Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Valerie Segrest, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 1/09/2023
  • Essay 22643
See Additional Media

Valerie Segrest is a nutritionist and food sovereignty advocate. An enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, she is the co-founder of Tahoma Peak Solutions, working to organize tribal community members in grassroots efforts to strengthen sustainable food systems that are culturally relevant and nutritionally appropriate. Her work includes designing native plantings as part of the redevelopment of the Seattle waterfront. In these audio extracts, she shares the story of how she first connected with traditional foods, why she feels so passionate about food sovereignty, and how that has informed her work on the waterfront. You can find more at her website ( Segrest was interviewed at the Muckleshoot Tribal College near Auburn on July 29, 2022, by Jennifer Ott and Dominic Black of Historylink.

What is Food Sovereignty?

Valerie Segrest: Food sovereignty is the inherent right to define our own diet collectively, and therefore by collectively defining our diet, we shape our food system. And so it's that age-old tradition of you vote with your dollar in our American food system, but for tribal communities and tribal food sovereignty, we're voting by making sure to shift our attention and consciousness back to the land and the water that has fed and sustained us since time immemorial.

Dominic Black: How do you approach that in everyday life? How do you kind of communicate those ideals to everyday life?

VS: That's such an important question because food sovereignty, sovereignty in and of itself, is not a thing you go and get. It's something you practice every single day. So every time you drink a cup of nettle tea, like our ancestors did, we're strengthening our sovereignty. We're choosing for that recipe and that practice to continue to exist as it has for thousands of years. So food sovereignty is really about making conscious decisions every single day to eat like our ancestors did. It may seem challenging in a modern world, but there are practices that are just as applicable today as they were generations ago, like our traditional foods are whole foods and they're local foods and they're seasonal foods, and we cook and eat with good intention and honor the food web of life and practice generosity on the land and in our life. That helps to provide a world of reciprocity and ground us in a sense of belonging. So, those are all the same principles you hear in the good food movement, but it's just our ancestral traditional food principles.

Why Study Nutrition?

VS: It started ... I don't know, it's one of those moments in your life where you realize that there were all these things that happened that led you to this path, but I think one of the real important moments was I took a job working for my tribe, the Muckelshoot tribe as a caregiver for elders. And I had ... I was assigned, I don't know, about a dozen elders that I'd visit on a daily basis. I'd take them grocery shopping, I'd clean their home. I'd help them out. I'd keep them company. I'd take them to culture events. I'd take them to doctor's appointments. I sort of had this full picture of their health. 

And at the same time, I was studying Native American studies at Northwest Indian College, right here in this room, and I wanted to know about people in my family that had passed away that I didn't know, because I hadn't met them in my lifetime, in their lifetime, and Ollie Wilbur Purcell was one of them.

She lived to be 108 years old. She passed away not that long ago. It was like in the '90s. And her sort of claim to fame for longevity was eating traditional foods. If you came to visit Ollie, she would make you take some cod liver oil or eat the bitter berries, or dote with her in the garden. She was also a fantastic wool weaver. She would sew wool socks. She was known for her wool socks. So anyways, that impacted me thinking not that long ago, we were living to be well over 100 years old, and at the same time I was taking care of elders who were really suffering from nutrition-related diseases. When I asked them what they thought they needed to heal themselves, every single time, they'd say, "If I just had access to my traditional foods and medicines, I know I could heal myself and I don't want my grandchildren to suffer." 

So I chose to, because I was also obsessed with just food and the Food Network channel, it was like all the rage at that time, I decided to go to school to study nutrition.

DB: What were your first experiences of when you go into the classroom, what are you hearing and seeing? What are your impressions of the approach?

VS: When I was studying nutrition? Well, it's a pre-med degree, the pathway I chose, and my background my whole life I have wanted to be a writer, and that was a very big shift for me. I've loved science. I've always taken science for fun, but it was a very big shift for me to do a full year of biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to the nth degree. I loved it. I loved human physiology. I think it's fascinating, but it wasn't the type of curriculum that I was really looking for. This food sovereignty as my community, my practice in nutrition, is something I really have had to design along the way. We often joke about after getting my degree in nutrition, coming back to get my degree in Native food studies 101 from elders and Native food experts and anybody I could find who would want to share with me, I just would drop everything and go sit with them.

So that has led me to work with every tribe in the state of Washington, just sitting with elders who wanted to share, or Native food experts or plant knowledge folks who were willing to spend time with me.

