Public Program Grant Spotlight: Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake)

A series of cultural immersion camps led by Indigenous culture-keepers and funded by a 2021 Public Program Grant

Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land)

Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake), a series of cultural immersion camps led by Indigenous culture-keepers and language instructors, took place during the summer and fall of 2021. The program was hosted by Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land), an Indigenous-led organization, and supported by Ascension School Camp and Conference Center, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon. It was funded in part by a 2021 Public Program Grant from Oregon Humanities. Oregon Humanities has nominated the program for the 40th Annual Schwartz Prize.

During the program, Indigenous participants scouted, gathered, prepared, and baked camas using traditional practices. The program culminated in ceremonial gatherings featuring the baked camas. All activities took place on the unceded lands that the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Nez Perce people have inhabited since time immemorial, now referred to as the Blue Mountains and Cove, Oregon.

The program was the result of two ongoing processes: a multi-tribal effort to restore ancestral knowledge and strengthen relationships through camas, a historically significant First Food, and a religious organization’s attempt to seek reconciliation with the Indigenous people whose lands they inhabit.

Bobby Fossek, leader of Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) and member of the Walla Walla people and the Yakama Nation, described the need for the program:

The participants in this program are primarily youth and families Indigenous to the Columbia Plateau. There have been many obstacles set in place to keep Native people from following the seasonal rounds and accessing many places throughout the homelands. The separation from this way of life and the assimilation into sedentary lifestyles and poor diet are leading to many mental, physical, and spiritual health symptoms. The farther away from the original instructions we go, the more languages, knowledge, and habitats are lost, and the worse our health becomes. Many areas throughout our homelands are also becoming sick.

This programming is of the utmost importance in creating more pathways for healing by reconnecting the people with the land and particularly the ways of life centered around our sister, camas, that take us to the beautiful mountain meadows that we call home in the summer. This program intends to remove barriers and create more access to our First Foods and lifeways. We feel this has the power to heal many of our collective and individual wounds, instill respect for the land and waters, and encourage strong, sovereign, compassionate, and connected leaders.

Oregon Humanities was inspired to fund this project because it aligns with our mission to create and support participatory programs that inspire understanding and collaborative change. Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) was funded through our Public Program Grant, which supports programs that explore challenging questions and strive for just communities. We appreciate that it addressed difficult history with the aim of healing through relationships—within the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Nez Perce tribes; between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities; and between human beings and the altered land.

Background

This project is part of a long history of collaborative work between two of our grantee organizations, Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) and Ascension School Camp and Conference Center. As a ministry of the Episocopal Diocese, the Ascension School has chosen to examine the role that the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of fifteenth-century papal documents that paved ideological and legal paths for the colonization of the West, played in their own church’s history and in the forced removal of Indigenous people from the land. The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is currently undergoing a formal process to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, with the aim of making a wider public statement later this year. Concurrently, they have begun their own reconciliation and restorative justice work through collaborations with Indigenous-led organizations, including Naknuwithlama Tiichamna.

Amy Jayne, executive director of Ascension School Camp and Conference Center, described the collaborative work between Ascension School and Naknuwithlama Tiichamna:

Ascension School Camp and Conference Center sits on approximately one hundred acres. For nearly a century, eighty acres of the property has been farmed. Through the discernment of our values around creation care and racial reconciliation, we were compelled to reimagine our stewardship of this land.

In November 2019, the land was returned to Ascension School’s direct care, and we began implementing the vision to reestablish the native riparian and prairie ecosystem and build a nature trail. We contract with the Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) for the management of the project. This group of Indigenous culture-keepers are leading an effort to revitalize Indigenous lifeways and restore habitats in the Blue Mountain bioregion through seasonal round immersion camps and ecosystem restoration. They have planted nearly seven thousand native trees and shrubs on the land. They monitor the streams and have seeded the meadows and introduced First Foods back to the land.

Ascension School, as a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese, has committed to ongoing repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. We seek reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of this region. This includes restoring much of their land to native habitat and a commitment to support culture camps and the development of an Indigenous-led organization.

Oregon Humanities appreciates the Ascension School’s significant contribution to this project in providing access to their land, use of their facilities, and direct financial support for Indigenous-led restoration projects, including the Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) program. 

Our council values that this restorative work is directed by Indigenous leaders for the benefit of multigenerational participants and multiple tribes. The Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) program built on ongoing efforts by Indigenous communities to regain, document, and restore culturally significant knowledge. This camas bake was the second one held in over one hundred years, making it a significant advancement in securing cultural practices and teaching future generations of Indigenous culture-keepers.

We also appreciate our grantees’ care in the planning, adaptation, and execution of the program, which was safely accomplished during a pandemic and in a region with nearby wildfires.

Program Description

Bobby Fossek, leader of Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) and member of the Walla Walla people and the Yakama Nation, described the program:

Our program consisted of two camps. The first camp was for the gathering of the camas bulbs, and the second was the earth oven camas bake. In the first camp to gather Xmaashmiyay Shatayk (camas), the weather turned hot and drought set in. Wildfires were burning in several locations not too far away. We had a well-planned camp, where we would start at one end of a series of camas prairies, camp and dig, then pack our horses to the other end. The first site was a prairie with exposure to direct sun. We realized the camas bulbs were drying up and the ground was parched. We were competing with a large flock of probably 2,000 sheep that were kept there through a Forest Service grazing lease. We were able to build a connection with the managers of the sheep as well as the Forest Service employee who manages the grazing. They added our rounds into their schedule so that Indigenous rights to gather, camp, and graze are ensured. We had visitors to camp, including one of our language teachers and an assistant who is a pivotal leader in revitalizing the camas bake. She continues to encourage us in this work.

