For the Nez Perce and other First Nations tribes throughout this area -- Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Salish, Kalapuya, Couer d'Alene -- their particular digging grounds are sacred places where the camas, an onion-like bulb from the species Camassia quamash, grows in abundance and is harvested in July and August.
I was lucky enough to have been invited for a quick journey to traditional camas digging grounds last summer with Grey Owl and his wife, Martha Oatman, members of the Nez Perce Tribe. The husband and wife team instructed me on the ethno-botany of such important Nez Perce plants as bear grass, mountain tea (Labrador tea) and dog bane (Indian hemp), but more importantly they shared their tribe's deep connection to earth skills like camas digging and its eventual cooking and storing, as well as where to find kaus-kaus (qaws qaws), a gnarly root that has such healing properties as lowering blood pressure and is used as an anti-bacterial medicine.
The gift that they afforded me, which will live in memory forever, is the deep-running narrative history of their people as they floated me back to a time of old ways, in valleys and forest 30 miles northeast from Kamiah, Idaho, following the cut banks of the Lolo Creek.
Troubled Girls Sweating & r & Before digging for camas and qaws-qaws, I had to journey back into my own heart by witnessing the modern world bisecting the old. I sped down from Spokane to a spot on the Clearwater River (the Nez Perce call it "little river" and name the Columbia "big river"), just west of Orofino, Idaho, anxious to meet Grey Owl, who was at a camp with fellow spiritual and Indian skills guide Grey Wolf. The two had finished a day-long series of education and healing workshops at the Clearwater River Company's tepee rendezvous working with a group of 17- and 18-year-old girls from a youth redirection program called Spring Creek located near Thompson Falls, Mont.
The nine young women had just finished a purification in the sweat lodge, a physically healing and enlightening process most non-Indian folk never will partake in.
"I didn't know whether I would do a sweat or not when I was hired to work with these girls," Grey Owl told me. "It's a matter of determining on the spot while I'm with them if certain people are going to take it seriously or not. I don't hire out my sweat lodge, and it was a matter of gauging whether the group was right for it.
"These are white girls from 'normal' American middle-class families who have gotten into drugs, sex and boyfriends who have beaten them up ... and in most cases whose parents have money and send them to these programs to fix them. I always say there are never bad kids, just bad parents."
The girls had just helped build a campfire and were ready to have their cathartic and synergistic moment; Grey Owl led them through the talking circle with an eagle plume that was passed from person to person, while each feather-holder reclaimed something about herself.
The fire drew us into deep collective and individual reflection, at the very spot -- probably -- where, in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their band learned from the Nez Perce how to carve out 45-foot canoes.
Each articulate young woman considered her past, her place on earth as a woman. They deeply thanked Grey Owl and Grey Wolf for their emotional and metaphysical guidance. Many broke down in tears for "the gift of knowing two men who really cared about our futures."
Variations of the mantra, "I am pure, I am strong, I am beautiful, and I am a worthy, free, powerful woman," ended each girl's talking round, many of which centered on troubled pasts and new beginnings.
Then came the baptism through fire. The day before, their leaders asked each teenager to write one bad thing in her life or one negative character on a scrap of paper; the scraps then were hung on a tree. Now, each girl threw her paper into the fire, each paper holding inside a wish to change, a desire to forget.
Somewhere out in the firs and pines, a series of owl calls cut through as a moon rose above the Clearwater, in a place where the beaten-down white men of Jefferson's dream of empire were fed steelhead and taught by the Nez Perce to build canoes to further their journey to the Pacific.
The tribe saved the Corps of Discovery, and now two modern Indians were helping guide those whom white society deems "juvenile deliquents" back to believing in their humanness and goodness.
These were my first hours before I would begin the passage back in time, back to the lore and nuances of the camas, the roots that gave sustenance to dozens of tribes -- the very tubers that fed the men of Lewis and Clark.
Harvest of Bulbs & r & There are supposedly seven species of camas in this part of Nez Perce country, six of which are poisonous. The act of going to the grassy wetland fields when the camas plants are in bloom in May and June allows the women and girls (it was a woman's duty in the old days to dig and prepare camas, but not so today) to pull out the bad species, including a white-flowering camas called "the death camas" because it will kill you soon after eating it, Martha Oatman told me.
