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Annual Nixyaawii Root Feast Celebrated on Umatilla Indian Reservation

Apr 29, 2024

Women and girls prepare to bring the food into the longhouse after the Washat service. From left are gatherers and cooks Leann Alexander, Kola Shippentower-Thompson, Trinette Nowland and Beth Looney.


By Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications

Gayla Gould travels to Nixyaawii to gather with women and girls for the longhouse on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She makes the trek from her home on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho to join her sisters in the days of long, yet rewarding, work and camaraderie.

MISSION – The 2024 Nixyaawii Root Feast, a deeply significant tradition for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people, was celebrated with reverence and joy on the Umatilla Indian Reservation on April 21.  Over 400 attendees gathered for a traditional Washat religious service that honors the “sister” roots and to express gratitude to the Creator and Mother Earth for the return of the First Foods.

In preparation for the feast, 26 diggers ventured out to gather roots a few days prior. Root digging in fields that have been harvested since time immemorial forms an integral part of the Columbia River Plateau tribes’ cultural heritage. More than just a food source, the roots symbolize sustenance and connection to the land and are gathered in a manner deeply respectful of tradition and nature.

Over the course of two days, the women and girls gathered with the hunters, fishers, and longhouse leaders for an early breakfast and songs to bless their efforts before travelling to the root field to dig roots all day. Once enough roots had been gathered, the work shifted to peeling and cleaning each root in preparation for cooking.

Twila Jones carries bowls to their prep tables before the Nixyaawii Root Feast meal is served April 21. Jones, along with her sister Molly Jones, brings in their younger family members, daughters and nieces, to gather during each feast that takes place throughout spring and summer. Celery Feast is the first, followed by Root Feast, and in the summer Huckleberry Feast, which will take place in late July or August.

Cooking the roots and other First Foods in the traditional manner involves days of hard work. From Wednesday  to Sunday, gatherers, cooks, hunters and fishers worked together from early in the morning until late in the evening.

On the day of feast, cooks were at the longhouse before sunrise to begin final preparations for the big meal. Once prepared, the roots were brought inside the longhouse with the utmost reverence, reflecting the sacredness with which they are regarded.

While the women prepared the sister foods, the men prepared the brother foods of fish and meat over fires. All the food preparers working together on their shared purpose created a balanced and harmonious display of unity and cultural pride.

Leann Alexander, Indian name Tá’c Wiitpe (“A Good Place” in the Nez Perce language), has been harvesting sacred foods for longhouse feasts, ceremonies, and community gatherings for years. Alexander (Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Oneida) said gathering First Foods is not only her honor, but her duty as a tribal woman.

Men gather at the end of the longhouse before bringing in the fish and venison before the meal is served. During the serving, the fish and venison are served by men before the women bring in the roots and berries. After the First Foods are on table, all the servers work together to bring out all the salads, sides and desserts. From left are longhouse servers Raymond Estrada-Waters, Toby Patrick, Tommy Pierre, Jr. and Michael Ray Johnson.

“Upholding Tamánwit, the big law, is a huge responsibility. The accountability is on all of us, as a family, to keep our promise to our Indian foods and this Indian land,” said Alexander.

Despite the labor-intensive nature of the preparations required, the atmosphere at the feast was one of camaraderie, laughter, and connection. The longhouse resonated with the sounds of singing and good-natured banter as community members came together to honor their traditions and nourish both body and soul.

“It’s a hard work, but also it’s work from the heart filled with love. I enjoyed the time shared together, singing, praying, and laughing — such good medicine. The feast was wonderful, it was great to see our community and visiting extended family members come together to honor our new foods,” said Alexander.

As the women adorned their hats and carried out their duties with pride, the 2024 Nixyaawii Root Feast stood not only as a testament to the enduring resilience of tribal culture but also as a celebration of gratitude and the sacred bond between people and the land.

Longhouse gatherers and cooks gather for one last photo before serving the root feast meal. The 26 women and girls gathered the roots on April 17 and 18 before bringing them back to longhouse to be peeled, cleaned, and cooked. The process took days to complete. Entire families come together to complete the work during feast time. The day of feast saw more than 400 participants from towns and reservations across the region. Photos by Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications