By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News
The gate to swədaʔx̌ali huckleberry fields was opened from August 25 to September 10, allowing tribal members a two-week window to walk in the shadows of their ancestors and harvest the elusive mountain huckleberry. Traditionally, the end of summer meant an annual trek of berry picking parties into the high regions of the Cascade Mountains to harvest the rare and sought after dark maroon huckleberries.
Mountain huckleberries are larger than the lowland evergreen variety and are more delicately flavored. They are found on high sunny slopes at about 5,000 feet elevation, and ripen towered the latter part of August and into early September. Fortunately, the Tulalip Tribes and its Natural Resources team has invested countless man hours and resources into a co-stewardship area located within the Skykomish Watershed, a place where our ancestors once resided. This pristine co-stewardship area allows tribal members to learn and practice traditional teachings in an ancestral space called swədaʔx̌ali (Lushootseed for “place of mountain huckleberries”).
Over Labor Day weekend, a number of Tulalips used the holiday to undertake the 2-hour journey to swədaʔx̌ali and spend a day breathing the fresh mountainous air while berry picking under the summer sun. Among the harvesters was first-time berry picker and Lushootseed language teacher Maria Martin.
“It was a beautiful, uplifting experience. Once we hit the forest, where there were no buildings, no cars, no people, just trees…my soul soared. I couldn’t not smile,” reflects Maria on her time at swədaʔx̌ali. “I’ve read and heard stories of people out picking berries and I always wondered how that felt. I didn’t grow up doing traditional things. I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak my language, but that is only a piece of my culture.
“Berry picking felt natural, like I’ve always done it. The smells were intoxicating. The sounds beautiful, from the buzzing bugs and chirping birds to the families sharing laughs and love. These are the meaningful experiences that we all need to share in. While I was picking I told myself the story of “Owl lady and Chipmunk”, and sang Martha Lamont’s berry picking song; connecting the pieces of my culture, my words with my actions I felt whole. When I returned home I gave away a batch of my berries to an elder, which was very meaningful to me. Those that can hunt and gather are responsible for gathering enough for those that cannot. We are all family and we all are responsible for taking care of one another.”
Several tribal members who recently returned from Canoe Journey also used Labor Day to pick mountain huckleberries, including George Lancaster, Shane McLean and Dean Pablo. George brought up his nephew Brutal and his aunt Lynette Jimicum so they could soak up the experience as well.
“It’s awesome having the opportunity to be up here,” says George. “Being up here, I remembered blackberry picking with my grandma as a kid and that made me happy. I look forward to using my harvested berries to make pie. I love pie!”
“I absolutely love being here,” adds Lynette. “Having my grandson Brutal here and being able to teach him that there’s more activities than just playing video games. It means a lot to me to show him the value of outdoor activities, like berry picking and hiking in the woods.”
For tribal member Shane McLean, his thoughts have been impacted by the ongoing natural disasters like the droughts plaguing the Pacific Northwest and raging forest fires throughout the region causing smoke and ash to cloud the skies.
“My short-term goal is to give some berries away, my long-term goal is to get a four year supply. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the prophecy telling us to be prepared for the future,” states Shane. “It’s said you should have four years of your traditional food stored away, just in case there’s something that might happen. We can see there’s natural disasters happening all over. I’m thankful the berries are even here to be harvested.”