The Time of Food : Pacific Northwest Bounty

Take away the farmers and fishermen of the Pacific Northwest, the orchardists and cattle ranchers, the sheep farmers and viticulturists and what you have left is the natural bounty that always existed here for the people who occupied the land.

There were 28 Northwest Coast Indian tribes broken into seven linguistic families, living close to the sea from Alaska to Northern California when the first Europeans arrived. They are known among anthropologists as having developed the most elaborate nonagricultural society in the world, which is to say that food was so abundant that despite life as hunter-fisher-gatherers, there was time left to devote to ritual and art.

With the Europeans came disease which diminished the native populations. And as the whites settled the area, so too came disenfranchisement. Northwest Indians, much as Indians elsewhere, were stripped of their tribal lands and reduced to penury. And yet, they continued to gather in the natural bounty.


Around Puget Sound, many of these people had settled near the mouths of rivers draining into the salt water, rivers that took their tribal names. The poet Robert Sund describes this region as Ish River country, for the common word-ending among the names, an ending that means “people of.”

“ ‘Ish River’

like breath,

like mist rolling from a hillside. Duwamish, Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Samish, Skokomish, Skykomish . . . all the ish rivers.

I live in the Ish River country between two mountain ranges where many rivers run down to an inland sea.”