V. Cultivating Camas Connections

Proposal Type: 
Session Date and Time: 
Thursday, 9 May, 2019 - 10:30 to 12:15
Geography 212
Session Organizer(s): 
Kathryn Matthews
- matt0530@vandals.uidaho.edu

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.

Time Abstract
, Brenda - Selkirk College, Kootenay Native Plant Society
, Valerie - Kootenay Native Plant Society

The inability to see plants leads to undervaluing plants and their importance to life on earth.  Alleviating plant blindness through re-establishing peoples’ relationships with plants is vital to both human and ecological communities.  We formed the Kootenay Camas Project in 2012 to bring awareness to common camas (Camassia quamash), an ecologically and culturally valuable being in the BC Interior. We present challenges/successes from our initiatives including citizen science mapping, seasonal outreach, salvage, propagation, school programs, and research and restoration projects.   Through our consistent presence and knowledge-sharing within the community and people’s interaction with this charismatic plant over time, residents are excited to know and learn from camas.  School kids are enthusiastic advocates, residents grow it in their gardens, and a conservation area was established. After eight years of outreach, camas has become an ambassador for people-plant connection in our region. Its light blue flowers have drawn our focus.

, Molly - Washington State University
d'Alpoim Guedes
, Jade - Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
, Kevin - Kalispel Tribe of Indians
, Melissa - Washington State University

The 2014 and 2015 excavations of a burned structure located on the Kalispel Tribe of Indians ancestral lands in northeastern Washington revealed uniquely stratified deposits with an absence of artifacts. Although the structure initially appeared strikingly similar to the earth oven features common throughout the region, in our reconstruction of the site’s sequence of events we suggest this space was once a nondomestic structure. Drawing on ethnographic, paleoethnobotanical, and geoarchaeological data, we show that the structure burned at a relatively low temperature, was buried soon afterwards with imported rubified sediment, and was exposed to seasonal river inundation. Subsequently, a second fire consumed a unique assemblage of plant remains, including Camassia quamash. By incorporating ethnobotanical knowledge and ethnographic sources we argue that this structure was a menstrual or menarche lodge. This interpretation highlights the time depth of distinctive Plateau practices, extending ethnographic voices and patterns back into the past.

, Matthew - Oregon State University
, Anthony - Oregon State University

Because Camassia quamash and C. leichtlinii are among western North America’s most culturally significant native plants, their propagation for restoration projects is warranted. C. leichtlinii grows and takes up nitrogen in the spring following a cubic function. Most of the new nitrogen is allocated to its leaves and roots prior to the leaves reaching their mature size and to the daughter bulb thereafter. Spring fertilizer applications have a small impact on the growth of C. leichtlinii in the year they are applied. During its summer rest period the daughter bulb and roots of C. leichtlinii develop at the expense of its mother bulb. During the winter rest period C. quamash and C. leichtlinii have a chilling requirement that must be met prior to leaf emergence. These findings offer insight to native plant propagators and may suggest the effects of indigenous management practices.

, Kathryn - University of Idaho

Camas (Camassia quamash (Pursh) Greene) is a facultative wetland hydrophyte that is culturally important to the Nez Perce and other Native American tribes of the Columbia Plateau. An important, traditional Nez Perce harvest site for camas is Weippe Prairie, located in central Idaho. Like many wetland prairies across the United States, much of Weippe Prairie was converted for agricultural use in the 19th century. Rehabilitation of camas prairies will serve in both repairing the functionality of these ecosystems as well as restoring lands that are culturally significant. After three years of research identifying the specific habitat criteria required by camas and evaluating different restoration techniques such as seeding and outplanting, this study will aid in the development of a restoration protocol for camas that can be applied to camas meadows across the plants’ North American habitat.

, Linda

Upper Chehalis and Cowlitz Oral traditions describe a time when yawa'łtαmx• (earthquake woman) dug camas at Lequato prairie. While cooking camas, she was struck in the stomach by a hot rock and gave birth to Moon, the transformer. When he grew up, he made the world the way it is today by naming all the prairie places and placing the plants that grow upon them. Coast Salish origin stories describe not only how camas prairies were formed, but the role of fire to maintain them. Oral history of great floods, battles with giant animals, and illusions to a tsunami shed light on the past in ways western science is just beginning to understand. Recovery of camas places to indigenous access and management re-weaves the bonds between people and places, connecting the past with the future, and integrating resource management to secure indigenous food sovereignty.

, Cheryl - Songhees Nation
MacIsaac (Johnson)
, Susan - Parks Canada
, Aimee - Parks Canada

Cheryl Bryce, from Songhees Nation, has been working to build awareness of Kwetlal (Camas) Food Systems, her whole life. For the past eight years, Parks Canada has worked together with Cheryl, and other Songhees and Esquimalt community members, as well as many volunteers, to restore one acre of lawn at Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites, to a diverse Garry Oak meadow that includes important traditional medicine and food plants, like Camas. In fall 2018, we celebrated this achievement by hosting a Coast Salish Pit Cook led by Cheryl Bryce. The community came together to share a meal that had been eight years in the making, including the opportunity to sample traditional foods such as Camas, that were grown onsite in a Conservation Nursery. Working together to combine science and traditional knowledge has helped us learn from one another, deepening our appreciation of nature and each other.

, Joyce - Independent Researcher
, Sarah - Center for Natural Lands Management
, Valerie - FEED Seven Generations

Camas is one of the most important cultural foods of the Northwest Coast. There is a strong desire in Washington State among tribal communities to reintegrate camas harvest and consumption into daily life. Because the ~3% of remaining ecosystems exist within a patchwork of private, public, and tribal lands, reinvigorating tribal relationships with camas requires meaningful collaboration. It is often said in Coast Salish territory that plants are our first teachers. The knowledge required to harvest, process, and store camas, and to properly care for camas prairies relies on many interdependent relationships. With tribal members leading the way, and supported by non-tribal accomplices, camas prairies teach us how to work together to reignite tribal relationships with camas. In doing so, we support Indigenous self determination – the capacity of a community to adapt to social and environmental change while maintaining the well being of that community, or collective continuance.