After we moved camp to the next location, we realized that it was also drier than usual, and water was getting low. Our time here was shorter than planned, but we gathered Sawitk (native carrots) that were growing well. We packed the horses on a day trip to a spring that was used historically by the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people for ceremonial purposes as well as subsistence food-gathering. We gathered camas bulbs during this camp. In total, we gathered bulbs from six different locations to be baked together. We decided to move camp down to the river for our remaining time to gather and preserve serviceberries and to get some reprieve from the heat. Even then, we had to cut our camp short due to a looming wildfire closing the Umatilla National Forest. We packed up and returned to our home base to put away all the foods we had gathered.

In early September, we held the second portion of the program: the Xmaashmiyay Tamaycht (earth oven camas bake). This brought people representing Indigenous bands from along the Big River and basin, the Plateau, and surrounding mountains. One focus was to hold a ceremony during the Tamaycht that included a robust Feast of the First Foods. Our family had been gathering and preserving a wide variety of First Foods for this occasion, many of which are rarely gathered or hardly known anymore. People were trying foods for the first time, and elders were eating foods they haven’t tasted in a long time. This ceremony and feast brough many families, language speakers, culture-keepers, and students together under the shade of the trees, in this highly culturally significant village site, Wiweeletitpe, now known as Cove, Oregon, to celebrate our culture and foodways. We were able to work on some crafts and enjoy our time together around the Tamaycht fire, strengthening our connections with each other, our culture, and place.

The baking of the camas bulbs was a learning opportunity, and we were piecing it together from stories and what knowledge is left. This art has been mostly dormant in our tribal community for the last couple of generations. After the three-day baking process, we opened the pit to find that some of the bulbs had been burnt, while many turned out exceptional. It was discouraging after such a long, hot summer of hard work, but after investigating and talking more about it, we realized what needed changing and adjusted to do better. Many of the bulbs that came out well were distributed to elders, language teachers, and used for some community feasts such as memorials and funerals. We were faced with many challenges and many successes, but even the hard parts showed us how resilient and adaptable we are, and offered us many opportunities to learn, grow, connect to our ancestral ways and wisdom, and clear our trail forward from here.

Our program was attended mainly by tribal members and descendants of the many Columbia River basin bands, who play various roles in revitalizing and preserving our languages, foodways, and cultural knowledge. Other attendees work in tribal leadership positions, education programs, or cultural/natural resources. Some are Indigenous youth who have a heart for carrying on these practices into the future.

Some of the people who led and attended this program have been involved in the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s efforts to preserve and document the process of baking camas, which was a major focus in 2018–2019. Our efforts here are an extension of that, in hopes to keep what we learned in practice and to also extend the work back to areas of our ancestral lands that were once crucial camas gathering and baking locations.

Some of our language teachers and Elders who cannot get out and gather like they used to offered support in the way of language teachings and encouragement. Some of them remember witnessing their grandparents baking foods in this manner when they were children. They have told us that the Tamaycht is “Naami Timna,” our heart, as it is a pivotal part of our lifeways, and many foods were historically cooked in this manner. This practice not only feeds our bodies but brings us together as a community to nourish us in many ways. It is a time to preserve our languages, crafts, skills, teachings, and connection to each other, our Ancestors, the land, and the many plants and places we interact with just to bring all the parts of the Tamaycht together to bake Xmaash.

Financial Details

This project was financially supported by a 2021 Public Program Grant award from Oregon Humanities, by the Ascension School, and by additional private donors. The total cost of the program was $28,327, and Oregon Humanities contributed $8,695. Grantees were required to raise matching funds equal to the amount of the grant award total.

Oregon Humanities’ grant award covered honorariums paid to Indigenous elders and teachers to enable their participation. It also paid for horseback and vehicle transportation, food, tools, materials, and supplies needed for the gathering work, the camas bake, and the First Foods ceremony. The grant award also covered lodging costs for Indigenous participants attending the First Foods ceremony.

Sustainability

Oregon Humanities is honored to support the ongoing collaboration between Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) and Ascension School Camp and Conference Center. We consider the Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) program to be a significant step forward for both organizations as they work to build more just and connected communities in rural Eastern Oregon.

Bobby Fossek, leader of Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land) and member of the Walla Walla people and the Yakama Nation, described the significance of Oregon Humanities’ support for the project:

This grant funding was a major boost of support for our organization. On top of enabling another year of practicing this art together as a community, we were also able to purchase gear and tools that will last for many years of camps. It gave us that much more encouragement to keep moving forward with this work, which in turn showed other members and leaders in our community that we are dedicated to carrying this on year after year. This has boosted our support and continues to deepen our outreach and connections throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) program upheld the importance of collaboration between the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Nez Perce people. It created opportunities for dialogue between Indigenous communities and the city of Cove, Oregon, and contributed to local understanding of Native history and the Blue Mountain ecoregion. Indeed, this program advanced the sustainability of the entire local ecosystem, including human and non-human species.

We believe that the Xmaash Tamaycht (Camas Bake) program is highly imaginative humanities work that will have a long-term impact in Oregon.

Learn More

Photos by Naknuwithlama Tiichamna (Caretakers of the Land)

Ascension School website

Putting the Heart Back in the Valley by Putting the Fire Back in the Ground with Bobby Fossek,” Voices for Nature and Peace, Radio Free Sunroot

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