Nettle Tea Revelation

VS: So in my senior year at Bastyr University, where I got my degree in nutrition, I had a therapeutic whole foods class, and it was taught by Jennifer Adler, who is still to this day one of my nutrition heroes. That's such a geeky thing to say. I came into class one day and she had a cup of tea waiting for us and instructed us all to sit down and quietly, like you were talking about, that observation, the power of observation to quietly drink this cup of tea for like three to five minutes and pay attention to how our bodies were responding to it. At that time, I was eating this like pristine ... I mean, you're studying nutrition, you're with a bunch of recovering eating-disorder folks, we're hyper aware of what we're eating. I was eating a really pristine diet.

I mean, it was ridiculous. I still was sick all the time and I still felt depleted all the time. When I drank that cup of tea, I just felt like something rooted out of my body and that I was coming to this place of wellness and the strength was growing inside of me. I was just like in shock about the profound effect, a simple cup of tea had on my body at that point. She announced to us at the end of the three minutes that it was nettle. Then we went outside and walked around the trails and harvested nettle and stung ourselves with it and drew it and talked about it and geeked out. There were all kinds of other plants she talked about, but all I cared about that day was learning about nettles, and then I started doing that.

I started drinking it every day. I started telling anybody I could about what I was drinking, just like this green juice in a big Mason jar I'd carry around, some jar of moonshine or something, and everyone would be like, "What is that?" and I'd tell them all about it, just like I did with the vitamin powder. After that, I just realized that's all it takes. We have a real pervasive idea in our culture that more is better, and when it comes to traditional foods, they're so nutrient dense and they're so not doted on and have to stand up to all the elements on their own that they're really rich in nutrition and medicine. So I have witnessed this time and time again with my community when they drink cups of tea or smell something that ignites this memory inside of them.

I am honored to be able to witness those moments in my community, and I believe that this is really the medicine that we're all looking for. Traditional foods help us feel a sense of belonging, and don't we all need to feel that more now than ever? I feel like that's sort of the sickness in our culture globally, that we have been told that we're wrong for having such great affinity to our homelands or that we have to run away from them or that we have to redesign them and rebuild them and forget about that and this, and those are all these traditions that have held up our ancestral health forever, and we should make sure to pass that on to the next generation. It's kind of our responsibility to remember those things and to know that they are right and true, and they do serve us and then pass us on to the next generation

Tribal Involvement in the New Waterfront

VS: First of all, I think it's really telling of our time that we are included in a planning process for the redesign. My experience, and what I had heard at the time when the waterfront, they just started breaking ground, was a lot of people in my community really predicting that it would be a check-the-box type of partnership or collaboration, where we put some data plants in the ground, let's move on. But what has happened, I think, over the last couple of years is through trusting the process and people really showing up with an open heart and an open mind and accepting all different voices at the table, true collaboration has happened, and that is beautiful. There was a time when it was illegal for us to even live in the city of Seattle, that's why Muckelshoot has the zip code that it has. 

So for us to be invited to the table to help tell a story, and honestly like our people are fishing those waters right now, tonight. My children, and so many of the other folks on the indigenous work group have said we want our children to know that they belong here too, and that means that when we have the opportunity to make something recognizable and help them understand that this is their place also, we need to take that opportunity. 

For so long, we've been in this survival mode, and now there is the time for healing, and decolonizing really means making the invisible visible. That means that when we have a chance to be visible, we need to show up and recognize that as part of our healing process.

DB: Was it difficult to convince community members of that?

VS: I think at first, yeah. When I first started even talking about native plants, people in this community – and this is still ongoing to this very day – feel very protective of that, and there are many reasons why they should feel that way too. And, when we start teaching these stories and creating places for people to share their gift and knowledge, we realize and recognize that's where healing really happens. That people feel that they have a purpose in their community, that they have something to share and it's being received well, and people are excited about it and they see the impacts on their life and how transformative food can be. It's sort of undeniable that now is the time to be able to share that knowledge that's appropriate to share.

So I often say I think of plants as my best friends, and there are things about my best friends I would never share with anybody else. I wouldn't tell anybody. Just her and I know this. Then there are things about her that I would tell the world because they may need a better understanding of her. 

And so that is the space that I work in when I'm talking about nettles or any native plant or food – that this is common knowledge, but I'm helping to connect the dots. There are moments I've had with those plants that are just for me and maybe for my daughters to learn someday when they're ready.

The Overlook Walk

VS: The idea of Overlook Walk would be that it's from telling the story of the landscapes from white cap to white cap. 

So in our territory it would be like the top of Mount Rainier, Tacoma, all the way to the shores of the Salish Sea. So in between that, there's in some places in the Puget Sound region, it's just 30 miles from white cap to white cap. So if you can imagine the diversity of ecosystems that are there, and that our ancestors ate over 300 different kinds of foods in an annual year where standard American diet is anywhere between 12 and 20 different foods in an annual year, that diversity is so important. That ability to eat those different nutrients and what it does in our body and for our health, and also getting to know the landscape and food security for all the reasons we need to be eating more different types of foods. 

