Think Out Loud

New reporting project focuses on Indigenous food sovereignty in the Columbia River Basin

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
April 13, 2023 3:50 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, April 13

There’s no official definition for the term “food sovereignty,” but the Indian Affairs Bureau describes it as “the ability of communities to determine the quantity and quality of the food that they consume by controlling how their food is produced and distributed.”


Portland-based news outlet Underscore recently tackled the topic in a new series. The Food Sovereignty Project features stories of Indigenous communities rebuilding food systems, reclaiming traditional foods and practices and preserving that knowledge for future generations.

Project co-director Nicole Charley joins us to talk more about the series, along with freelance writer Leah Altman, who contributed two stories to the project.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the issue of “Indigenous food sovereignty”. There’s no single definition of the term, but the Indian Affairs Bureau describes it as, “the ability of communities to determine the quantity and quality of the food that they consume by controlling how their food is produced and distributed.” The Portland based Underscore News recently tackled this topic in a series of articles. Its Food Sovereignty Project features stories of Indigenous communities in the Northwest, rebuilding food systems, reclaiming traditional foods and practices and preserving that knowledge for future generations. Nicole Charley is a co-director of the project. She joins us now along with freelance writer Leah Altman, who contributed two stories to the project. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Nicole Charley: Thank you for having us today.

Miller: Nicole Charley, first. In your introduction to the series, you describe a Facebook post that you saw last summer. Would you mind telling us that story?

Charley: Sure. Late last summer, I saw a post on a Portland area, Southwest Vancouver Native page, that there was a deer available that had died unexpectedly out of a wild herd. And I really wanted it, but in the neighborhood we live in, we didn’t have space or capacity to harvest the meat or butcher it. And I posted on the page, “I’d really love to take this deer, but I’m not able to at this time.” And another community member immediately responded and said, “If you get the deer, I’ll help you butcher and harvest the meat.” And I was so excited. It was a weekday and I had to move fast and I asked my sister, “Would you be able to help me get this deer and bring it to our friend and we can harvest the meat?” And I was so happy, she was excited also and she said, “Yeah, let’s go.” And so we connected with the person who originally posted, got the address, directions, and permission to come onto the property where the deer had tried to jump someone’s fence and got hung up on one of the top posts and bled out in their neck. So the deer passed pretty quickly, and we went to get it and took it out to Sauvie Island to a farm where our friend does work and they helped us butcher and save the hide, save the brain for later tanning. And it was a great experience.

For me growing up, I’ve had more experience with plants, not so much with game and fish. So that was a really neat experience for me to have that community page and to have someone respond immediately where we were able to get it that morning, and have the meat for the fall and winter. And just to have that taste throughout our meals was so special, and to be able to learn along with my partner and our kids about the intimacy of butchering and saving as much as we can and sharing that.

Miller: How does that deer, how does it connect to the issue of food sovereignty to you?


Charley: For me, it’s great to have that option to have wild game on our plates as an option for an evening meal, to be able to expand our taste beyond what’s in the grocery store. To be able to have food that you work for, that you work intimately with, in preparing that in meals and in ceremonies. It’s a really special feeling we’re taught growing up that you interact with all of our resources with a good heart, a good mind, good thoughts. So to be able to be hands-on in that project, from getting the animal shortly after it passed, all the way through to preparing it in a meal for our family. It brought up great memories also of family time with my grandma, deer back straps and dried deer meat and the smell and taste is, it’s part of home for me and for our kids and to have that as a regular meal throughout our fall and winter was super special. It wasn’t something I would think to go out and buy or have access to, as my kids aren’t hunters yet. So something we’re excited for and looking forward to with them.

Miller: Leah, you wrote about food sovereignty efforts in Portland and on Warm Springs Tribal Land in Central Oregon. How different are these issues, are food sovereignty issues in urban areas compared to rural ones?

Leah Altman: Warm Springs is a reservation that’s not far from the Portland area, but what you’ll find mainly, the difference between reservation life and then urban life is that you have one tribe, usually, or maybe a couple of different tribes on one piece of land. So every tribe… well, I guess I should say this, is that there are over 574 tribes in the United States and every single tribe could operate as sovereign nations. In some cases that’s legitimized and in other cases is not, for example with tribes that are unrecognized, either by the state or federal government and/or are not connected to land, for every single tribe, there’s a different situation both legally and then culturally. So when you’re on a reservation - for example, Warm Springs - you’re only dealing with a few different tribal customs, belief systems, approaches. Or maybe even one, in some cases. Whereas in urban environments you have Indigenous people, Native people, who are coming from lots of different tribes. I can’t remember the exact amount but I know it’s in the hundreds of different tribes that are represented by native people in the Portland area.

So with a place like NAYA [Native American Youth and Family Center], which is what one of the articles was about, their land is a private land base that many different tribes are utilizing to grow their traditional foods as well as foods that were grown from this land since time immemorial. But there’s lots of different types of ceremonies going on, depending on who’s running the ceremony and what tribe. Whereas you’ll see much more alignment in the tribes represented at Warm Springs.

However, I will say what we found, what I learned, I’m Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge. But what I learned speaking with the Warm Springs interviewees was that even with one tribe, or a couple of different tribes, there’s still different cultural customs between families. And so what was interesting is that we found during COVID, when people had to get together in smaller groups, it was usually one or two, maybe a few different families, that were meeting together to hold feasts, rather than the bigger tribes. So what they saw is that people kind of started using their own customs in their own families and now they’re all coming back together and so kind of navigating, what do we do now? Do we go back to how we did things before? And in some cases, we don’t remember what was done before or maybe there’s a better way. So, that was the interesting difference between the two.

Miller: A lot of the stories in the series, including the one that you did about Warm Springs, one of the aspects at the heart is a kind of intergenerational passing on of knowledge, elders teaching younger people about food and language and tradition. It made me wonder how much of a sense of urgency there is right now to foster that passing of knowledge before it’s too late.

Altman: That’s a great question. And I think the answer is, it is always urgent with all of our Indigenous communities. There’s a tribe that I know of up in the Quilcene, Washington area, on the Olympic Peninsula. I think they’re called the Quilcene Indians, where their last living elder, documented elder, passed and with her, all of that knowledge and just that cultural, ecological knowledge, all that history passed with her. And so that’s the fear of all of our tribes and all of our tribal people is that if we don’t make sure that those tribal traditional customs and also ways of stewarding our land are passed on to the younger generations, then they’re going to go away. There isn’t anyone to remember them or to share them or continue those ways.

With that also, sometimes it’s necessary for change to incorporate more contemporary modes or methods of doing things. And so that’s what you kind of see in the NAYA article, is that in a lot of cases, we’re combining traditional ecological knowledge with newer methods that maybe are more streamlined or appropriate for the land or the situation. So there’s also a need to be able to be flexible and adaptable to ensure that we still retain those tribal approaches.

Miller: Leah Altman and Nicole Charley, thanks very much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Altman: Thank you so much.

Charley: Thank you.

Miller: Leah Altman is a Portland based freelance writer who contributed two articles to this new project, the Food Sovereignty Project, which is being done by Underscore News. Nicole Charley is one of the co-directors of this project.

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