It's the berries

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Warm Springs women work with National Forest

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's been a long haul for the Northwest tribes over the
past 150 years and the experience has not been sweet. Those living on the
Columbia River near the once-great fishing and trading site Celilo Falls
have had their particular brand of bittersweet history.

Fifty years ago, the rapids where salmon used to leap, men dip-netted and
women dried racks of fish were submerged under water backing up from the
Dalles Dam. The people were shunted off 100 miles away onto high ground -
the dry side of Mt. Hood, where the country was too dry for farming. There
the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs - a forced alliance of Warm
Springs, Wasco and Paiute tribes - pulled together for better or worse.

The good news, though, is that the Warm Springs tribes have made it and are
beginning to come into their own. Toward that end, they are trying to get
managers of the Mt. Hood National Forest to extend multiple use philosophy
to the huckleberries.

If you do a Google search on "Mt. Hood National Forest" and
"huckleberries," though, what comes up first is Mt. Adams in the Gifford
Pinchot National Forest.

Mt. Adams isn't even in Oregon; rather, it's across the Columbia River on
the Washington side. But Mt. Adams is where the huckleberries are these
days and where the Warm Springs women have to travel to pick instead of out
their back door on Mt. Hood. But the Warm Springs people are working on
that.

Louis Pitt, director of Intergovernmental and Planning for the Warm
Springs, pointed out that the overgrown thickets of huckleberries on Mt.
Hood are part of the more than 10 million acres the Warm Springs tribe
ceded to the United Statues in 1855. "We used all those areas before treaty
time. Clearly we have authority to gather berries on those lands, just like
we do our usual and accustomed places outside ceded lands boundaries," Pitt
said.

He paused for a moment, apparently wondering about how much "Tribal
Sovereignty 101" he needed to go through. He concluded with a weary but
firm tone to his voice. "It's always a challenge to keep the treaties in
place."

Pitt is not shy about accepting some responsibility for the problem. "This
situation has come about from lack of focus by the Forest Service and the
tribes," he said. "We, the Warm Springs people, haven't really pushed as
hard as we should have. And as the federal laws and Smokey Bear laws came
in prohibiting fire as a management tool, we didn't ask questions and
challenge them like we are now."

Evaline Patt, project coordinator at the Warm Springs Museum, noted that
the tribe is trying to work with the Forest Service on these issues. "We've
accomplished a big step getting a Memorandum of Understanding between the
Warm Springs and the Forest Service about trying to look at the berries.
Our next step is to try and get funding so we can see about renovating the
huckleberry areas - getting the underbrush cleared away that's crowding the
berries out and getting the trees thinned so enough sunlight can reach the
bushes."

Patt is quick to say that she hasn't been out to pick huckleberries in
years. "I used to go with my grandma, but when she passed away in the
1960s, the food-gathering went with her. Now in my married life, even
though we regard berry-picking as a way of life, we haven't kept it up.
When people are working full time, it's hard, especially when you have to
go clear to Mt. Adams."

Suzy Slockish, Warm Springs tribal member who still picks huckleberries
annually even though she has to go to Mt. Adams, says that being too busy
is not always the case. "A lot of them - the women - are getting modern and
wanting fast food. It just makes them lazy, and they don't want to gather
food for the community.

"You don't just gather for yourself, it's for the community and our
ceremonies and when there's a birth or a death. For our mothers it was
their life and that was what they worked for every day was to take care of
the people and their families," Slockish said. "Now it's a handful of
people that are still thanking the Creator and keeping the foods for the
rest that don't realize that they need to be thankful and participate."

Pitt thinks in terms of watershed health. "We need to find out how to link
our rights to gather to contemporary tools we have as far as management.
Having food on a plate and singing songs around it is very ancient and very
sacred," he said. "But we need to think in terms of how to protect the
places that the food comes from. When it comes to the huckleberries, we
have to ask what types of things support them. We need to get sunlight in
either by mechanical thinning of blow downs or occasion pruning.

On Mt. Hood, it's a complex situation because the berries grow around 4,200
feet, and the timber there isn't worth a lot so companies don't want to
come in and harvest. But that's where the berries are. Ninety-five percent
of [local berry species] are on Forest Service land. We know where they
are, and we like them all. And we want to get an effective relationship
going, not just photo ops and meetings."

Pitt also addressed another problem associated with bringing the
huckleberries on Mt. Hood back for the Warm Springs. "The berries are
really the women's area. I know it's kind of anti-American to have gender
roles, but we don't care. We're Native Americans and that's the way it is,"
Pitt said. "The problem is, though, that the women hesitate to talk, but
then they are quick to criticize."

Suzie Slockish saw it differently. "Well, that's the other thing, you
know," she said. "Our men are the ones that take care of these things and
talk about it with the Forest Service. But they need to remember to consult
with the women before they do these things, and they don't."

If the MOU Patt and her colleagues at the museum got signed with the Forest
Service has anything to do with it, Warm Springs women might become more
involved in the discussions about bringing the berries back to Mt. Hood. It
stands to reason, as women are the ones most concerned with seeing that
their families get healthy food.

Cheap bread and burgers might be giving the Warm Springs a run for their
money, pitching right in there alongside white sugar; but as Patt
explained, "a bigger part of people's diet that has fared better has been
the roots and salmon plus the deer."

Perhaps it's just a matter of time until the huckleberries come back into
their own as well, elbowing canned soda pop out of the way.

First, though, the huckleberries are going to have to take a stand against
the evergreens and underbrush on Mt. Hood. With the women leading the men -
or at the very least, right behind them - the small, round purplish fruits
that pack a sweet punch just might have a chance.