And so the white cap to white cap is about stitching together that story of the land.

So, on the aquarium rooftop, you'll see the native berry garden, which is like salmonberry, thimble berry, all of the fun stuff, and then you'll also see a stretch along the Salish steps that is a camas prairie. So if you're facing, I guess it would be north, you would see camas in bloom and chocolate lily and wild onion and Yarrow. 

And then as you're walking up the steps towards Pike Place Market you'll see a wetland ecosystem, and it's also like where the cars will be driving underneath. So they'll look up and see cattails and willow and vine maple. And then as you keep going up, you'll see a food ... we couldn't put an old-growth cedar tree up there, right, because of engineers and infrastructure and things like that – fun stuff – but we'll have a playground simulating a large old-growth log and some of the more conifer friends and salal and Doug fir and Western red cedar, but smaller size scale trees on that area. So it sort of goes up like a little switchback, and then it connects you into Pike Place. 

I'm also working with Dan Friday, who's a Lummi glass blower who's doing the artwork for the entry of the new Ocean Pavilion, right underneath this oculus. He's got this beautiful design to do glass blown salmon suspended from the ceiling and really a just powerful story told by his great-grandfather who is his namesake, and it's about a rock, the grandmother rock with the crabs on it. And so he is got some display on that going on, and I'm working with him to help tell that story. Although he doesn't need any help telling the story, because he's really gifted at it. But he was doing research and realized that Princess Angeline's home is right there, so this would essentially be her frontdoor garden if he were to think about it that way, which is so, so cool. That was the moment for me that I was really excited, like next level excited about this project.

DB: That really powerfully accentuates history on top of history, doesn't it?

VS: Yeah. And the sort of unintended and unplanned consequences of engaging in indigenous work, of people who – none of us are, we don't have degrees in architecture or city planning or any of that stuff – but we do carry, I think, knowledge that we maybe know and unconsciously also know about this place and how to bring out those stories and the power of what happens when you bring out these stories, just the layers of generational history and teachings that are just rippling through generations. Even the idea of the Oculus, like in Coast Salish art we have the circle and that is the eye of our ancestors looking to the future and translating stories from the past. That's the idea of an Oculus. So that Oculus being there, and then bringing in Dan, who's also got descendancy to that place as well, has just opened up this incredible story.

Tribal Foods and Contemporary Living

DB: So, my other question, and this goes back to the beginning of the conversation, which is about these ideas that are very heart-expanding in a way about native foods and the connection to ancestors in the past, and also the connection to the future. And then what happens when you go with members of your community and you just walk into a Safeway? So what's that experience like and how do you exist in both those worlds?

VS: That is such a good question – that's why we did the traditional food principles because I sat down ... after I had that really obnoxious experience with nettles, I went to one of my, I call him my spiritual grandfather, Hank Gobin from Tulalip, and I was so excited to tell him like, "I've got it. I know exactly what we're going to do to save the world in the future generations. Everybody's going to eat traditional foods. That's what I'm going to commit my life to." 

And he looked at me like I was a small child and was like, "My girl, you have got it. That's exactly what we need, but how do you do that when nowadays our usual and accustomed harvesting grounds are Safeway and QFC and Albertsons?" (Because I think it existed at the time.) So I worked with my close colleague Elise Crone and we worked on a community-based research project asking tribal communities throughout the Puget Sound how they can eat like their ancestors and what foods they were eating and what was important.

So we noticed that there were principles that were as applicable today as they were generations ago, and that's that traditional foods are whole foods. A blueberry is a blueberry. In the grocery store, you don't need a scientific degree to understand what's in it. It's just itself. I don't think our ancestors would recognize fields of marshmallows or shrubs of Lucky Charms or rivers of diet soda. Those things just don't exist in nature and they're not whole foods. 

So, shopping with your ancestors in mind, what would they recognize as food? They would probably gravitate to things that were seasonal and seasonal foods have higher nutrient content in them. You're picking them at their peak nutrient density, and therefore they have the highest amount of medicine.

In Community Forever

VS: At this time, I'm so proud of the way things are unraveling and, in an era where tribal communities are being inundated with requests about refining land acknowledgement, this is a great example of how to actualize land acknowledgements. 

It is not our teaching to be over the dominion of the land. We typically wouldn't name places after men or humans at all, they would be named after the telling of the power of that place. And I feel like we're practicing that, and not just through our lens but other people from other countries who have come to this area and have had powerful experiences in that place, and those stories are also important to tell because nobody's going anywhere. 

We all love this place. We're just here, Native people are here for eternity and we're connected to one another for eternity. Our lineages don't sever. We're going to be in community forever. So we need to learn how to live in a good way, and we can do that by looking at how our ancestors practiced living on the land.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You