Learning from the land

TULALIP — For six years, Inez Bill has been teaching tribal youth how to harvest and process plants in traditional tribal ways.

Through teaching children the old ways of honoring, harvesting and using plants for food and medicine, the plants in turn will nourish the spirits and bodies of the Tulalip people for generations down the road, tribal leaders say.

“We consider the medicinal plants as gifts from the spirit,” said Bill, coordinator for the tribes’ Rediscovery Program.

Now the tribes have plans in the works not only to generate more places to harvest those plants but also to provide a place for the public to learn about and appreciate the reservation’s natural heritage.

They are in the beginning stages of creating a Natural History Preserve, a 42-acre area with native plants, gardens, pathways, public viewing areas along Quilceda Creek and Ebey Slough, and tribal sculptures.

The entrance will be from the new, $19 million Hibulb Cultural Center at 6410 23rd Ave. NE, the centerpiece of which is a tribal museum scheduled for an opening ceremony Aug. 19.

“We see the Natural History Preserve as an extension of the museum,” Bill said.

Much of the current reservation was logged 100 years ago, and alders and other hardwoods took over and replaced many of the native western red cedars, Douglas firs and western hemlocks, according to tribal leaders.

These trees let less light through, making it hard for lower-growing native plants to thrive.

The tribes are now in the process of thinning out forests on parts of the reservation to speed up the return of the native forest. It’s expected that new forestry practices, along with development of the preserve, will generate many more plants to harvest on the reservation.

The preserve is still a couple of years away from being open to the public, but work has begun.

And Bill, whose upbringing was steeped in tribal spiritual traditions, still leads her summer classes on forays into those woods.

Nettles, fireweed and clover are some of the plants found there. Nettles can be steamed, included in stews or made into tea. Its fibers, along with cedar bark, are used to weave baskets. Fireweed leaves are made into tea, and clover blossoms are used to make ointments and skin creams.

Several years ago, when the incidence of diabetes took a dramatic rise on the reservation, tribal members became aware of the need for healthier diets, tribal museum director Hank Gobin said.

Doctors told tribal members, “If you were to go back to traditional diets, your health would improve,” he said.

So they began eating more local plants and berries, along with deer, elk, fish and shellfish.

Nettles are included in stews with elk or salmon. Some on the reservation have revived the art of making “Indian ice cream” — soapberries whipped into a froth.

In harvesting nettles, some people wear gloves to guard against the stinging hairs on the plant, Bill said. She doesn’t.

“I like getting stung.”

Gathering techniques are as important as knowing what to harvest, Bill said. With the fireweed plant, for example, she teaches students to strip the leaves on the lower part of the stalk, with the upper leaves and flower left intact so the plant may reproduce.

“We don’t uproot the plants, because we want the plants to come back,” she said.

Bill and her students also harvest wild rose petals, allow them to dry for a day, put them into jars with olive oil and set them in the sun for about 10 days. A similar process is done with several other plants.

“We harvest petal by petal,” Bill said. “If you take the whole flower, you’re not going to get the rose hip later.”

The sun infuses the oil with the essence of the plant, and the oil is combined with other ingredients to make lotions and ointments.

Five students are accepted for the program each summer. “That’s about all I can handle,” Bill says with a laugh.

Kelly Moses, 16, has been in the program for two years.

“I think it’s about the experience, because you aren’t going to find many experiences like this,” he said.

Also, he said, “I get a lot of respect from it,” he said, both from the nature spirits and from tribal elders.

Other parts of the Rediscovery program include basket-making and -carving. Space will be set aside for these activities in the museum, along with canoe-making and other crafts.

Right now, the Rediscovery students are especially busy processing plants for gifts for the museum opening.

“I think it’s an exciting time for the Tulalip Tribes and Tulalip people,” Gobin said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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