New growth suddenly emerges from onion-like bulbs spread out and nestled underground. Journeying up through a few inches of sodden Willamette Valley soil, tiny plants greet the February sun.
They’re more like thin blades of grass at first. Slowly, their leaves thicken. They prepare themselves as days grow longer to make room for a single flowering stock that will shoot skyward. Weeks later, indigo star-shaped blooms float among open meadows of chartreuse bunchgrasses as warmer days arrive in the western Oregon valley.
Camas, Camassia, welcomes spring.
From six slender, deep-purple petals, which resemble a cat’s constricted pupil, are six golden anthers. Their pollen provides native bees, beetles, and flies with nutrients in their long and arduous quest for food in early spring. The petals surround the seed pod, a lime-green oblong pearl that’s so bright I wonder whether it would glow in the dark.
Camas blooms in late April cover an abandoned field, sandwiched between apartments and a busy road, near downtown Salem. It’s the only place where the plants fit in our urban lives: on random plots of land that will soon be sold and developed.
Their blooms once brightened fields of open grasslands that stretched hundreds of miles from the Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon to the Willamette Valley and north to the Puget Sound and British Columbia. They gently swayed in a warm spring breeze along streams and rivers, lined with cottonwood and ash trees, or in meadows under the shade of oaks.
Camas can grow all over the West. It’s found from Vancouver Island to as far east as Montana and Wyoming, and south to California. Four species live in Oregon, though the most abundant, Camassia quamash, grows from the San Juan Islands and Olympic Peninsula, east to the Palouse and Zumwalt prairies, and to Table Rocks in Southern Oregon. The flower has fed the region’s first people with its starchy, sweet bulbs for as long as anyone can remember.
In the way that some Northwest tribes are salmon people, Kalapuyans of the Willamette Valley are camas people. With only one spring run of salmon, but boundless fields of edible plants, Kalapuya people ate plentiful amounts of wapato, yampa, acorns, tarweed, and camas. “Our identities are tied together,” says David Harrelson, who is Kalapuyan and is the cultural resources manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “To know yourself and to know a place, it becomes necessary to know both.”
Although they look delicate, camas likes disturbance.
Kalapuyans harvest the bulbs twice—once in early spring after having few fresh nutrients all winter, then again in early summer when the blooms dry up. They use shovels or sharp wooden digging sticks, called cupins, which are two to three feet tall with an antler handle, to dig up the bulbs. When they harvest, they take only large bulbs and leave smaller ones scattered close to the surface. This method aerates the soil, and gives the plants that can live for several decades more room to grow, Harrelson tells me. With more room comes more camas, which is called ant’ip in the central Kalapuya language.
Families traditionally tend to the same camas patches each year, observing the plants’ health for generations, and forming deep connections with the fields. In some tribes, families owned specific camas fields, while in others, fields were shared between extended families.
To maintain a camas patch, Kalapuyans regularly set fires during late summer or early fall. All the valley’s vegetation burned, except for the oak trees. Ash enriches the soil and increases seed growth, while heat controls pests, clears space for people to travel and animals to forage, and keeps conifer trees from suffocating oaks and other plants. During spring seasons after the burns, camas thrives. Many other native plants also rely on fire. “Camas and humans have this reciprocal relationship,” Harrelson says. “A camas patch becomes more abundant over time when you interact with it the right way.”
“Agriculture today is very extractive,” he says. “In a tribal world with camas, there’s only obligation and reciprocity. If you’re getting something from the camas, you owe them something. If everything you take requires reciprocity and exchange, it would affect the way you act.”
The oldest memory Kalapuya people have of living in the Willamette Valley is the great floods that they call atswin, or the Missoula floods. A 2,000-foot-tall ice dam broke around 15,000 to 18,500 years ago during the last Ice Age, releasing a Lake Ontario-sized body of water in western Montana, called glacial Lake Missoula. So much water burst through the Northwest that the rush is thought to have been ten times stronger than the combined flows of all of Earth’s rivers today. Water tore through eastern Washington and the Columbia River Gorge at sixty-one miles per hour, bringing with it massive boulders, ripping off cliff faces, and shaping the region we know today.
Harrelson’s ancestors tell stories from when more than four hundred feet of water nearly filled the entire 120-mile-long Willamette Valley, which spans from Sauvie Island to just south of Cottage Grove. Kalapuyans took refuge from the floods on Chantimanwi, known today as Marys Peak, the tallest point in the Coast Range.
One story tells of all the valley’s people rushing to “the big mountain” as flood waters quickly rose higher and higher, nearing the 4,097-foot-tall summit of Marys Peak. The story details the birth of panther and deer and the death of coyote before the floods, symbolizing monumental changes to the land, according to anthropologist and Grand Ronde tribal member David G. Lewis.
The ice dam on Lake Missoula continued to form and break, over and over, sending unimaginable amounts of water into the valley every thirty to seventy years. Similar to a pressure washer wiping a dirty surface clean, floods stripped western Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington’s nutrient-rich, diverse soils and brought them to the Willamette Valley. The mixture later nourished prairie plants, like camas.
Prairies may have formed shortly after these Ice Age floods when the region became warmer and drier. Camas soon sprouted. Once established, the plants are thought to have made their way north across the prairies as the ice sheets retreated in northern Washington and Canada. Some patches, however, may have avoided glaciers in small, ice-free pockets. The open landscapes would have been converted to ash or Douglas-fir forests had Kalapuya people not regularly conducted prescribed burns, some of which engulfed large parts of the Willamette Valley. Prairies flourished because of people’s care.
Kalapuyans maintained an active collaboration with native plants in the Willamette Valley for more than five hundred generations. Their annual harvests gave camas a needed rejuvenation, and their fire management sustained the prairies. Efforts to save these plants and landscapes often miss this point, Harrelson tells me. “While people are focused on restoration, they don’t get at the values that created the landscape,” he says.
Kalapuya people lived within the entire valley, from Tualatin and Yamhill areas, southeast to Santiam, and further south to Yoncalla in the northern Umpqua basin. They represent a diverse linguistic group, with three languages and thirteen dialects. When settlers arrived in the valley, tribes initially didn’t think they’d lose all their land. They were open to learning about and trading for metal knives and other items that the new people had, but disease devastated communities. It’s estimated that twenty thousand Kalapuyans lived in the valley in the late 1700s, and by the mid-1800s, fewer than six hundred had survived smallpox, malaria, flu, and measles that settlers brought with them.
White newcomers wanted Native tribes and bands out of the coveted valley, and initially tried to remove them to Eastern Oregon. The US government drafted treaties to acquire Native land, but many of the early treaties were tabled once they reached Congress and were never ratified as militias waged war and genocide against Native people.
Camas fields became huge wheat, corn, oat, and, later in the 20th century, hop fields, where Kalapuyans worked within the changed valley, from Brownsville to Tualatin, providing food for other people. Oak trees were fenced off on land for new homesteads. Some were cut and became barns. By 1851, White settlers had claimed all land within the Willamette Valley, leaving no room for tribal villages, culture, or camas.
The tribe eventually ceded millions of acres of land—most of Western Oregon—and owned just sixty-one thousand acres after signing seven new treaties ratified by Congress. Between 1853 and 1855, the US government forcibly removed hundreds of people from their Western Oregon homelands to temporary reservations, first at Umpqua and shortly afterward, to Table Rock in Southern Oregon. People at other temporary reservations in Cow Creek and Kalapuyan encampments throughout the Willamette Valley and coastal towns were removed within months. In 1856, tribal people were then forced to travel 265 miles in harsh winter conditions to a newly established permanent, remote site at Grand Ronde. Native people from southwestern Washington to Northern California now live at the headwaters of the South Yamhill River in the Coast Range. They became the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, which represents people from thirty-two tribes and bands, including Kalapuya, Umpqua, Rogue River, Molalla, Klickitat, Klamath, Clatsop, Chasta, Clackamas, Cascades, Multnomah, and Tillamook peoples.
A few decades after the treaties, Congress passed the Dawes Act of 1887, the cornerstone of federal assimilation policies, forcing Native people into the new, White, Christian culture through individual land allotments. The US government wanted Native people to become farmers and believe in American individualism as an attempt to destroy tribal communities, traditions, and sovereignty.
