Camas – Teachings in Reciprocity
By Shawna Zierdt (Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians), Elise Krohn, and Mariana Harvey (Yakama)
Late summer is a great time for saving seeds. Members of our Tend, Gather and Grow curriculum development team have been busily harvesting prairie plant seeds to cultivate a micro-camas prairie on the GRuB farm. The micro-prairie will be a part of our nature walk, which also highlights cultural ecosystems including food forests, wetlands, and urban landscapes.
Camas prairies including Mima mounds, Scatter Creek, and Glacial Heritage are popular destinations in spring when flowers cover the grassy open landscapes. You might even notice camas blooming in the grasslands of I-5 in April and May. Prairies are valued for their cultural significance and because they are home to many species of butterflies, birds, and small land mammals.
Camas prairies have offered Native People a food basket of game and edible plants since time immemorial. These open landscapes are home to many edible plants including camas, lily bulbs, bracken fern rhizomes, biscuit root, acorns from oak trees, and several types of berries. Medicinal plants including yarrow, kinnickinnick, violet, wild rose, and balsamroot also flourish there.
Native stories and cultural practices passed down through the generations teach us how prairies have been cultivated like gardens. Historically, many Native families have traveled to prairies and camped for several weeks to harvest camas bulbs, cook them, and preserve them for later use. Cultivation techniques, including burning, aerating the soil with digging sticks, and weeding out unwanted plants, helped to prevent the prairies from becoming forests. Without these practices, most of the prairies would have turned into dense forests thousands of years ago. Native People have taken care of the prairies and the prairies have taken care of them in return. This reciprocal relationship continues.
What we see today are tiny remnants of vast prairies that were common just a few generations ago. In protection of European homesteading methods, settlers made burning the prairies illegal because they saw fire as a destructive force rather than a life-giving one. In just a few generations, colonial land management practices, such as farming and grazing, reduced prairies to less than three percent of their former size. The prairie lands that had been managed and maintained by Native people for thousands of years were those very places that Euro-Americans settled and converted to prime farmland.
Many tribes, agencies, and community members are actively working to conserve and restore prairies and prairie foods. Camas is a main focus because it is a prized staple to many Northwest Native People. In fact, for many communities, it was the second most traded food next to salmon. The Squaxin Island Tribe has planted camas in their garden and in fields on the reservation, and is working with several organizations on prairie conservation and partnerships for tribal members to access camas as food.
This year, Squaxin community members in the community garden program collaborated with the Delphi Community Club so that several tribal members could harvest camas in their traditional territory. Squaxin Island Community Garden program manager and Tend team member, Aleta Poste (Squaxin Island) said,
“We have taken a moment to slow down and to think of what life is about and we are honoring life givers including camas. I see camas as being one of those life givers that has the ability to help our bodies heal. It’s really inspiring and empowering to be digging camas at Delphi School today because we get to look back and see that the legacy of our people is living on and that it continues today. One way that we practice giving back and having a reciprocal relationship with camas is when we harvest and we are digging the bulb. We are aerating the soil and we are enhancing the space around each bulb—giving those seeds the oxygen they need to breathe. It is giving them room to grow because we are removing the largest bulb. This is an ancestral practice that is being revived through many different communities.”
Camas continues to be an important cultural food that is celebrated in First Foods feasts and other ceremonies. Tribal, community, and multi-agency partnerships are an important step in support of the revitalization and care for cultural ecosystems like camas prairies, and to increase access of culturally significant foods for Northwest Indigneous peoples.
Camas in Tend, Gather and Grow
The Tend, Gather and Grow Curriculum intended to support the movements for Indigenous sovereignty and cultural reclamation, as well as encourage non-Indigenous communities to live more respectfully and sustainably in relation to the natural world. Reciprocity is a key teaching throughout the curriculum. The module on cultural ecosystems highlights how people care for plants and how plants care for people. In a camas lesson and a camas prairie field trip, students draw a camas “circle of care”, highlighting all the relationships that help camas prairies thrive, and then draw their own circle of care. This helps students consider who they are connected to and how they might give back to their community of people, plants, animals, and places. Questions to reflect on include:
- Who do I care for, and who cares for me?
- I receive and appreciate the gifts of the land. What does this look like for me?
- I give back to the land to support future generations. What is my commitment?
This Native Plateau story, as told by Roger Fernandes of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, is a part of the lessons.
