With mic and spade, this researcher-turned-podcaster is helping restore Seattle's Indigenous landscape

For Indigenous scientist Jessica Hernandez, the first step to reimagining Seattle's landscape was lifting up the voices of its urban Natives.

Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez, a Ph.D. student in the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, interviews UW senior Victoria Jackson for her podcast ‘Indigenizing Urban Seattle’ on Nov. 18, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When Jessica Hernandez arrived in Seattle five years ago to begin her master’s degree program at the University of Washington, everything suddenly felt out of place. She was born to Indigenous parents who had immigrated from Central American and Oaxaca, Mexico, and grew up in Los Angeles, going to schools that taught classes in Spanish and English. Other Indigenous Latinos had lived in the area long enough to build an authentic community.

But she stuck out in Seattle. Sometimes, when she shared with others that she was finishing up her Ph.D., their first response was surprise. To her, Latino identity here was less intricately understood as compared with back home. The few touchstones  that were present took on an unfamiliar cast: Where she once was able to take her pick of authentic Oaxacan food restaurants in L.A., the options in Seattle were limited and charged $20 for mole. 

"You can go to downtown L.A. and buy grasshoppers by the pound, which is traditional food in Oaxaca, but here, where are we going to find that?” she says. “There are some Latin American supermarkets, but northern Mexican identity dominates and they're overpriced."

She says as an Indigenous person, she identified more with the urban Native community in Seattle than she did with Latinos — and she found a hub for that community during a powwow at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center near Discovery Park. Her passion for the space grew as she began research for her Ph.D. in environmental science. After talking to officials and community members at Daybreak about how her work could help improve the space, her dissertation was born: Her project aims to restore the center’s Bernie Whitebear Garden by replacing invasive plants with the Native plants that once dominated the ecosystem and offered sustenance. 

Part of the work necessitated interviewing urban Native community members, and while the interviews were originally just part of her dissertation, Hernandez says she didn’t want the information she gathered to disappear. So she turned those conversations into the podcast Indigenizing Urban Seattle, where she talks to urban Native people living in the city about what life here feels like for them and sheds light on Indigenous environmental knowledge as told through an urban Native lens.

Hernandez talked to Crosscut about how she has navigated both Seattle and academia as an Indigenous person, and why she thinks understanding the urban Native experience could change how we form environmental policy. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Can you tell me about what sparked the idea to turn your research into a podcast, Indigenizing Urban Seattle?

When you interview people in an academic setting, you tend to keep those recordings to yourself and it's never transmitted to the public. I wanted to create a “decolonial tour,” where these things are not just kept within the academic world. This is something that will allow other community members to be able to listen to them as opposed to keeping them in that academic vault. 

On the podcast you always ask this question: When you hear the word “environment,” what do you think of, or what early memories do you associate with it? I was wondering what that was for you.

My dad was a tribal fisherman, so I remember always going fishing with him as a little girl. And sometimes when you're a kid, you don't really understand what's happening around you — you're like, “Why are we just sitting here? This is boring.” But still, when I think of the environment, I think of my dad a lot just because in my Indigenous communities, the men are the fisherman and the women, we tend to have a different role — even though those roles are changing. He was dependent on natural resources for our families.

Since I'm living in the city, I find a little bit of inner peace just to be fishing because then I can self-reflect. I feel like the city's very chaotic. I don't do that here but when I go back home — my parents [now] live in Arkansas — I feel like those memories that I shared with my dad as a child are engraved in the practice. No matter where you are, cultural practices make you feel like you're home with your family and community. Through the podcast, I'm learning that other people feel the same way. 

Were there any early lessons you learned about the environment as a kid? Was that something your family explicitly talked about? 

Even now that I’m getting my Ph.D., I still feel like my parents know more about the environment than I do, just because they have more of a first-hand experience where they're actually more connected to the environment. 

My dad could understand fish species, know when it was the right time to fish for a certain species or whether it should be done at night or super early. There are scientists who study the behavior of organisms like this. When I took a class about fish species, I [realized that] fish identification and fish behavior [were] something my dad taught me. In the Western sciences, we don't give Indigenous peoples the credit. These are people who continue to live close to the environment — of course, they're scientists. You know? They know these things that scientists are now discovering. 

I feel like we're displaced in the city. That's why I'm interested in seeing how the urban Native diaspora plays a role in our environmental knowledge — even though we're still in the city, there's an environment around us. So I feel like my parents did teach me a lot, even though I didn’t understand what it meant through a Western lens.

How have you dealt with that sense of displacement? 

When you come from Central America [like me], most of the populations are Indigenous peoples, so it's hard to sometimes feel like you belong in certain Latin American communities or groups here just because there are different races between the Latinx identity. So I always felt like I fit more in with the Native American community than I did with like the Latinos, the Chicanos and all these other Latin identities or groups here.

