First Foods

The water in Flint

As I read headlines about Flint, Michigan’s water over the past months, and of water contaminated by chemical runoff in the farm belts of the Midwest and on irrigated ground closer to home, the notion that the relationship between humans and the land is mutual and more complicated than science and technology have proffered sends me again to Alvin Josephy and the Indians. Recent accounts of the loss of pollinators, which some say threatens global food supplies, leads to the same place.

Josephy told us that by denigrating the values and practices of Indian peoples, by seeing “human” and “natural world” as two domains, the one to be dominated by the other, by a “Eurocentrism” that saw everything from that point of view and all things Indian as “primitive,” we have denied ourselves valuable information and, possibly, tools to heal contemporary problems such as those mentioned above.

Our friends on the nearby Umatilla Reservation give us an easy and, I think, profound way of looking at and attending to such resource problems. They call it the “First Foods” program. It was developed—is still being developed—by Eric Quaempts and the Natural Resource Department at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Simply put, it argues that if we take care of things in the order in which they are served in a Longhouse celebration, we will be taking care of ourselves and the lands and waters we live with and on.

The first of the First Foods is actually water, and at any gathering of Plateau Indians that I have attended, a drink of water, the Creator’s first and most important gift, starts it off. After water it is salmon, and then in succession, deer, roots, and berries.

For the rest of creation—including we of the two-legged variety—water is fundamental, so taking care of the water is fundamental to a healthy environment for the salmon and other fish and creatures that live in it, for the deer (and other animals that we eat, or that contribute to the chain of creation in other ways), and for the roots and berries that require it for survival and growth, and the bees and other pollinators that service the plants. Our fundamental responsibility as humans and stewards of the earth is to take care of the water. The engineers in Flint and the farmers in Iowa seem to have forgotten that in their rush to save and make money.

Salmon require clean, cool water. They also require resting and nesting places as they make their journeys to the sea and back again. Their maintenance as species and food for humans also requires a continued presence—asks that humans leave some as they as take some from their river homes. The “first salmon” is returned to the water to take that news to his brothers and sisters.

Deer, elk, bear, and the other four-leggeds require clean water, healthy grass, brush, and other foods. And the roots must not all be harvested at one time from one place for them to continue. The berries must be treated with the same care and respect. The bees and other pollinators are all in this chain of life as well. I am told that, traditionally, Indians move collecting grounds, leave and even spread “seed crops.” In fact, what is often called a “seasonal round” of migration across a landscape—the Plateau Indians were part of large landscapes that they traveled over in seasonal patterns from year to year to year—is captured in the First Foods concept. Notice that it is also a matter of elevations—in the case of many tribes from fishing spots along the Columbia to berry patches in the Blue Mountains.

The corollaries to this marvelous system are that the land and waters stay healthy when we attend to them in this way, and that we humans stay healthy by drinking clean water and eating healthy foods.

In the elevation of science over experience, European over indigenous, and the rush to “more”—acres of corn, head of livestock, tax savings and individual profits—we neglect these fundamental principles developed over thousands of years by our Tribal neighbors.

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