Tribe searches for camas in disappearing prairie

For a few weeks this spring, members of the Squaxin Island Tribe fanned out across prairies in deep South Sound to gather camas.

Camas is a traditional tribal food that grows in prairies across the region. The outings were organized by the Squaxin Island Tribe’s traditional garden program. After gathering camas, the participants learned to prepare the root of the plant from Elizabeth Campbell of the Spokane Tribe.

“She’s going to come out and show us how to do a pit roast,” said Aleta Poste, the coordinator of the tribe’s garden program. Pit roasting is a traditional process to preserve camas for winter use. The process takes at least a day to complete and makes the camas sweet, like a caramelized pear.

“What we’ve done in the past, we’ve always used it as a substitute for potatoes in soups,” Poste said. “It’s neither a potato nor an onion, but it looks like an onion and its nutritional value is so much higher than your typical potato.”

The tribal garden program was founded two years ago and is located at a former horse farm the tribe owns in Skookum Creek Valley. The garden provides food to the elders lunch program, as well as traditional plants, an orchard and a facility for classes.

Places for tribal members to harvest camas are becoming harder and harder to find. The combination of development and changes in land management practices means that Puget Sound prairie habitat has declined by 90 percent.

Since the arrival of non-Indians, the tribe has stopped burning the prairie to prevent trees from taking over. Douglas fir and non-native species like Scotch broom have spread to many of the prairies once dominated by camas. “The conifer trees in the area need to be maintained because they’re constantly competing and encroaching upon these areas,” Poste said.

Tilling the soil through harvest is one of the best ways to ensure next year’s population of camas is plentiful, Poste said.

“We harvest just as the plants are going to seed, so if the soil is tilled and soft, the seeds find their way into the ground,” she said. “Soil-tilling animals like pocket gophers also help, but us getting out here and harvesting camas means that next year there will be even more.”

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