I immersed myself within the urban Native community in Seattle [through my work] and with other Native communities — I worked with the Lummi tribe during my master’s. I think that's been a way of coping with being so far away from home and being displaced. My dad is Ch’orti’. He comes from the border of Guatemala and El Salvador. They're split into the border, so there’s a Ch’orti’ community in Guatemala and a Ch’orti’ community in El Salvador. My uncle and him are the only ones from our family, our lineage, to be in the United States. 

You still have like these connections to the environment there, but those connections have adapted. And I feel like we tend to talk about diaspora in terms of countries and borders, but when you think about it, coming from a reservation to the city is also a form of displacement. But even though you're displaced, whether you're displaced yourself or previous generations were, you still hold on to that cultural knowledge and that knowledge of your environment and adapt it to a new setting to where you're currently living. 

Why is opening up about the urban Native experience in Seattle important? 

In science, we tend to be like, “I want to do research on this community.” But we never incorporate what the community wants or needs. Just being immersed in the Western environmental sciences, I feel like a lot of agencies or people think that we can’t incorporate Indigenous knowledge because reservations are far, or it's hard to get Indigenous peoples to come to the city. I want to rethink that because as an urban Indigenous person, we do have a lot of urban Natives in Seattle. But in the environmental field, Indigenous peoples are not always consulted. 

For example, recently there was Initiative 1631. At first, [its authors] hadn't consulted the tribes. They gave a lot of excuses. It wasn't until the tribes called them out that they started incorporating them into the legislation. So I feel like a lot of these things can be managed or understood a little bit better if urban Natives are at the table as well.

How does your restoration project play a part in expanding this narrative? 

The conservation that we're taught is often about protecting species. You don't do anything that will "damage" it, instead focusing on protecting it and keeping the nature pristine. When we talk about conservation or pristine environments, we always remove humans from that equation, and I feel like foraging doesn't align with their conservation practices. It's not just Seattle Parks — it's conservation in general. We protect this animal, we protect this plant, we protect this environment, but humans are not allowed.

We're going to introduce [to the garden] some of the native species or plants that are important to cultural practices in the state of Washington, especially for the Coast Salish peoples. We got suggestions from a community survey, including salmon berries, huckleberries, camas, coastal strawberry, dogwood, cedar, fern and dandelions. The Native community knows how to use them already, and this garden can be a space [for foraging]. 

So we’ll be introducing native plants so they can be used for traditional cultural practices and also to eat, right? Because some of the plants are edible, and then sharing that [with the community]. And it’s also important because the garden is named after Bernie Whitebear, who led the movement to get a Native space in that park. It’s an Indigenous legacy, because even when we think about the community gardens that are in Seattle, they're not really open to communities of color [in the way this garden is] because we are in a white city. Parks often display their [American] history, which can be very weird because depending on whose history the park honors, those are the people who feel more welcome in that park or space. 

We'd like to include Native history in the park or create an app about that. It's something that should also be taught or acknowledged so that people can feel welcomed. 

But I don't want to design it alone and be like, “Oh, this is a community park.” I think that tends to happen a lot in the environmental field when we claim we're working with the community. But are you really working with a community? Are you integrating them in your process or just calling them out for one meeting and that’s it? I'm also teaching a course in the department of American Indian Studies next quarter that will allow students to do service learning and work in the garden. I want students to learn that community work is done from the ground up, not from the ivory tower down.

What similarities have you noticed between your own experiences and that of the people you’ve talked to for the podcast? 

Some of my more recent podcast recordings that I'm going to upload soon have talked about how there's this romanticization of being Indigenous, but [non-Native people] don't really grasp what it is to be Indigenous.

I feel like every time Indigenous peoples are mentioned in the environmental discourse, it comes as a stereotype. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of the noble ecological savage, where Indigenous people are very interconnected with nature. And I don’t know if you’ve read Chief Seattle’s speech that somebody wrote on his behalf and was mistranslated. He’s very romanticized, this Indian Native person talking about the environment.

[That’s why] I ask: What’s the first memory you have of the environment or where did you learn about your environment? I think it's 50/50 on people saying they learned it from family and the other 50% saying they learned about it in school. Even though we are Indigenous, there is always this difference of not all of us playing into the stereotype of the ecological noble savage. 

I do remember one episode where the interviewee said she wasn’t sure she’d even call herself an environmentalist. So it seems like people are on all different parts of that spectrum.

Yeah. Sometimes you are immersed in your environment but your parents don't say, “We're environmentalists” because those are more academic terms. 

And the questions you ask, which range from asking about access to traditional foods here to how people perceive you on the street, are rooted in your own life experience. Why is it important to craft your questions that way?

We haven't gotten to that stage where Indigenous knowledge is respected and acknowledged. I remember sharing stuff about my upbringing in classes, how we viewed certain concepts, and then professors would ask me, “Can you cite that? Can you explain where you got that? Is that Jessica's philosophy? Where are you getting this information?” 

Oftentimes, our experiences are dismissed because we don't have those Western credentials, because we don't publish our experiences in peer-reviewed articles. I feel like it's important to incorporate experience just because our Indigenous knowledge is embedded in ourselves.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.