Taking care of little sister

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The Yakama look out for the huckleberry as one of their own


By Carol Craig
Photos by Shawn Linehan

“Huckleberry has great power. They are the same as good words from the other world. They know everything; they do nothing wrong. They do right all of the time, night and day.”

-Yakama oral tradition

Wíwnu, the huckleberry, is sacred among the Yakama people and is “chief” of all the berries. I remember my mother would tell me as we were eating the berries, roots, elk or salmon that they were our medicine that keeps us well. As a child I enjoyed traveling to the mountains to gather huckleberries. Most of the time, I ended up with a purple mouth and a near-empty basket.

As long as the Yakama people show respect for Wíwnu, the berries will return each summer.

sawtoothThe huckleberries and chokecherries are sisters. Chokecherry is the oldest and holds great power in the lower country while the younger sister has power in the mountains. These sisters keep track of each day and night and all that is done, I was told. As long as the Yakama people show respect for Wíwnu, taking only what we need, the berries will return each summer to help us prepare for the winter.

Over the generations, Yakama people have traveled annually to the Twin Buttes area near Pahto (Mt. Adams) in Gifford Pinchot National Forest to gather Wíwnu. In mid-August, the Yakama people would reach the Cascade crest in time for the ripening of the huckleberries. They knew exactly when to come and what sort of crop to expect on their arrival because they sent lookouts in advance.

Today, we can or freeze the berries; long ago they would be dried by digging a trench, placing the berries on a cloth on one side and building a smoldering fire on the other side.

Times change. The Great Depression took its toll on everyone, driving more than 7,000 non-tribal people into the berry fields at Twin Buttes. They picked huckleberries to sell to the canneries while others went house-to-house peddling the berries.

Tribal people complained that the newcomers were crowding them out of their own hunting and berry grounds. Yakama Chief William Yallup met with Forest Supervisor J.R. Bruckart (head of what was then Columbia National Forest) at Surprise Lake just below Mt. Adams on September 2, 1932. Through an interpreter Chief Yallup said, “This is my land. I own it. Whites gave us a Treaty that it should be so … Now, in the last two years Whites, thick as the needles on the firs, have driven our tribal women from the berry fields … Yet our Treaty signed in 1855 recognizes our right to hunt, fish and gather berries for all time in our usual and accustomed places.”[i]

Bruckart said he could not exclude anyone, but he could set aside an area around Surprise Lake for the exclusive use of the tribal people. Signs were quickly posted reserving the area for tribal members only. That oral treaty was confirmed by a handshake. In 1991, a monument was unveiled on the site where the 1932 Handshake Agreement took place.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens led to huckleberries larger and sweeter than ever before.

The most productive huckleberry fields occupy the poorest timber areas, according to studies. Yakama people burned the huckleberry fields, as recorded in old Forest Service records. But that practice was halted in 1909, and beginning in 1944, when Smokey Bear first appeared, Forest Service fire suppression enabled encroaching trees to suffocate the berry fields.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in May of 1980 burned and cleared the Twin Buttes huckleberry fields. Tribal women said that the following year produced huckleberries that were much larger and sweeter than before.

In the fall of 1993, Yakama Tribal Council Chair William Yallup, Sr., grandson of Chief Yallup, urged the Forest Service to clear the undergrowth to restore huckleberry habitat. Just three years ago, the agency finally listened to Yakama elders’ repeated requests and conducted a controlled burn to make our sister healthier.

The 1932 Handshake Agreement set aside an area around Surprise Lake for the exclusive use of the tribal people.

That same year, Gifford Pinchot became the first and only national forest in Washington and Oregon to implement a berry picking permit system and prohibit the destructive practice of raking, rather than hand-picking, the bushes.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 1932 Handshake Agreement was a huge occasion in 2007. The late Lavina Washines, Yakama Tribal Chair, and Nancy Ryke, Gifford Pinchot District Ranger, re-affirmed the agreement by shaking hands again, a commitment from both to care for our sister, Wíwnu.

As a child, I learned that when the Creator provided gifts to us, they came in the form of the deer, elk, salmon, roots, berries and herbal medicines we continue to use today. He also warned us that if any of the gifts He bestowed upon us disappear, then we too, as a people, will disappear. So we understand the stewardship of these gifts as our responsibility, and treat them with care because they care for and sustain us.



Carol Craig is an enrolled Yakama tribal member who works for the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish, Washington. She has twice been honored as a finalist for the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards. She is an award-winning journalist and does public outreach nationwide to educate non-tribal people about tradition, culture and treaty rights. Her three-year-old great-grandson loves eating frozen huckleberries out of a little cup.


Editor’s Note:
Anyone can pick berries in designated areas at Mt. Adams. Free permits are available from the ranger stations and roadside stores near the Gifford Pinchot forest boundaries, and pickers are allowed up to three gallons per person per season for personal use. fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot


[i] Andrew H. Fisher, “The 1932 Handshake Agreement: Cultural Persistence and Accommodation in the Pacific Northwest,” Western Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997, page 205.


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  • Gerald Michel

    September 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

    love those huckleberries