Emma Johnson readily extols the attributes of salmonberries.

The bramble⁠—with yellow-orange or red drupelets that resemble raspberries⁠—provides shade for streams, helping keep water cool for spawning salmon and sustaining the cycle of life.

Emma Johnson in boat, smiling, holds up foraged food
Emma Johnson seeks out traditional foods (Courtesy waterplanet.ws)

They’re also rich in vitamins C, E, and K as well as manganese. Indigenous coastal peoples traditionally would eat them with salmon or mixed with salmon roe and candlefish grease. They are⁠—along with lamprey, elk, deer, nettles, thimbleberries, and wapatoo, or tubers also known as duck potato because they grow in wetlands⁠—traditional staples in the diet of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

But, she says, “camas root is my favorite traditional food.” Historically, it was slow-cooked in an earthen oven, caramelizing the sugars. “It’s kind of nutty and sweet,” says Johnson, an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. As an intern for her tribe, she organized their first modern camas dig in the spring of 2017. “I feel like camas really started my journey with traditional foods.”

Johnson (’19 Anthro.) is studying for her master’s degree in sociocultural anthropology at Portland State University with the dream of “definitely doing intertribal work with community that is interested in food sovereignty.” She’s on track to graduate in June.

The Udall Undergraduate Scholarship in tribal public policy and Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Internship supported her interest in food sovereignty. It was further solidified by an internship last summer at Olympia’s Garden-Raised Bounty, or GRuB, an urban farm. She supported teacher trainings and aided in the development of micro-prairies and food forests. Thanks to a $17,000 grant from the Na’ah Illahee Food Sovereignty Fund, an Indigenous women-led organization dedicated to the ongoing regeneration of Indigenous communities, she’s been transmitting what she learned to directly benefit her tribe’s garden program.

“What I’ve gained will follow me forever. And a lot of it is helpful in my new job,” says Johnson, who, in addition to going to school full-time, is co-teaching Indigenous Traditional Ecological and Cultural Knowledge (ITECK) courses in the Indigenous Nations Studies department at PSU, focusing on hands-on learning and place-based curriculum. Much of her work focuses on traditional foods and medicines.

“Food sovereignty means we provide all of our own food,” Johnson explains. “Tribal food sovereignty is really connecting our community back to the landscape and introducing back traditional foods and medicines, and tending to the lands. It’s managing your own food system.”

Johnson grew up in southwest Washington, the historical hub of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which became federally recognized on February 14, 2000. She attended WSU Pullman, then transferred her sophomore year to WSU Vancouver, from which she graduated, to be closer to her family and her tribe.

The summer after junior year, when she was studying abroad in New Zealand, she learned she’d won the scholarship from the Udall Foundation, a federal agency that works to strengthen the appreciation and stewardship of the environment, public lands, and natural resources as well as Native Nations’ self-determination, governance, and human capital goals. The following summer she landed a Udall internship, working in the office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) in Washington, DC.

The funds were helpful but the internship experience was, she says, “priceless. I gained a sense of belonging with Udall in more ways than one. It inspired me to keep going with the momentum of what I was doing.”

Today, she’s a volunteer with the Cowlitz Senior Nutrition Program, board member of the Confluence Advisory Community, and member of the WSU Vancouver Native American Community Advisory Board.

“I feel so unbelievably blessed for the amount of people that have invested in my education and learning,” she says. “I want to give back to the community as much as I can.”