Indigenous foods such as huckleberries and wapato nourished Native American communities long before Portland ever existed. Local parks, Portland State University, and other groups offer opportunities to celebrate the region’s original cuisine.
Twigs pop and the smell of cedar fills the air as children cross the lawn at Tryon Life Community Farm. This collectively managed agricultural space is in Tryon Creek State Natural Area, 5 miles (8 km) south of downtown Portland. Under the watchful eye of a curious bald eagle, the children arrange themselves for a day of activities. They are participating in Willow Creek Forest School, an immersive outdoor kindergarten program held at the farm.
Inside, bacon crackles in a toasty kitchen as D’Ana Valenzuela (Chihenne Apache/Chicana) prepares for the day. Valenzuela, an educator, midwife and member of the Bridgewalkers Alliance — a collective for marginalized peoples interested in agriculture — lives at Tryon Life Community Farm. Created as a model of sustainable living, the farm centers on Indigenous foods, or first foods (those eaten by Indigenous peoples), in its mission.
Portland’s Indigenous Community
“Portland is unique because we have a huge urban Indian community here,” says Valenzuela. Indeed, the city is home to the ninth largest urban Native American population in the U.S., including more than 58,000 people from more than 380 tribal nations. It’s also home to Tryon Creek Park, one of the country’s only state parks within a major metro area.
“There are very few green spaces within urban communities, and a lot of times, these places have not been accessible to people of this land,” Valenzuela explains. “I’ve seen more and more organizations making these lands more accessible to Native people so that they can eat their huckleberries, gather their wapato (a tuber that grows in marshes), gather their camas (a root vegetable that grows on prairies) [and] gather their basket weaving materials (such as tule, cattail and stinging nettle). Whereas before, those things were not accessible.”
Decolonizing Portland Parks
Under the guidance of its Native American Community Advisory Council, Portland Parks and Recreation has undertaken several projects in recent years that acknowledge Indigenous people and first foods. The Native Gathering Gardens at Thomas Cully Park (opened in 2018) is the latest example. The gardens feature plants important to the Indigenous peoples of Portland, with a dedicated area for picking edible fruits.
Portland Parks also works to restore habitats in a way that reflects pre-colonization states. A recent such project was the removal of the duck pond at Westmoreland Park, near Southeast Portland’s Reed College. The former pond is now a rehabilitated wetland, and the creek that runs through it allows salmon (another important first food) to return to the restored Crystal Springs at Reed. These salmon ultimately replenish the stocks found downstream on the Willamette and Columbia rivers, providing important sustenance for the tribes of the Portland area.
Restoration work is also underway in Scholls, an unincorporated community 20 miles (32 km) southwest of downtown Portland. “Metro [a regional governmental agency] and the City of Portland have bought up some property,” Valenzuela explains. “It used to be called Gotter Prairie, and now it’s been lovingly [renamed] Quamash Prairie, so I’ve been invited [to] and attending camas bakes for the last couple of years.”(“Quamash” comes from the Nez Perce word for the camas root.)
“Metro … has now been working in conjunction with the native community on how to repair knowledge and repair land, and still be able to have access to their first foods such as camas, which grows in abundance out there,” Valenzuela added. “Being able to share, being able to eat camas baked in the ground laid in a bed of salal and fern and Douglas fir and cedar with wild potatoes and wild carrots — it is really special. Reclamation of these first foods is a reclamation of culture and language and identity.”
How to Get Involved
Visitors can attend a tribal salmon homecoming celebration every October at Oxbow Regional Park, 25 miles (40 km) east of Portland. Celilo Village, located 95 miles (153 km) from Portland along the Columbia River, hosts a First Foods Salmon Ceremony every April. There, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribe members feast on salmon, elk and other important first foods.
Visitors to Portland can also explore the Portland State University campus for first foods. The Student Sustainability Center has created great resources to help members of the public forage for first foods, view indigenous plants and learn about the floral and faunal heritage of Portland. Various campus gardens, including the rooftop garden at the Native American Student and Community Center, provide views of restored habitats and curated gardens.
Finally, Tryon Life Community Farm is regularly open to the public for workshops, events, work parties and tours. Visit the Tryon Life Community Farm website for more information, or call 503.245.3847.
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