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.
Camas Names: Common camas: Camassia quamash, Giant camas: Camassia leichtlinii, Twana: Quamash, Qa’?w3b, Lushootseed: cabidac, Klallam: Ktoi, Upper Chehalis: quwm or quwam“
Camas has six-petaled, purple flowers, and grass-like leaves. Bulbs grow four-to-eight inches beneath the surface and resemble small potatoes or onion bulbs. Giant camas (Camassia leichtlinii) has darker purple flowers and thicker leaves than common camas (Camassia quamash). Giant camas blooms a couple of weeks later and is more common east of the Cascades, in the San Juan Islands, and in Southern British Columbia.
Camas as Food
Camas bulbs are dug in spring to early summer when the flowers or seeds are visible. This helps to distinguish it from a similar-looking poisonous plant, called death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum), which has white flowers and similar-looking leaves and bulbs. Narrow t-shaped digging sticks that are made from hardwood, bone, antler, or metal make it possible to selectively harvest bulbs without damaging them or disturbing large sections of prairie. Harvesting also aerates the soil and allows moisture pockets to form, making it easier for new seeds to sprout.
Camas bulbs are cleaned by pinching off the stem where it enters the bulb and the roots from the base of the bulb. The brown outer skin peels off easily and you are left with a white bulb that resembles an onion.
If camas has gone to seed, people sprinkle the seeds back on open soil. Harvesters are careful to only keep bulbs that are attached to seeds or flowering stalks, since death camas bulbs and leaves look almost identical.
Northwest Coastal Native Ancestors developed ingenious and efficient techniques for cooking camas that people still use today such as roasting over a fire, baking food wrapped in skunk cabbage or fern fronds in a pit or earth oven over hot coals, boiling in bentwood boxes or tightly woven baskets with hot rocks, and steaming foods with hot rocks in earthen pit ovens.
Before sugar was introduced, roasted camas was used to sweeten other foods, and many people continue this practice today. Cooked bulbs are often made into cakes and dried for later use. A compound in camas called inulin helps to support gut health and provides carbohydrates without raising blood sugar.
Camas thrives from relationships with people. Tribal communities are returning traditional cultural and ecological practices to remaining prairies where that relationship was disrupted—healing land and people through restoration and co-management. All of us, as caretakers of camas cultural ecosystems, can honor our shared heritage while being responsible for camas abundance on a variety of scales—even home gardens and school grounds.
Camas can easily be started from seed or planted out as bulbs. They thrive in full sun (though will tolerate partial shade) and a variety of soils with good drainage, especially native loamy, sandy, or pebbly soil similar to the glacial outwash they evolved from.
It is best to start seeds in trays in a greenhouse, or in a designated and defined nursery bed, as they closely resemble grass for 3-7 years before their first bloom. Scatter the small black seeds in disturbed soil areas lightly covering with earth, or cover lightly with mulched compost. Local native plant sales and nurseries specializing in native plants also offer opportunities to purchase mature bulbs. They are best planted in fall or early spring. Bulbs should be planted about 4 inches deep, depending on size and keeping in mind you will eventually want them to be easy to dig up.
Keep camas bulb nursery beds carefully weeded to avoid confusion with grasses. As the young starts grow to maturity, they will seed future bulbs that are as small as a grain of rice. These eventually mature to sizes as large as a small potato depending on the variety. With increased size and multiple bulbs clustering in one spot, the traditional practice of digging in the fall or spring, separating bulbs, and spacing them out can be implemented. This practice promotes their vigor, reduces density, and increases space needed for filling in of new seedlings while encouraging increased bulb size.
Examples of other companion plants to introduce include chocolate lily, violet, yampah (wild carrot), wild strawberry, yarrow, and Roamer’s fescue (a bunch grass). Imagine strips or pockets of lawn transformed into a prairie—connecting like a mosaic with our intact prairie systems! Unlike grass, your prairie patch will offer a deeper relationship with your local ecosystem, calling your attention when it is time to visit the prime blooming time of nearby prairies, while increasing habitat and beauty that is easily managed by seasonal mowing and weeding. If you find yourself hungry for camas, you will have increased prairie abundance while minimizing gathering pressure on the few remaining intact. GRuB is currently developing a handout on creating a micro-prairie as part of the Tend, Gather and Grow curriculum.
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