Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rural economics, cultural vitality, and pie

The Spokesman-Review has an interesting editorial today about the growing popularity of the humble Northest huckleberry. I've noticed its mention in a lot of food media lately - somoene used huckleberries on Iron Chef America the other day, for example - and I only recently picked my very first wild hukleberry from a bush around my campsite. As such, the story caught my interest. The author, Kara Briggs, is concerned about the future of the huckleberry, which has not been successfully cultivated on a large scale.
The wild huckleberry cannot support the pressure from hundreds of small businesses and restaurants in the way that farmed strawberries or blue berries can. The work of area universities toward farmed huckleberries raises a whole different specter of concerns, as farmed salmon raise for the health of wild salmon.

Yet with the advent of large-scale commercial picking, a flurry of recipes gushing about the wild flavor of huckleberries have appeared in publications, such as Southwest Airline's Spirit Magazine. Articles such as the one promoting a mechanized picker for huckleberries that appeared in The Spokesman-Review on July 2 run without mention of the concerns voiced by tribes.
There are several interesting issues at play here. Briggs is absolutley correct that the tiny purple berry cannot sustain its booming popularity, surviving on smaller and smaller tracts of cold, high mountain land. For years now, huckleberries have been a downright industry in northern Idaho, with any tourist attraction, restaurant, or even gas station selling anything that a huckleberry might be jammed into. It's not just jam, but also soap and air fresheners.

In regards to the legalities of tribal treaty rights to huckleberries, my understanding is not very clear. Tribal members have hunting, fishing and other land-use rights in this country that supercede any economical or environmental legalities that might separate a Yakama member from a bucket of huckleberries. Further, the regulations that non-Native berry pickers must follow seem to be heavily advised by the sensibilities of local tribes. For example, the start of the huckleberry picking season is marked with tribal ceremonies across the Northwest.

We do live in a culture that is dedicated to improving upon nature, and the University of Idaho does have a program whose aim is the domestication and easy cultivation of the huckleberry. Briggs mentions a concern for the health of the wild huckleberry, comparing a prospective huckleberry farming industry to the problematic salmon farming industry in the Northwest, which has had its share of problems with pollution and the incubation and spread of disease from farmed salmon to wild populations. This is, again, an area in which I am hardly expert, but I imagine that these concerns could be addressed with proper planning and a sound scientific approach. As noted in the article linked earlier in this paragraph:
The tale is reminiscent of what happened with the blueberry, which was domesticated nearly 100 years ago. At the time, many worried that the plump, exotic wild blueberry would lose its appeal if it could be cultivated. Instead, it turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, based in the United States. Blueberries remain popular and sought-after around the world.
Closely related to these environmental issues are ethical implications of co-opting a feature of the area that has much spiritual significance to the local Native populations. Again from Briggs:
Huckleberries are sacred to Northwest tribes. We hold ceremonies to mark their ripening. For millennia we have tended the berry fields, which, like the salmon, are protected by our treaties. Still over the last century, the fields have been taken over by private property, by state agencies and, particularly, by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages our mountainous national forests.

The remaining huckleberry fields exist because tribes historically cleared trees and burned brush to let the life-giving light reach the berries. But most management of the fields has been abandoned. In forests where 40 years ago there were huckleberry fields, tall trees now shade the fields.

Tribal elders say these fields include those where they remember camping for weeks at a time each summer, as families picked berries. Those camping trips were about far more than the harvest of berries. Stories were told, perhaps, like those about the Inland Northwest tribes' trickster Coyote, whose exceedingly wise sisters were huckleberries.

In that time berries were carefully handled so none were wasted, and the bushes were left intact to bear another year. One reason for such great care was the belief that huckleberries could leave if they weren't treated respectfully.

Now many tribal elders wonder if that's happening.
Claims on the University of Idaho Web site that commercial use of huckleberries is OK because the berries were a tribal trade item ignores the facts. Tribal women who historically traded in huckleberries undertook the physical care of the berry fields and also spiritual care through first fruit ceremonies.
Here I can only gather that the U of I's claim that Briggs objects to is referring to the ethical OK-ness of white Americans trading in huckleberries (and not, I suspect, taking spiritual care of them). The not-so-capitalist part of me is given pause by this issue, I must confess. While as an atheist I am not especially concerned with the spiritual care of the berries, I do feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of white folk stealing a potentially huge induestry out from under a group of people who has had quite enough stolen out from under them already. And, even if I am not the type to understand any kind of religious significance of anything, I can respect cultural differences enough that someone's making a buck might not be a good enough reason to trample all over deeply-held spiritual beliefs.

Were I a tribal authority in a Northwest group, I would be vying for heavy participation and rights in the cultivated huckleberry industry. Provided that the environmental kinks could be worked out, it could be an excellent resource for the funds that tribes are often so short on.

Of course, I'm actually a white girl who spends most of her time in her house and wouldn't know spirituality if it hit me in the ass. Or a good business plan for that matter. Still, I am going to think a little differently about my mom's huckleberry pie, or ordering a huckleberry ale at Drinking Liberally tonight. For more info in on this issue, also check out this article from last year's Billings Gazette.

(Did you hear that, Moscow? Drinking Liberally is meeting tonight!)
(And thanks, HBO, for the link!)
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