After a prayer evoking “the Grandfather’s” blessing, four generations of the Spokane Tribe set off across a sagebrush-dotted pasture in search of white camas roots.
Elders wore woven baskets strapped to their sides. Teenagers moved in packs. Parents accompanied elementary school-age students who were out of school for the occasion.
“Found one! Found one!” crowed 7-year-old Gunner White, dancing with excitement near a short stalk with brown seed heads.
His older sister handed him the root digger, a long metal spike with a curved end. Gunner dug up a root the size of a small radish. It was crisp, like a turnip, with an aftertaste faintly reminiscent of solvents.
“Some people compare it to the smell of kerosene,” said Pat Moses, a tribal elder who attended the community root dig.
White camas roots are peeled, strung in chains and air-dried for winter consumption. The starchy roots are one of the traditional foods eaten by the Spokane Tribe.
Each May, community members gather for the annual root dig. It’s one example of why cleanup of uranium waste is so important on the Spokane Reservation, said Deb Abrahamson, executive director of the SHAWL Society, an environmental activist group there.
Gathering foods eaten by their ancestors is important to tribal members, she said. Yet eating native plants, wild game and fish can expose people to heavy metals and radiation.
The annual root dig takes place on U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing land near Harrington, Wash. Areas around the defunct Midnite uranium mine are no longer used for harvesting food.
Abrahamson’s family has stopped gathering chokecherries in the Blue Creek drainage, which is downstream from the mine. It isn’t safe to eat plants from the drainage, according to a 2009 public health assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The study cited polluted ground and surface water, which carries heavy metals and radioactive materials from the mine into the Blue Creek drainage. The creek flows for 3 1/2 miles before emptying into the Spokane River.
As a result of the warning, other members of the tribe no longer gather herbs for medicinal teas along Blue Creek. Eating fish from the creek isn’t safe either. Consuming meat from deer or elk that graze in the drainage may pose health risks as well, said the study, which recommended further testing of the meat.
Marsha Wynecoop has organized the annual community root gathering for 18 years. The harvest of white camas marks the beginning of gathering season, which includes dozens of edible wild plants.
The tribe’s members have an intricate relationship with the land, said Randy Abrahamson, a former uranium worker who’s a distant cousin of Deb Abrahamson. Preserving tribal culture includes preserving the ability to harvest traditional foods.
“We want answers,” he said. “Are the creeks full of contamination? Are the berries safe to eat? We’re hunters and fishermen and gatherers.”