Close-up photo of the exterior of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building.

Local Indigenous Food Sovereignty Efforts Uplift the Importance of Traditional Foods

by Vee Hua 華婷婷


Home to individuals from a number of tribal nations, the Puget Sound region serves as fertile ground for conversations and movements towards Indigenous food sovereignty. While many definitions of food sovereignty exist, the Indian Education Division at the Montana Office of Public Instruction defines it as “the ability of an Indigenous nation or community to control its own food system and food-producing resources free of control or limitations put on it by an outside power (such as a settler/colonizer government).”

Furthermore, food sovereignty for Indigenous communities can be restorative, reconnecting, and spiritual. As Valerie Segrest, a Native nutrition educator for the Muckleshoot Tribe located in present-day Washington State, describes in a 2015 statement, “The land is our identity and holds for us all the answers we need to be a healthy, vibrant, and thriving community. In our oral traditions, our creation story, we are taught that the land that provides the foods and medicines we need are a part of who we are. Without the elk, salmon, huckleberries, shellfish, and cedar trees, we are nobody. … This is our medicine; remembering who we are and the lands that we come from.”

In August 2022, the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods announced 19 recipients for the second year of their Food Equity Fund, which dispersed $2.8 million to increase investments in community work led by those most impacted by food and health inequities. Among them were three Native-centered organizations, each addressing the topic in varied but intersecting ways. They included United Indian of All Tribe Foundation’s multipronged program called The Way of the Buffalo; Friends of FEED, an online resource guide for Native producers; and ʔálʔal Cafe, housed in the Chief Seattle Club’s latest low-income housing development.

Friends of FEED’s Native Producers Resource Guide

Segrest was one of the recipients of this year’s grant, through her project Friends of FEED. Fiscally sponsored by Feed 7 Generations and derived out of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, Friends of FEED aims to create an online resource guide of Native food producers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It will include everything from dairy from Yakama Nation and bison from Coeur d’Alene to seafood from the Muckleshoot, Lummi, and Suquamish, to name a few examples.

“There are all kinds of farms and producers across the country … and there’s not one comprehensive guide as to who those food producers are in the Northwest,” said Segrest. “This project will identify who they are and create a resource guide that will live on the web in a way that can be updated and viewed and edited or added to over time.” 

The concept for a resource guide was born during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, after a conversation between Segrest and Indigenous agriculturalist Spring Alaska Shreiner, who owns Sakari Farms in Oregon. 

“During the COVID pandemic, overnight, her farm became the hot topic, because people were trying to get Native foods to Native people with hunger relief funds,” noted Segrest. “So she sort of came out of this thinking: We have got to figure out the pieces of all of this.”

“At the same time, the job I had was really to try and figure out how to respond to a broken food system that was nearly catastrophized by a virus, and how to get food to Native people,” Segrest continued. “We had major hunger relief organizations like Feeding America, all of them, trying to figure out how to get donated food to tribal communities. There are a lot of success stories around it, and there are a lot of reality checks that we don’t have distribution systems; we don’t have infrastructure to be able to receive and distribute food in an adequate amount of time without them all going rotten, and every tribe does their food distribution models differently.”

The resource guide also hopes to bridge the divide between urban and rural Native communities, which are often affected by funding mechanisms that segregate the two.

“What I hope to achieve with this is sort of an unintended outcome, actually, to strengthen that connection between the two communities,” explained Segrest. “All Native people have different cultural customs, but we have common values when it comes to food, and I think that living in the city shouldn’t diminish your access to traditional foods, and neither should living on a reservation diminish your visibility in the world. Food is a great place to begin to bring those two seemingly different worlds — but they’re really the same — together.”

Photo depicting the exterior of the Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building.
Exterior of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building in Pioneer Square. (Photo courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.)

Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Café

Dedicated to physically and spiritually supporting American Indian and Alaska Native people, the nonprofit Chief Seattle Club offers its members an array of services, including food, health care, housing assistance, legal services, job training, and opportunities for members to engage in cultural community-building. In January 2022, they opened their first of many permanent housing complexes to come, called ʔálʔal. Translating to “Home” in Lushootseed, ʔálʔal contains 80 zero-to-low-income housing units, is furnished with Indigenous art throughout, and hosts ʔálʔal Café on its ground floor.

Opening this fall, ʔálʔal Café has big goals to use food to educate the non-Native public, provide a gathering space for Chief Seattle Club’s diverse membership, and serve traditional foods from throughout Indian country.

“Seattle is one of those places where there are just so many Native tribes from all throughout the country that are found here, so the urban Native experience is different between each of those different tribes,” said ʔálʔal Café manager Anthony Johnson, who is Anishnaabe and a citizen of Red Lake Nation from northern Minnesota. Johnson has been diving deep into research of traditional foods from different regions, and he has seen firsthand the impact of representing them in the meals that Chief Seattle Club serves.

