Huckleberry Harvest An Expression of Tulalip Sovereignty
BY MICHEAL RIOS
All photos by Micheal Rios
Mountain huckleberry has served as an important food, medicine, and trade good to the Coast Salish peoples who have called this region home since time immemorial. Prior to European colonization of the Americas, Native peoples managed the land by using controlled burns to create and maintain huckleberry habitat in prime gathering areas located high above sea level. These traditional teachings live on today.
In 2016, the Tulalip Tribes began working cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service to sustain huckleberries at a 1,280-acre parcel of land, 4,700 feet above elevation in the upper Skykomish River watershed. This particular location is one of several co-stewardship areas throughout the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest where Tulalip collaborates with the Forest Service to preserve and maintain important cultural resources.
Named swdaxali, Lushootseed for ‘Place of Mountain Huckleberries,’ this end of summer destination gives Tulalip citizens an opportunity to walk in the shadows of their ancestors and harvest the highly prized mountain huckleberry.
Northwest mountain huckleberries generally ripen in the late summer and can be picked into the early fall. Well-known for boosting the immune system and being rich in antioxidants, huckleberry has a strong relationship to the area’s Indigenous cultures. Coast Salish tribes consider the huckleberry to be an important dietary staple because of its medicinal properties and sweet, delicious taste.
Huckleberry is a food and medicine to our people.
“Huckleberry is a food and medicine to our people,” explained Tulalip elder Inez Bill. “Our ancestors visited certain areas for gathering these berries. They knew where the berries were growing, what companion plants were growing there too, and how to use them.”
“Through the teachings of how we value, take care of and utilize our environment, we pass down our history and traditions, and what is important to the cultural lifeways of our people. This connection to the land enables us to know who we are as a people,” she added.
Swdaxali is a prime example of how Tulalip is diligently working to reclaim traditional areas. Stemming directly from the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855, which secured claims to gather roots and berries in all open and unclaimed land, the ‘Place of the Mountain Huckleberries’ is an expression of Tulalip’s sovereignty. Embracing that sovereignty is every tribal member who journeys to this ancestral harvesting area and practices their cultural traditions that continue to be passed on from one generation to the next. Tulalip mother-daughter duo, Malory Simpson and Tiyanna Bueno, make the two-hour trek to harvest huckleberry annually. To them it’s even more than a bonding activity, it’s an act of healing.
We love being outdoors and harvesting.
‘It is spiritually healing,’ reflected Malory after collecting her berry bounty last summer, alongside her 11-year-old daughter. “It feels good knowing that my children are learning about our harvesting traditions. I want them to not only have a good understanding of how to harvest, but how to properly process what they’ve harvested, too.”
“It’s important for our children to soak up teachings about how to harvest, process, and be self-sustaining in a good way,” the mother of three continued. “My plan for our harvest is to make some jam. We’ll be enjoying huckleberry pancakes and waffles as well. We’ll also be gifting some of our harvest for spiritual work.”
Mountain huckleberry season is short, lasting only a few weeks between August and September. The sought-after super food and medicine ranges in color from red to deep blue to maroon. They are similar to a large blueberry in appearance and much sweeter than a cranberry, with many people rating huckleberries as the tastiest of the berry bunch.
For the Tulalip Tribes, the mountain huckleberry is intimately tied with traditional lifeways and culture. Historically providing an end of summer harvest opportunity, the journey to swdaxali strengthens a deep connection to the land as well. Nearly 5,000 feet up, in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, berry pickers are completely immersed in the grand splendor that is the Pacific Northwest. Epic views of luscious, green-filled forestry, towering mountains, and clear waterways are purely mesmerizing.
“It was a beautiful, uplifting experience. Once we hit the forest, where there were no buildings, no cars, no people, just trees…my spirit soared,” said Lushootseed teacher Maria Martin after staining her hands purple from a day of picking.
It was a beautiful, uplifting experience.
“I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to speak my language, but that is only a piece of my culture. Berry picking feels natural, like I’ve always done it. The smells are intoxicating. The sounds are beautiful, from the buzzing bugs and chirping birds to the gentle breeze rustling the huckleberry leaves. These are the meaningful experiences that we all need to share in.”
An expression of tribal sovereignty. Traditional teachings of sustainable land management. An invaluable cultural medicine. So much meaning packed into the seemingly pint-sized huckleberry, which only reinforces that Mother Nature continues to be our best teacher.