This story appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Our Big Backyard, a quarterly magazine about parks and nature. Read more stories, plan an outing with a detailed field guide, and find out more about fun nature events and classes.
Judy BlueHorse Skelton is Nez Perce and Cherokee and has a long history of sharing cultural connections with Native American students. A senior instructor at Portland State University’s Indigenous Nations Studies, she is also a well-known herbalist and author.
Metro, as part of prairie restoration efforts, invited the Native American community to help identify the plants that originally inhabited several of these voter-protected properties. BlueHorse Skelton and her students have started to help identify and collect plants, and have conversations about ways to once again incorporate Native traditions into the urban landscape for food, medicines and ceremonies.
BlueHorse Skelton was also involved with the Sense of Place: Engaging Indigenous Peoples project that received a $25,000 Nature in Neighborhoods conservation education grant from Metro in 2014. The grant paid for students in the Indigenous Nations Studies program to engage tribal and urban Native communities in the metro region to strengthen partnerships, collaboration and communication regarding eco-restoration, conservation education and Indigenous stewardship practices.
Q: What are first foods?
A: First foods are staples of native culture, spirituality, medicine and overall well-being. They are camas, wapato, berries and roots – considered the women's foods, which means women collect, tend to them and are responsible for maintaining their health. Salmon, lamprey and game are the men's foods. We all eat all the foods but have different responsibilities caring for them. First foods are really medicine; eating them is extremely healthy. Early research at the University of Arizona shows they are full of antioxidants, are immune enhancing and have anti-inflammatory qualities.
Q: How do Native Americans care for them?
A: We are taught that the plants are our relatives. What they call sustainability today is the way natives lived while planning for the future. Natives have a sophisticated but low-impact, low-tech approach to our food system – land management practices that can be sustained forever. We revisited places in balance with seasons and weather patterns, not nomadic but very much with intention and connection to place. Our way of living allows the land to refresh itself, not exhausting any one place or thing. There is tremendous interest today in these low-tech ideas.
Q: What is your connection to first foods?
A: It's a spiritual sense of place, responsibility to care for the plant world – Native American elders who were here before us. This is an incredibly dynamic time, very active. My students and I are reclaiming the urban landscape for food, medicine and ceremony. At all times we respect the ways of our elders, following how foods were gathered and prepared. What has happened to the land happened to the people. As we heal the land, we are healing ourselves. Whether we call it sacred law or natural law, we can feel it. Nature is a healer. There is another dimension of this reconnection to place, when we get on the land and feel the memory. We can feel them remembering us. We recognize sacred is right beneath our feet, even if it's paved, our elders are there reconnecting us to the land.