Autumn Special 2014

American Indian Food (Part 2)

Author: Karin Heinze

Although Native Americans constitute less than 1 % of the population of North America, Indians play a role in the food industry that cannot be overlooked. With their conviction that the earth and all creatures must be honoured and protected, they have a very special relationship with animals and agriculture. This finds expression in their fishing methods in particular and in the way they look after the fish stocks in, for example, the Columbia River in the north west of the USA. Now better organized, networked and with a protected trademark logo, the Indian companies would like to see their product range on the international market. In Part 1 we reported on the Intertribal Agriculture Council, cranberries and fruit, Indian haute cuisine.
(Picture: The Columbia River – fishing is a very important part of Indian food culture)

 

Nathan Notah is a Navajo from New Mexico. As the director of the American Indian Food Program and a member of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, Notah is familiar with many projects involved in agricultural production and processing. He sees his role as creating connections between the firms of different tribes, helping them with the marketing of their products and creating export opportunities for them. Notah has been working for 12 years for the IAC. With the American Indian Food Program, he and a number of firms have succeeded in opening up more sales channels. The Council’s activities also involve advising on food safety and food processing, financing projects and young companies and marketing, including regional and worldwide product promotion. “Our aim is to speak with one voice, to act together, to create market access for our products and to lobby for the issues around our people,” is how Notah sums up the priorities.
 (Picture: Nathan Notah works closely with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission)

In Washington State, from the Canadian border to the north of Oregon on the Columbia River, lie the reserves of the Lummi Indians. Fishing is a traditional activity of the Lummis on both the Pacific coast and the Columbia River. With about 5,600 people in the tribe, the Lummis are one of the bigger Indian communities. Around 900 live from fishing in the bay near Blaine/Bellingham, where they own the fishing rights for more than 5,000 ha of water stocked with an abundance of fish. The Boundary Fish Company (picture on the right) has its headquarters in Blaine just a mile from the border with Canada. Henry Yuki, the founder of the company, and his son Arnold work together with 30 – 40 Lummi fishermen.
(Picture: Every day the Lummi fishermen bring their catch to Boundary Fish Inc. where some of the salmon is smoked)

Every day, the fishermen deliver their supply of fresh salmon, a regional white fish speciality, and shrimps to the company where they are processed for dispatch: whole fish, fillets, frozen, smoked and dried fish are sold to the trade. Fish and shrimps go to regional shops and by chilled transport to San Francisco and for export to Japan, China and Ukraine. Boundary Fish Company produces about three million tons of fish a year. They are planning to extend the processing line because, as well as the traditional preparation of the product for the trade, they are going to put more emphasis in the future on typically Indian specialities. They currently sell “jerky” snacks – spiced and dried strips of salmon fillet – in their natural state and there is also a Japanese spiced variety, but they are adding more flavours so that they can conquer the markets at home and abroad. The IAC intends to show the innovative snacks at trade fairs. (Picture: Junior boss Arnold Yuki would like to bring the new dried fish snacks to the international market)

The Lummis’ long tradition of fishing in this region has led to another unusual specialization: over the last 30 years, the chief of the Lummi, Henry Cague, has created a mussel-breeding station. Every year, approximately 2 billion mussel eggs are produced in a costly process and then either grown on in Bellingham Bay or sent to other fishing companies. In addition to fishing, the Lummi tribe keeps up its other old traditions that include handicrafts like plaited hats and baskets, and canoe building and restoration. They have also created a sound infrastructure and a social network (school, youth centre, retirement home and health centre for members of the tribe). Cague, who has been the tribal chief for years, is convinced that the young Lummi – 50 % are less than 25 years old - have good future prospects. A short time ago, the very committed PR manager Lyn Dennis and her team created a TV channel on the internet for the community. (Picture: Henry Cague set up a mussel-breeding station)

With a lot of genuine commitment, Bobby Begay, half Yakama and half Navajo from the Celilo community, represents the interests of the Yakama and their fishing rights along the Columbia River. The third largest river in the USA, that separates Washington State from Oregon, has a turbulent past. As colonisation was taking place in the thirties and forties of the 18th century, Indian history was being written here in a place where for centuries the Indians had been engaged in fishing. The salmon, that used to swim in their millions from the Pacific up the fast-flowing Columbia River to their breeding grounds, are holy in the eyes of the Indians. In the longhouse, today still the traditional place for ceremonies worshipping nature and for gatherings of the Yakama, Bobby points out that fish are their life. Their food is 30 % salmon. About 350 – 450 fishermen catch fish in the stretch of the Columbia River that belongs to the reserve of the Yakama tribe.
(Picture: Bobby Begay is an expert on salmon)

Salmon are not just regarded as food. Since they are fundamental to the Indians’ way of life, they are protected. Research and breeding is being carried out so that the fish stocks can grow again. With the building of a dam, industrialized fishing and so-called fishmills in the 19th and 20th centuries, the number of salmon fell from around 16 million to 1 million a year, but the commitment of the Indians and their knowledge have helped to stabilize fish stocks and have even led to them growing again. At the same time, the people have been able to return to self-sufficiency. The Lummi and Yakama are now once again in a position to maintain their traditions and to pass them on to following generations. However, it’s not just a question of preserving fundamentals and traditions, “new methods of sustainable fishing are being developed, and we’re researching the fascinating ways of the salmon,” explains John Mathews (picture) from the Portland Fish Commission (CRITFC).

