Camas prairies teach us about reciprocity. Giving and receiving. These teachings are encapsulated within a Native Plateau story, as told by Roger Fernandes of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe:
A long time ago in a village, there was a time of great hunger. There was no food to be found–no game to hunt, no plants to gather. The People were very hungry. There was a grandmother who heard her grandchildren crying because they were hungry. She was so sad that she had nothing to give them. She left the village and went up a hill nearby. She began to cry. She cried for her grandchildren. As she cried, she began to sink into the ground. After a while, she was gone. She was under the earth. Her grandchildren missed their grandmother. They wondered where she was and began to look for her. They climbed the hill, and as they reached the top, the granddaughter said, “Grandma is under the ground! I can feel her!” The children dug into the ground and found camas bulbs. Grandmother had become camas, and now the children and the People had food to eat. Camas is a main food of the Native people of the Plateau region. And that is all.
Grandmother transformed herself into Camas as an act of love for her grandchildren and her people. Camas gives herself to us as an act of love, and in reciprocity, people have tended to her prairies since time began; weeding her rolling hills, burning the prairies to enrich the soil and deter encroaching coniferous trees, aerating the soil by digging her bulbs and planting seeds for the next generation. We call camas prairies a cultural ecosystem, which is an ecosystem that relies upon human interaction and relationship. Camas bulbs have been crucial sustenance to the people of these lands, and was one of the most highly traded food sources in this area. And although Camas has been a crucial part of life in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years, today only 3% of what used to be camas prairie remain as such (Thompson 2022). The huge decline in prairies is the result of hundreds of years of colonial laws prohibiting cultural burns, privatizing land and transforming prairie land into European style agricultural farms or military bases- all of which have disrupted the reciprocal relationship
Colonization has fundamentally altered the way in which we learn about, understand and thus act upon the land. When we ask students what the nature of human relationship with the land is, we most always hear words such as ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’. We have been socialized to believe that humans are inherently harmful for the land. And how could we not feel this way? Extraction and exploitation of natural resources, the loss of relationship to land, culture and community has been our reality for the last 500+ years. What is the remedy to this?
The answer lives within the Camas story shared by Roger Fernandez. Relationship, reciprocity, generosity, community, sacrifice and love. We must listen to Indigenous peoples, their stories and the thousands of years of scientific knowledge these communities have collected around land stewardship. The story of grandmother sacrificing herself to sustain her people is not just a heartwarming story, it is precious knowledge which communicates that Camas takes care of the people, much like a grandmother would. And in return, we must care for her, much like a grandchild would.
It is all our responsibility to begin repairing relationships with the land around us, one plant and ecosystem at a time. Pay attention to the trees and plants around you, learn about them, tend to them like you would a relative. Our future generations depend on it.
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