Coast Salish tribes enjoy the sweet revival of a camas harvest - Salish Current
July 3, 2024
Coast Salish tribes enjoy the sweet revival of a camas harvest
Bellamy Pailthorp

Camas root is lowered into a fire pit where it will be roasted for 36 hours before being tasted at an intertribal gathering on Whidbey Island in May. (Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX © 2024)

July 3, 2024
Coast Salish tribes enjoy the sweet revival of a camas harvest
Bellamy Pailthorp

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Originally published July 1, 2024, by KNKX Public Radio

More than a hundred people from about eight tribes gather to learn about camas and the culture around it

In Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, people carrying curved metal digger sticks have fanned out across an open field. They’re seeking out wilted purple camas flowers in the foot-high prairie grasses so they can harvest the bulbs underneath.

The sticks are reconstructions of a tool that Indigenoustribes traditionally made out of hardwood, such as Pacific yew or crabapple, said Linzie Crofoot.

Crofoot was sporting a woven cedar river hat, a light harvest shawl she called a kokom (in Cree language, a “grandmother scarf”) and a black T-shirt that spelled out “Tradish” in bright lettering on the front.

Her stick was made of steel, with a wooden handle that she said would have been elk antler in the past. But she said the technique for harvesting camas that she learned and was demonstrating that day has not changed.

“What we do is, we come in next to it,” she said as she poked the stick through densely packed roots and soil, alongside the stem of a wilted flower.

“We don’t want to stab the bulb, so we don’t go in on top of it. We come in next to it — push it down — then we can pull up,” Crofoot said, revealing a cluster of bulbs. 

Linzie Crofoot teaches cultural sovereignty and natural sciences at Northwest Indian College in Tulalip and is also an expert on traditional medicines, yet she only learned about camas for the first time 15 years ago. (Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX © 2024)

She separated them and only took a couple of medium-sized ones from the center of the bunch, returning the rest to the prairie. 

She said this ethic of only taking what you need during harvest is ingrained in Indigenous cultures throughout North America.

“Just allowing for the regeneration of the population, right? If you’re harvesting the largest, most seed-producing bulbs every year, you’re going to see a diminished population on site,” she said.

Crofoot was attending this annual gathering for the second time. She’s enrolled as a member of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska and a descendant of the Colville-Okanogan. She teaches cultural sovereignty and natural sciences at Northwest Indian College in Tulalip and is also an expert on traditional medicines.

But she said she only learned about camas 15 years ago, in an ecology class. She brushed the soil off the bulb and peeled back some brown skin to reveal a small white sphere.

“This is the part we eat right here, is the bulb,” she said. “And this is what we actually bake in our oven.”

She said cooking it is really a must: eating it raw would cause an upset stomach, a lot of gas and potentially diarrhea. 

But most people are unlikely to find native camas unless they plant it themselves. The ecosystems where it thrives are endangered, with only 1% to 2% of the original camas prairie grasslands remaining in Washington state.

Kindling a traditional fire

A couple of fields over, Sam Barr was building a fire and underground cooking pit, where the camas would soon slow roast in the ground for 36 hours straight.

“Yeah, so right now, we’ve arranged the fire and the rocks,” he said, strategically stacking wood and rocks into the pit as he talked.

He said in the traditional Indigenous language here, this plant is known as kwetlal, pronounced “kweh-THAL.”

Barr was in constant whirling motion during the bake, wearing a river hat that he said he weaved himself out of cattails, and a bright orange “Every Child Matters” T-shirt, honoring Native children who perished at boarding schools in North America.

“Once the fire gets going, it’s going to heat up all these rocks that are gonna fall down … and be super hot!” he exclaimed.

Barr is the program director for the Coast Salish Youth Coalition that put together this camas bake — and several others since 2018 (also read “Modern conservation corps meshes care for land health, for youths,” Salish Current, April 13, 2023).

“A lot of the communities that we work with — it’s three or four generations since any of them have tasted camas out of a traditional pit oven,” he said.

Sam Barr builds a traditional fire pit for the camas bake. (Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX © 2024)

Barr comes from the Samish Indian Nation, but he works for the Stillaguamish Tribe, in historic preservation. He said the savannah prairies of Coast Salish peoples used to cover thousands of cultivated acres, in prize locations with wide open views, often near the water.

“And when the settlers first came in, they thought that those cleared prairies were perfect for them to establish their farms. And they forced all of the tribal people out of their gardens that they have maintained for 5000 years,” Barr said. 

“So at this point, we are really reclaiming the culture for ourselves,” he said, adding that at this time it’s too soon to include non-Natives in any of these gatherings, but that over time they hope to build community “with everyone else.”

Underground culture revived

They are literally reclaiming the camas bulbs that have quietly persisted here, untended, in the rich island soil.

An assembly line near the fire pit quietly wrapped the cleaned camas bulbs in skunk cabbage leaves and tied them into small bundles. They were working from historic records to harvest and process them. But reconstructing the camas recipe still involves ingenuity.

26-year-old Aurora Martinez helped create a pair of large stretchers made of leaves and branches. A whole crew gathered to lower the camas bulbs safely into the fire. The foraged materials all come from the forest that borders this prairie.

“So these are what the camas bulbs are gonna go on to, so that the flames don’t get through and the dirt doesn’t get through,” she said.

Martinez is also Samish and one of Barr’s cousins. She’s been attending this gathering for six years straight, as a crew lead, and now enjoys a leadership position. With the camas bundles ready, she directed several younger participants how to navigate the fire.

As they laid the camas into the ground, smoke was everywhere. A group from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe offered a song of strength and togetherness.

More than a hundred people from about eight tribes had come to camp out and learn about camas and the culture around it, Barr said.

In two days, some would taste it for the first time.

Healing power of sweet camas

Linzie Crofoot said the flavor is delicious — very sweet, yet savory, with umami notes — like a cross between a sweet potato and a sweet onion.

“I mean, it really is that sweet flavor, you know, just like grilled onions, how they develop that sweetness as they’re cooked. That’s the same process that’s happening in camas, that caramelization,” she said.

An assembly line starts with placing a handful of camas bulbs onto a skunk cabbage leaf, then they’re tied up in twine. (Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX © 2024)

That sweetness comes from a natural carbohydrate in the camas, Crofoot explained. It’s called inulin and it’s known to improve digestive health and control diabetes.

But the health benefits go much further than that, said Martinez, who’s about to go to medical school. Right now, she works for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, as a suicide prevention project coordinator.

“We’ve learned that culture is prevention. So the more that youth specifically — but anybody — is exposed to their culture, the more that they are less likely to have the higher statistical suicide rates,” Martinez said.

The quest for healing through cultural revitalization is spreading.

This year, there were at least two other similar camas events around the region, some organized by past participants in this gathering. Some years, Barr said, many of the tribal delegations even arrive in canoes — paddling to Whidbey Island under human power.

Barr smiled as he talked about it. He said that nobody knew what camas was 20 or 30 years ago, except for “really niche prairie ecologists and certain tribal elders.”
Now, people realize the important role it played in the development of the ecosystems and cultures in the Salish Sea.

He said his hope is that the next generation will carry on the tradition and never know it was once nearly gone.

By Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX Public Radio

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

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