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Eric Quaempts, Indigenous Leadership Award honoree

Quaempts has shown visionary leadership in structuring the Umatilla tribes’ natural resource department around their First Foods, which are deeply ingrained in tribal religion, traditions, and cultural rituals.

Eric Quaempts, director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Department of Natural Resources and a Yakama tribal member of Umatilla and Yakama descent, has shown visionary leadership in integrating traditional ecological and cultural knowledge with scientific practice to guide natural resource management.

Quaempts (pronounced kw·EH·mps) has amassed almost 30 years of experience in the greater Umatilla and Walla Walla Basins, beginning as a wildlife biologist and growing into a groundbreaking director who has spearheaded a radically different approach to how he and his staff organize their work.

Specifically, he has structured the Umatilla tribes’ natural resource department around what the tribal community knows as First Foods – water, salmon (fish), deer (big game species), cous (roots), and berries – which are deeply ingrained in tribal religion, traditions, and cultural rituals. The First Foods serving order, which mirrors the order in which the foods promised themselves to people in the tribal creation myth, forms the heart of this tradition.

“The First Foods serving order is an elegant and powerful ritual that reminds us not only of the promises the foods made to take care of the people, but our reciprocal responsibility to take care of the foods,” Quaempts says. This approach to natural resources has resonated with tribal community members, their partners, United States tribes, federal and state agencies, and other indigenous communities, from Washington to Australia and Chile.

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Quaempts was raised within a family that was very active in the community. His father was involved in the Washat, or Seven Drum religion, on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and he and his cohorts, including Atway Louie Dick, his wife Marie Dick, and Steve Sohappy, indirectly and directly reinforced the importance of First Foods to Quaempts throughout his life. His father’s artwork, across diverse mediums, from oil paintings to sculpture, frequently includes First Foods.

“He was inspirational,” reflects Quaempts. “Even after he passed, those First Foods themes and his work helped me get to the mission we have today.”

Quaempts earned his Bachelor of Science in wildlife science from Oregon State University, completed graduate-level course work at Colorado State University in fire and land management, and then worked for eight years as a wildlife biologist for the US Forest Service out of Walla Walla — doing everything from a radio telemetry study of elk to monitoring bird habitat, surveying fish habitat, and learning range management principles, fire management, and National Environmental Policy Act planning and analysis. In 1995, Quaempts joined the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to continue work as a wildlife biologist and take on increasing leadership and responsibility for strategic planning and project fundraising.

In 2004, Quaempts became director of the department of natural resources, and in 2005, he unveiled his plan to organize the department’s mission, organizational structure, and goals around protecting, restoring, and enhancing the First Foods. The approach takes a holistic view of the span of natural resources, looking beyond water and fisheries to big game, the women’s foods—roots and berries—and the ecosystems upon which they depend. “We don’t want to see our cous or huckleberries on the threatened or endangered list before anyone does something about them. That’s what happened with salmon,” he says.

The First Foods approach also values cultural knowledge by blending scientific field investigations with archaeological and ethnographic research, historical documents, and oral history data to inform population and habitat management goals, policies, and regulatory mechanisms. Placing current scientific data in historic context gives the tribes a powerful tool for looking forward and facing the impacts of climate change.

The First Foods paradigm informs every aspect of Quaempts’ work. He encouraged the tribal health center to incorporate First Foods concepts into health promotion programs to help combat food-related diseases like diabetes that are over-represented in tribal communities. And he continues to advocate for a First Foods-based education curriculum for the Nixyaawii Community School.

Recognition of his leadership and collaborative spirit is growing. As a member of the grant-making Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board since 2009, Quaempts in 2013 became the first tribal representative to serve as co-chair. In 2011, he was honored with the Potlatch Fund’s Billy Frank Jr. Natural Resource Protection Award.

He says:  “First Foods is an aboriginal system that incorporates people into ecology, something western resource management has always struggled to do.” His eagerness to share and ability to act on his vision are helping his community regain a powerful sense of place, purpose, and cultural continuity.

On November 14, 2014, Eric Quaempts and four others were honored at the 12th annual Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award in a private ceremony at the Portland Art Museum. Find out more about the award at ecotrust.org/ila.