When Native people accepted their allotments, the government declared the remaining tribal lands as surplus, breaking up reservations and selling plots to non-Natives. The Dawes Act cut the Grand Ronde’s treaty-given sixty-thousand-acre reservation to thirty-three thousand acres by 1901. Only those who accepted land allotments could become US citizens, a right not guaranteed to Native people until 1924.
Among other assimilation efforts, many Grand Ronde children were forced to attend two on-reservation boarding schools, run by Methodist and Catholic churches, in unsafe conditions, devastating families and their cultures.
In 1954, about one hundred years after the original treaties were signed, the federal government closed the reservation, stripped the Grand Ronde of most of their land, and took away the tribe’s federal status, in an era known as termination. All they had left was the tribal cemetery. For several decades, Grand Ronde people had no land. Many moved away.
When David G. Lewis was growing up in Salem, there was no Grand Ronde tribe. They were still terminated. The anthropologist and Oregon State University assistant professor didn’t know much about his family’s story. “I had been taught by my dad and grandparents about some little things about the tribe,” Lewis says. “I don’t think they knew much. They knew some of the reservation history. They’d tell me I was Chinook.
“My dad would take me to the forest and would sometimes drive through reservations, and we’d talk a little bit about it,” Lewis says, but as a young kid, he didn’t care that much. In college, though, he started taking anthropology, Native studies, humanities, and history classes. He wanted to learn more about his identity.
Tribal members in Western Oregon, and nationally, worked in the 1970s to restore what was taken from them. A tool shed on the remaining two and a half acres of the tribal cemetery became the Grand Ronde’s headquarters, where they started issuing regular newsletters to members. After years of relentless work, the tribe in 1983 regained federal recognition: a renewed acknowledgment to treaty-protected rights of sovereignty, land, education, housing, and health care.
Lewis initially studied in California, but after Grand Ronde began rebuilding, he wanted to do something with the tribe. “My dad had been telling me that the tribe needs a history,” he says, “so I came back.”
“I was trying to understand what Native people were because I didn’t really know,” he says. “Even today, there’s very little teaching about Native people in schools at all. The tribe wasn’t able to reach out yet and teach us who we were.”
He enrolled at the University of Oregon and became a member of the tribe. He’s a descendent of the Santiam, Takelma, and Chinook tribes, and he led Grand Ronde’s cultural department for eight years in the mid-2000s. He helped write the tribe’s own history and develop their plank house, and museum. “We’re kind of still in this process of recovery of tribal identity based on the histories that were essentially taken from us for a while.”
The Grand Ronde now owns 16,100 acres throughout the valley, but displacement deeply damaged the community. Many elders didn’t want to talk about their culture or traditional foods, like camas. The iconic plant represented what Harrelson describes as “poverty food.”
“It wasn’t something to be celebrated, and a lot of people had shame,” he says of eating camas. “The kids were conscious of what poverty food was, and they felt bad about it around their friends. That was the reality of it. It was weird poverty food—what Indian food was considered to be. That made conversations [with my grandparents] different.”
Other families, he says, had great resilience and kept traditions alive.
Once the tribe was restored, people focused on developing infrastructure before recovering culture. “Part of the problem was that nobody really knew how they got there and what happened to put people on the reservation,” Lewis says. “What were our people like before we got to the reservation? We’ve been working for thirty or forty years to answer that question. And people began realizing the importance of some of these plants.”
“It’s almost become synonymous with Kalapuyans as kind of an identity plant, in a way,” Lewis says, “an identity symbol of the Kalapuyans because there was so much camas in this valley.” Soon, they started replanting camas.
Prairies and oak lands once covered most of the valley—more than 1.5 million acres. They were especially plentiful around and south of Salem. The fertile soil and the area’s wet winters created a biologically rich landscape, a kitchen full of food maintained by Kalapuyans.
Their descendants, though, have few places to harvest camas safely. Many patches are contaminated with chemicals and some soil shows signs of DDT fifty years after the government banned it.
