods in tribal ceremonial life, read my story in Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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