Salish Bounty: Traditional Native Foods of Puget Sound

Food is the essence of culture, from the collection, to the preparation, to the serving and then the eating of food; it is what makes us who we are. It binds us to our families, our community, our history, our identity, and our home.

While there have been enormous changes in Coast Salish Native diet and culture over the centuries, a core value of food has survived: food is a blessing, gratefully and respectfully gathered and prepared, given and received with just as much gratification and respect.

Food is a blessing, gratefully and respectfully gathered and prepared, given and received with just as much gratification and respect.

- Coast Salish core value of food

Spring stinging nettles. Photo: Elise Krohn.

Thimbleberry. Photo: Elise Krohn.

Wild garlic and onions. Photo: Elise Krohn.

Elizabeth Swanaset holds clams on Puget Sound beach

Salish Bounty exhibit Co-curator Elizabeth Swanaset holds clams collected on a Puget Sound beach. The clams were then smoked and preserved for winter use. Photo: Warren King George.

Traditional Coast Salish Foods

Stories from the ancestors and the archeological record agree: Native Coast Salish peoples had an incredibly diverse knowledge about the food plants and animals of this region.

Archaeological sites around Puget Sound have found more than 280 plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, shellfish and other marine life used as traditional Coast Salish cuisine. Testimony and knowledge from Coast Salish elders, hunters, fishermen, gatherers, and ethnographies has confirmed and added many more foods to that list.

View traditional Coast Salish foods (PDF) 

In this short video, archaeologists Dr. Peter Lape and Dr. Robert Kopperl describe what they learned about traditional Native American foods from a survey of 130 archaeological sites in King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties: 


Dispossession and Struggle

Enormous changes came to Coast Salish diet and culture beginning in the 1850s. Non-Indian settlers rapidly altered ecosystems and restricted access to lands and waters, making it increasingly hard for Coast Salish people to collect traditional foods.

The reservation system was supposed to replace this loss, but instead it imposed new foods poorly suited to Native people’s nutritional and cultural needs. Coast Salish people struggled to adapt and keep alive the cultural values that have always guided how and what is good to eat. That struggle continues to this day.

Gilbert King George spear fishes on the White River during the “Fish-Ins” of the 1970s. Fish-in demonstrations were central to restoring tribal rights to fish in places guaranteed by treaties a century before. Photo: Warren King George.

Reviving Traditional Food Knowledge

Today, Native peoples are overcoming barriers to revitalize their relationship to traditional foods. The barriers are many—polluted shellfish beds, depleted or extinct fish runs, loss of access to land for hunting or gathering wild plant foods, forgotten recipes, the lure of fast food, and lifestyles that leave little time for food preparation and community feasts.

Many Coast Salish tribes, schools, and community groups are now working to revitalize the knowledge and values that have guided them for generations.

The core cultural values around food include:

  • Food is the center of culture
  • Honor the food chain
  • Eat with the seasons
  • Eat a variety of foods

Jacob Finkbonner harvests wild onion on Portage Island, Lummi. Photo courtesy of Elise Krohn.

Seaweed. Photo: Elise Krohn.

Kelp pickles. Photo: Elise Krohn.

Photo: Elise Krohn.

Stories of Food and Cultural Values 

We sat down with local tribal members and experts to discuss the traditions, special preparations, and greater meaning of food in their culture. Listen to their stories below:

Warren King George
Muckleshoot/Upper Skagit Indian Tribes

  1. Food is our culture (1:01)
  2. Prayer sentiment (1:04)
  3. When a cook prepares food (1:20)
  4. Acknowledge the cook (0:51)
  5. Ooligans (1:38)
  6. In those days (1:10)
  7. What food means to me (2:12)

George Swanaset, Sr.
Nooksack/Laq'á:mel Tribes

  1. The old ways (1:06)

Elizabeth Swanaset
Nooksack/Cowichan/Laq'á:mel Tribes

  1. You are what you eat (2:52)
  2. Nooksack crossing (1:26)

Elise Krohn
Traditional foods specialist, Northwest Indian College

  1. Epidemics (0:55)
  2. Unprecedented change (2:02)
  3. Eat with the seasons (0:58)
  4. Eat a diversity of foods (1:31)
  5. Be connected to your food (0:51)
  6. A special place in the world (1:14)

More Information

After the Salish Bounty exhibit closed at the Burke Museum, we created a traveling exhibit that museums and cultural centers across Washington state can bring to their organizations to explore the deep history of Coast Salish diets and the reestablishment of more healthful and sustainable practices.

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