Plants and traditional Coast Salish diet

June 9, 2015 | Burke Museum

Plants were an integral part of the Coast Salish diets prior to Euro-American colonization. They provided fiber and crucial vitamins and minerals not available through the consumption of animal foods, which was particularly important for children and pregnant and nursing women.

In addition to their dietary importance, plants played central roles in the social systems of Northwest Coast peoples, from the marking of seasons to the organization of labor, and the maintenance of relationships to ensure access to important foods. The harvest and stewardship of plant resources fell primarily to Northwest Coast women, so the study of people-plant relationships is also the study of women’s contributions to social well-being.

Joyce LeCompte, a University of Washington graduate student, used the Burke Museum’s archaeology collection to update the Burke’s Puget Sound Traditional Foods Database. Specifically, LeCompte analyzed ethnographic and ethnohistorical records along with archaeobotanical reports from 18 archaeological sites in Western Washington’s Duwamish-Green-White River Watershed. LeCompte’s study adds 12 new edible plants to the original database, including several carbohydrate-rich root foods identified in sites on the Enumclaw Plateau and in the Cascade Mountains.

LeCompte also found foods like processed camas and hazelnut in archaeological sites at higher elevations than they’re known to grow, and charcoal in prairie sites where key root foods were found. These findings suggest that Coast Salish peoples were trading and/or transporting a variety of foods, while also intentionally altering the landscape to cultivate specific foods. LeCompte theorizes that the higher proportion of root foods and greater evidence for resource cultivation at inland sites are related phenomena.

Roots may have played a more important role in villages farther from the saltwater due to the lower fat content of animal foods (particularly salmon) farther inland. Farther north in the region, the ethnographic record suggests that these root gardens were maintained by women and accessed through their female descendants.

Plant materials have received inadequate attention in archaeological studies on the Northwest Coast based on assumptions in the archaeological community about the relative unimportance of plant foods in relation to marine resources—particularly salmon. This project is the first to synthesize the archaeobotany of this portion of the Puget Sound region, and helps tell the story of Native women’s contributions to the well-being of their communities.

Today, these plants are integral to traditional foods revitalization, food sovereignty and ecological restoration efforts of Coast Salish communities.