The camas that the Nez Perce, Salish and other tribes use possesses a beautiful blue flower. The camas was once so prolific and abundant that in some places along the Flathead River, early white travelers mistook fields of its blue flowers for distant lakes.
For more than 10,000 years, the journey to camas fields has fulfilled many tribal nations' connection to the earth. Archaelogists have found camas ovens that date back 4,100 years in what is now Oregon, and other such research has revealed evidence indicating that this variety of the lily plant has been part of the diet of the Native Americans in the Willamette Valley for 8,000 years.
Dried or canned camas -- which first goes through a process of digging, peeling, cleaning, air-drying, and then roasting in a stone-lined pit, covered with wet bear grass, alder leaves and topped with a less intense driftwood-stoked fire for three days -- is in high demand, but few contemporary members of the Nez Perce are willing to go through the physical labor of the camas way.
Only 100 families use the special spot, said Oatman, whose native name is Tse tal pah. She is the great-great-great granddaughter of Looking Glass, the Nez Perce brave who was in charge of warriors and was killed by the U.S. Army at the Battle of Bear Paw in Montana in 1877.
Oatman's Nez Perce name translates to"leader." She was named after the 15-year-old girl who was the only Nez Perce willing to face a hail of Army bullets to retrieve the rifles that the tribe had voluntarily stacked under the Army's flag of truce.
"She just kept going back and forth and bringing rifles so the Nez Perce could regroup and hold off the Army," Grey Owl recounted. "Few escaped that massacre, but Tse tal pah made it to Canada and she had a son who had a son who had a daughter who gave birth to Tuk luk sema -- which means 'seldom hunts' -- and that is my wife's father, who is a fisherman."
A Sea of Blue Flowers & r & Seeking camas is part of a process of fusing oneself with Nez Perce memory and narrative design. But the nitty-gritty of camas harvesting is pretty interesting on its own terms. To get large camas bulbs, the soil has to be worked yearly; the digging clears away weeds, grass and the encrouching smaller bulbs, aerating the soil and resulting in a type of artificial selection and biological cooperation from human agricultural manipulation.
By the time I met Grey Owl and Oatman, they had dug up 30 gallons of bulbs, camping along the camas field on weekends in what turned out to be a very hot, dry August.
The holes that have been excavated must be filled back in "to heal the earth" and to ensure a new season of camas crops.
While camas isn't supposed to be sold as a commercial commodity, a small portion of dried or jarred camas can fetch more than $30. In addition to the Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama tribal members travel to the very spot I was taken to because of the abundance and size of camas.
We carried with us modern-day versions (metal) of the ancient digging tool tuukes -- a three-foot, curved spiky fire-hardened wooden tool with a T-shaped antler handle -- and canvas bags, as our duty was to sit on earth, upturned 12-inch deep clumps of soil and sod, and break apart with fingers the clods where the camas bulbs -- from almond-sized to chicken egg-sized -- were nestled.
Signs of digging and filled-in trenches from harvest cycles weeks earlier could be seen, evidence that the "aunties" were doing the hard labor of love that has been passed down generation after generation for thousands of years. While I was there with my hosts, another husband-and-wife team set up an umbrella and went to unearthing their harvest of camas.
Even though camas harvesting goes back as a traditional, secretive gathering amongst many families, the tribe does revel in its tranformative nature. The annual Weippe Camas Festival (held each May near Kamiah, Idaho) commemorates the role of camas in Nez Perce culture and the arrival of Lewis and Clark.
"The Camas Prairie was named because the plant was so abundant," says tribal member Gwen Carter, who spent her juvenile years harvesting the camas in a traditional digging area. "I know my grandmother and aunts went digging as children, and I learned from my mother." Carter, like Oatman, Grey Owl and others, wants to keep the root as part of the Nez Perce diet and to preserve the last remaining digging grounds.
The men in Lewis and Clark's expedition 200 years ago tasted the sweet fig-like potency of dried ground-up camas; in fact, Lewis recorded extreme stomach cramps running throughout the 28-man company, probably due to raw camas dining.