In order to cooperate in fishing, research and marketing, four tribes in the Columbia River basin have founded the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). Under the slogan “Putting Fish Back in the River”, the organisation’s focus is salmon fishing in the reserves. “The Indian culture here is based on salmon fishing, and we want to preserve it,” stresses John Mathews from CRITFC. As well as addressing fishing and all related matters, the Commission maintains an extensive social network and helps the Indians to preserve their culture. A part of this activity is the annual ceremony before the beginning of the fishing season in May. The tribes show their respect for the foundation of their lives with a big party and a religious ceremony. Other tasks of the Commission are maintaining and, if possible, building up the salmon stocks. Old tribal know-how combines with modern research results. Among its aims is securing the food basis for the next seven generations.
(Picture: The salmon stocks in the Columbia River are rising again and the Indians have enough salmon to cover their own needs and to sell)

The fact that salmon fishing is worth the effort is shown by the name “Wall Street of the West”, as Celilo is called. The town is the heart of salmon fishing on the Columbia River. Various sustainable methods, that are not harmful to nature and are not detrimental to fish stocks, have been employed for centuries. Every year, more than 100,000 salmon are taken from the Columbia River by the Indians (700 – 900 t). Since 1995, the board of the Commission has been committed to improving the economic side of salmon fishing and marketing. Various schemes have been implemented: food safety, quality management and marketing have all been upgraded. (Picture: Scaffold fishing from platforms with nets on long poles)

350 out of about 450 fishermen are already taking part. As well as direct sales, amounting to a substantial 90 t a year, fish are now sold at fishers’ and farmers’ markets and to buyers. In 2012 a processing plant is being launched, a pilot project to see if the market can be better served and to prepare for exporting. There is still a long way to go, because there is a lot of competition from Alaska. Whereas the Yakama have a budget of only $ 100,000 a year, in Alaska 10 times as much is spent on marketing. The four tribes working together in the CRITFC are Yakamas, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Spring.
(Picture: Salmon fishing using traditional methods that don’t harm fish stocks)

For centuries bison meat has been a basic food of the Indians. Hides, skin, bones – they made use of everything, explains Ron Barela from the Badger Pocket Bison Ranch near Ellensburg (Washington). Together with his wife Vickie, he has revived the tradition of bison keeping and breeding. Ron is an Apache and Vickie has a German-Irish background. Ron used to work for the coastguard in California and, after retiring, he was looking for a challenge. He investigated the traditions of his people and got to know a bison breeder who wanted to sell his farm. He took the opportunity and left behind the bustling life of San Francisco Bay for the remote wide open spaces of the grasslands of Washington State in north-west America.
(Picture: Extensive natural bison keeping. Meat from the herd is sold in the region)

With great passion but also a lot of expertise, Ron and Vickie tend and pamper their herd of 30 – 70 animals. The imposing beasts are tame. “Of course, we have to slaughter animals, but we try to prepare in such a way as not to stress them,” Ron explains. “But the herd has a seventh sense, and every time they show us they haven’t forgotten.” The meat of genuine bison is increasingly in demand, because it contains hardly any cholesterol, only 4 – 5 % fat and tastes good too. The bison, that can grow to a ton in weight, are fed exclusively on grass and are kept extensively. “No hormones, no antibiotics, they live completely naturally,” says Ron, who loves his animals like children. He sells the meat to people who come to fetch it from the farm, since he and his wife have built up a loyal customer base. A local butcher turns some of the meat into sausages that are sold in regional retail stores. (Picture: The imposing, tame animals)

The penultimate stop on the trip round Indian projects was the Umpqua tribe. The casino and 5-star resort Seven Feathers (1,200 gambling machines, 350 beds, 190 caravan pitches, its own petrol station, etc.) is operated by the Umpqua. Six years ago, the company Seven Feathers created a green team for the whole complex. Among the jobs it carries out are reducing the volume of refuse and lowering the CO2 footprint.
(Picture: Casino, hotel, resort Seven Feathers – caring for the environment)

“For the hotel, we’ve already achieved ‘Green Seal’ certification. Among other things, we’ve set up our own water system with a rainwater reservoir, we’ve got rid of the polystyrene cups, the refuse is collected separately and we use only eco-friendly cleaning materials,” explains hospitality manager Travis Hill. “We’ve converted our cuisine as much as possible to local supplies, and we’ve changed from plastic to glass. This means we’re not just conserving resources but also saving $ 40,000 a year,” says Hill. At the breakfast buffet you find organic tea by Numi (USA), and in the en-suite bathrooms there are natural cosmetics products by BeeKind from England. In a USA-wide hotel ranking, Seven Feathers is in third place. About a million people visit the resort every year.
(Picture: Committed management team: with their environmental programme they have given the resort its own profile)

In the small artisan company Umpqua Food, jerky snacks and beef sausage are produced by the Umpqua tribe. In the little town Canyonville, the committed team of 12 round the chef Jake and the production manager Judiana produces the marinated and dried jerky strips from fillet of beef and meat sticks made according to traditional recipes. The six differently spiced jerkys are marketed together with products of other tribes in the company’s own little shop in the town. However, these specialities also go to many of the huge casinos that are operated by Indians, and across the whole of the USA to tourist shops and museum shops. In recent years the company has recorded double-digit growth in turnover. “We use the best ingredients, and we don’t use either GM food or preservatives,” Jake insists. They are planning to expand production and to start exporting. (Pictures: Umpqua Food creates jobs and is having success with its snacks)

06.12.2010

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