The tribe can harvest camas from a two-acre site at Champoeg State Heritage Area south of Wilsonville, but the soil has traces of chemicals in it. Though the amount falls within what the government says is safe, it’s still not what tribal people want, says Lindsay McClary, the tribe’s restoration ecologist. The park, whose name is a Kalapuyan word that means “the place to dig yampa root,” is treated with herbicides to manage the prairie surrounding the camas patch.
It’s hard to find a place in the valley where the soil hasn’t been contaminated. Tribal members might notice decent camas plants on private land but can’t come and go as they would like to since it’s someone else’s property.
The tribe has two thousand acres—and will soon receive another one thousand—that they hope to turn into something like a native prairie, or oak savanna, which is a similar grassland landscape but with more trees. Some of the land the tribe acquired used to be a farm, and some is so overgrown with aggressive and persistent Himalayan blackberry, Scotch broom, tall oat grass, and tall fescue that it’ll take at least ten years to remove.
“Once you remove it, there’s a large native component,” McClary says. “They just need a little breathing room. The seed sources are there, the root sources are there, they just need a bit of sunlight to reemerge from these suppressed landscapes.”
It’s complicated to try to regrow what used to be in this valley where most Oregonians live, and where more and more people are coming to live.
Tribal members and conservationists are trying to sew together a patchwork of prairies, fragments stitched in among farms and homes. The lives of tiny flowers, birds, butterflies, and bees depend on who owns the land. The relationship between people and plants that developed in this valley before memory continues to face challenges.
“Our history isn’t written in books,” Harrelson says. “It’s written on the landscape. They remind you of all these lessons and all these things that give you a fuller way to live your life.”
A small camas patch grows on a rocky outcropping next to a West Linn High School parking lot, not far from the Camassia Natural Area, where camas and other prairie plants are preserved. Empty bags of chips and soda cans are left scattered among the blooms. Rocks, soils, and debris brought here by the Missoula floods overlook Interstate 205 and Willamette Falls, where the Charcowah village of the Clowewalla people and the Kosh-huk-shix village of Clackamas people used to be. At the falls, people once traded camas with nearby tribes for dried salmon, obsidian, buffalo hides, whale products, and shells.
Prairies clean the air, minimize flooding, and provide food for bees who give life to our food, says Tom Kaye, a local ecologist who studies and restores prairies at the Institute for Applied Ecology. These ecosystems also hold carbon in their soils that can help take it out of our atmosphere. Living near a healthy ecosystem makes humans healthier by way of microscopic organisms that blow off the plants and soil, find their way through our windows, and onto our skin. “Literally, a healthy environment can make you well, or a sick environment can make you sick,” he says.
Tribal leaders and conservationists are trying, camas patch by camas patch, to create a collage of native prairie. They might get lucky and buy land from developers or acquire it through land trusts, but they still face the years-long task of removing and keeping invasive plants out.
Conservationists and tribal leaders are working to revive traditional burning practices. Patches of Buford Park, which now has ten times more trees than it did two hundred years ago, were first burned in 1999 and have since been burned half a dozen times. Scientists are also studying how a warming climate could threaten some prairie plants, which may not survive higher temperatures. Since the prairies are so fragmented and plants can’t naturally migrate to cooler temperatures, some scientists toy with the idea of moving plants themselves, but it’s expensive and ethically touchy.
People travel hours away to see late-summer explosions of lupine and paintbrush in Mount Rainier’s alpine meadows. Hundreds flock to tulip fields where native flowers used to similarly bloom in the Willamette Valley. Caring for a landscape, from a tribal perspective, requires generations-worth of respect and exchange. “It can be as simple as returning the fish bones to the system that it was harvested from, and in a way, giving back to that river system,” Grand Ronde’s McClary says. Or, it could be leaving the small camas bulbs, spreading them out, and then burning the land.
Native people look seven generations into the future, making sure to use what the land provides them with today, but leaving enough for others decades from now.
Grand Ronde people want to restore burning to a newly acquired site, one that, like the rest of the Willamette Valley, belonged to them. The burns will hopefully clear ninety acres of blackberry and oat grass and welcome back bunchgrasses and oak trees.
And, in time, welcome again, camas.
Excerpted from Where We Call Home: Lands, Seas, and Skies of the Pacific Northwest, reprinted with permission from Ooligan Press. Copyright © Josephine Woolington, 2022
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