“We serve around 60 people for breakfast and probably about 75–80 for lunch every day,” he shared. “I’ve worked in the kitchen quite a bit, and we’ve had people come up that had said, literally, ‘Thank you for serving this. I used to eat this as a kid back when I lived in New Mexico, or back when I lived on the Navajo Nation, and this is awesome.’”

Traditional foods may also be a gateway for non-Natives to learn about Native culture. Located in Pioneer Square, ʔálʔal Café will seek to provide a decolonized setting that might educate the public about the work of Chief Seattle Club.

“We hope to really have a decolonized atmosphere and have Native art throughout the café as well as serving Native foods,” said Johnson. “[We want] to share the story of Indigenous people throughout the country, but also in Seattle, because it’s the largest city in the country named after an Indigenous person, and it’s our belief that we still don’t have the representation that we deserve.”

Johnson acknowledges that the café will bring in a spectrum of the general public — some who may want to simply purchase a coffee, look at some art, and be on their merry way, and some who may want to engage on a deeper level. ʔálʔal Café plans to train its employees so that they are well-versed in the traditional foods being served, and well-equipped to answer questions from clients hoping to learn more.

“Showcasing Indigenous foods from throughout the country, along with a story and a talk track that explains the importance and the significance of those foods is going to be really, I think, a big step in educating the general public of why this is so important and why this is so necessary,” Johnson explained.

Another step in decolonization involves an active redistribution of wealth. The money Chief Seattle Club has received from the City through the Food Equity Fund will directly support Native vendors.

“We are actively buying produce and dry goods and protein from Native and tribal entities, and that is going straight back into our community to build schools, to fortify language revitalization programs, to work on protecting our access to our traditional foods,” said Johnson. “All of this is happening within the Indigenous economy.”

ʔálʔal Café will also house temporary and permanent art exhibits by Indigenous artists, and host small gatherings or events for the Chief Seattle Club community. Most importantly, it will provide a space for new experiences and visibility for Indigenous ways of being.

“We don’t have a district. We don’t have a street. There’s no central gathering place for Natives,” said Johnson. “That’s something we want to instill and create: a space where our presence is known, and the general public can visibly see who lives here, whose community [this is].”

Rendering depicting Exterior rendering of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building in Pioneer Square, with associated symbolism.
Exterior rendering of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building in Pioneer Square, with associated symbolism. (Photo courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.)

United Indian of All Tribes Foundation’s The Way of the Buffalo

The Way of the Buffalo was a program conceptualized by United Indian of All Tribes Foundation in 2021. According to William Redbear Knapp, program coordinator for UIATF’s Our Strong Fathers program, which will steward the funds for The Way of the Buffalo project — the program’s initial goals were to “bring a Buffalo from the reservation to the city, to harvest and butcher it, to use it to teach men how to do this technique of harvesting their own food, to encourage food sovereignty amongst our Native fathers, and to also have an activity for them and their children to do together.”

Since its initial concept, however, The Way of the Buffalo has expanded to include other projects at Daybreak Star, the headquarters of UIATF. After the preschool at UIATF decided to move into offering more sustainable, organic, and healthy options for their children, the organization’s different program areas decided to work together to apply for the Food Equity Grant.

“We still plan on bringing a Buffalo over to follow through with our initial plan, but we’ve also developed other plans with this funding,” explained Knapp. “One of them [is] supporting our children, implementing a healthy diet for them, [and] giving them more traditional foods that the preschool couldn’t afford prior to this grant opportunity.”

Knapp, who is Oglala Lakota from the Great Plains Region, comes from a people who historically relied on the Buffalo as their primary food source. He explained, “The Food Equity Grant is our Buffalo, metaphorically. It is how we are going to bring food sovereignty back into our Native families within King County.”

After its first year, Knapp hopes that The Way of the Buffalo program will expand to include weekly community meals for elders, veterans, and warriors as well. “In our old days, that’s what they did. They would always take care of the children, elders first,” he explained.

UIATF serves Native, Hawaiʻian, and Pacific Islander populations from throughout the Seattle area. Despite their varying cultures, Knapp explained that Native and Indigenous populations the world over share commonalities around how they engage with food.

“We all prepare our foods with love, with a good heart, with a good mind, because whatever we put into that food, and we give to somebody, they take into themselves,” said Knapp. “The people who prepare your food for you — if they have good energy, and they have good thoughts, and they’re putting prayers into the way that they’re making their food, and you take that food as a blessing, you’re taking those prayers, you’re taking those good thoughts, and you’re taking that good medicine into you.”

“By having this [grant] opportunity,” Knapp concluded, “United Indians is able to put good medicine back into the community through The Way of the Buffalo, the salmon, the seal, the caribou, whatever kind of meat that your people ate. That was the medicine.”


Editors’ Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the opening date of ʔálʔal Café.


Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the executive director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits, is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, and will be released in late 2022. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com

📸 Featured Image: Exterior of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Building in Pioneer Square. (Photo courtesy of Chief Seattle Club.)

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