Cultivating Camas Connections

Session Organizer(s): 
Kathryn Matthews

Cultivating Camas Connections:


Camassia quamash (common camas) is a facultative wetland hydrophyte with cultural ties to many different tribes and first nations across western North America. It was particularly important due to its edibility and abundance, and its carbohydrate rich bulb continues to be harvested, cooked, and eaten. Historically, camas harvests were an opportunity for indigenous peoples to trade and interact, both within and between different indigenous groups.


Camas requires specific habitat characteristics to ensure a suitably wet growing season. Its habitats, often referred to as camas prairies, were important traditional harvest sites for many indigenous cultures. In the 19th century federal land policies removed many tribes and nations from their ancestral homelands and transferred ownership of those lands to railroads, timber companies, and early European settlers. Ultimately, these land uses proved particularly destructive to wetland prairies, including camas prairies. The decline of wetland areas across North America has resulted in significant loss of a habitat that provides valuable ecosystem functions, while also reducing and degrading culturally significant landscapes like camas prairies.

Investigations into the cultural significance, restoration, conservation and management strategies for camas prairies is currently being conducted across a variety of disciplines. This is an exciting time for camas research, and the 2019 Society for Ethnobiology conference would provide an ideal forum to foster and encourage further discussion across these disciplines and bring the current state of camas knowledge forward.

Camas is an important plant that has the unique ability to connect people across backgrounds, cultures, research subjects, and disciplines. Management strategies incorporating traditional uses of specific species, like camas, and more broadly, the biological and cultural landscapes in which these species grow, deserve special attention. The mission of this session is to provide valuable insight into making camas-focused projects more successful, advance landscape restoration goals, and reassert cultural presence on the landscapes that we as ethnobotanists study.