Driving west, past Davenport and into the hard scrubby scab lands of Eastern Washington, I’m reminded just how little I know of this place I call home.
To me, it seems unlikely that anything but the toughest weeds and rocks hide beneath the dry dirt. Cows have trampled this land. Farmers have scraped and prodded it. And the sun has baked it.
And yet, here I am scrabbling in the dirt near Swanson Lakes on Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land, uncovering ancient edible roots.
LaRae Wiley, the co-founder of the Salish School of Spokane and a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes, and her husband Chris Parkin invited me on this late-April excursion. I entered their orbit and into a tradition, and way of relating to the land, unfamiliar to most living in Spokane.
“For us, it’s always been the gatherings of the foods in different areas,” said Marsha Wynecoop, the Spokane Tribe language program manager. “It’s kind of like a great big supermarket for us. You go to the mountains for your fruits. You go to the prairie for vegetables and the river for the meat.”
On this Sunday in April we’re gathering black camas, bisquit root, bitter root and wild onions. The roots give up their nutritional secrets slowly. First you must dig into the dirt, uncovering rocks and mud. Carefully, you remove the tiny bulbs. At first they look just like a clump of dirt, but with some cleaning and careful peeling they reveal a white interior not unlike a potato.
The collected roots will be dried and incorporated into meals as seasoning or become a stand-alone dish. But something else is going on beyond gathering food. Something that Wiley hopes will last longer than the harvested roots.
“The importance of it is that we are carrying on the traditions of our ancestors of gathering our traditional foods,” Wiley said.
“Before colonization, we were able to just gather on the land and the land is what sustained us. So it’s really important that we continue those traditions and that our young people can learn how to go out and gather those traditional foods.”
Camas, in particular, held a special place in the pantheon of Native American foods. While salmon may get the majority of the attention, camas was just as – if not more – important to Native American diets. It’s estimated gathered roots and vegetables made up about 50 percent of the Native American diet.
Nutritional studies have shown camas has more calories than salmon, pound for pound. The gathering of camas and other roots was a yearly ritual. Family groups like Wiley’s would go to their favored gathering spots that were passed from generation to generation.
Each year there would be a ceremony – First Feast – honoring and celebrating the roots.
“At the same time, they dig particular early roots and prepare them according to their family ways,” naturalist and historian Jack Nisbet writes in his essay, “A Taste for Roots.”
“Much more than a meal, First Feast is a ceremony renewing a sacred compact, and various Plateau creation stories teach the same lesson in different ways: Back in the earliest times, the roots promised to take care of the people, as long as the people promised to take care of the roots.”
That traditional knowledge, passed orally from generation to generation, was disrupted. For the most part, European colonists didn’t see the value of the roots. Instead, they opted to import potatoes, cattle and other European staples. The destruction and dispersion of families and tribes broke the connection between generations.
Compounding that issue, the roots defied easy categorization. The roots, which mostly belong to the genus Lomatium, display a wide range of variation. The native way of learning where and when to pick the roots was based on a deep affinity and connection to the land and to one another, one not easily translated into writing.
“Family by family is how it works, and each family is really different,” Nisbet said of how, where and when roots would be gathered.
In an effort to revive and reconnect to that history, the Spokane Tribe has held an annual root dig. In its 25th year, more than 600 children and adults from the Spokane area attended this spring’s dig on May 9. There they learned about the roots, how to find them and how to take care of them.
In addition to the more nebulous goals of the event – cultural connection and healing – Wynecoop points out that the gathering is an exercise in nutritional education.
“All these are really healthy, low-calorie, low-fat foods,” Wynecoop said. “I don’t think there was anything that had a lot of sugar or fat in our diet in the past.”
Wynecoop said when they first started the root dig, they’d tell the kids to put the roots into a certain bucket if they didn’t like the taste. In the first years of the event, organizers would go home with buckets full of discarded roots.
But slowly, as the kids and families grew more accustomed to the roots, the amount of rejected roots dropped.
“The kids are starting to like it and eat it again,” she said.
Wiley, the co-founder of the Salish School, learned to search and dig for roots as an adult. Now she helps the younger generations reclaim some of that ancestral knowledge.
“Getting out on the land and digging our traditional foods, that’s a really powerful connection,” she said.
Rummaging through the earth in late April, this is what strikes me. The connection developed between the baked earth, these plants and those gathering them. It’s a connection the average recreationists does not have.
For me, and for many, the land is an affordance. One to be interacted with, perhaps cherished, but not depended upon.
Under the sun and in the dirt of Eastern Washington, looking for roots alongside men, women, boys and girls who trace their connection to this place past the fog of history, I glimpse a different way of being on the land.
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error this story incorrectly named which agency owns and manages Swanson Lakes. It has been updated.
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