"Camas is a complex carbohydrate that needs special preparing and cooking to be digestable. Severe gas and stomach pain can result if not properly prepared," Grey Owl said when I brought this up, chuckling.
Many like Grey Owl speak of how the traditional camas digging areas enticed the Nez Perce to travel outside their 1863 reservation bounds, largely contributing to the start of the 1877 war with the United States.
When I asked Oatman how long it took the pre-modern generations of aunties to cook the camas, she states -- "from three hours to three days, depending on how close the soldiers were" to the camas grounds. She and her husband hope that a tribal program that reintroduces traditional ways and thinking young folk -- Students for Success -- will also incorporate camas harvesting into the curriculum so young people can learn the whole process as just one of many important cultural traditions.
Roots of Medicine & r & Digging brings with it a time for reflection. Deer bolt out of shadows. A bull moose scours cattails near a pond. The sky, pines and cedars blend into one space where brown hawks look for muskrat and camas rat (pocket gophers). Stories then are unearthed with each riptide of earth. Every gush of sweat mixing with the tiny camas bulbs that are put back into topsoil becomes a man's future harvest of memory.
Dig and reflect. Dig and talk.
Oatman's humor is wry and active. For example, I learned that the common powwow dance, "Duck and Dive," was born out of the Battle of Big Hole, Mont., when the officers of the cavalry told the soldiers to "aim chest high at Nez Perce warriors." My camas-digging education was peppered with tribal lore, wisdom, politics and generations of narrative threading.
As part of the agreement, Grey Owl offered to take me to another spot, in a wetter forest, into the shadows, where medicinal magic springs out of the tannin and humus of Idaho's drippy forests.
Oatman and Grey Owl led me to a place where we searched and dug for the qaws qaws that has co-evolved with neck-tall ferns in swampy, dark forests. It's a powerful medicine used in sweats and healing. It is potent and pungent, a celery-tasting, ginger-looking mass of flesh that can cure everything from stomach problems to low energy to a lowered libido. I've taken my own stash back to Spokane and let it slowly cure in my basement, drying.
This quick passage into Idaho and my immersion in traditional healing will last a lifetime. I'll be looking for the camas blooms at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge each spring. I'll search for the white starry blooms of the qaws qaws on my next summer hike in some western Idaho haunt.
To demonstrate the value of a food or medicinal source to a tribe, my guides told of how the Kamiah-area qaws qaws root was traded throughout Montana, Wyoming and even as far as the Dakotas hundreds of years ago, which is how the Nez Perce acquired the best Appaloosa horse stock. The Cherokee, Cheyenne, Lakota and other tribes would take a look at the Nez Perce's big qaws qaws roots "and their eyes would pop out of their heads," Oatman said as we wandered the forest.
Few people today look for qaws qaws or camas, she says, because it's hard work and takes time to clean, dry and prepare.
Grey Owl beamed when he recalled the previous year's digging of camas with a woman who was six-months pregnant, her spouse digging alongside. The pregnant woman's goal was to dig enough camas to prepare as food for her infant during the upcoming winter.
Trials and Treaties & r & Once the reservation system was entrenched, tribes faced losing connections to ancient land and long-utilized food and medicinal preparations. Their resilience against the early U.S. government is profound, even ironic. Take Indian fry bread, for instance, which is a feature at fairs, carnivals -- even at Pig Out in the Park. It was born out of the vindictive practice by white settlers and their government to force tribes to take stale, years-old, almost useless wheat that had to be pounded and ground up. Its only palatable use was for flat, deep-fried bread.
The 1855 treaty, which established the Nez Perce reservation, has been broken year after year -- in fact, just recently in Kamiah, an elder and his son were arrested for "getting an elk out of season."
Hiding stores of camas in caves and in pits has saved many a tribe. Lewis and Clark and their men were really badly off when they encountered the Nez Perce, who fed them "little river" salmon, gave them potions of qaws qaws and let them taste camas, all of which revitalized them to continue on their journey. Back then, the best young female camas digger could land the best choice of a husband.
The galvanizing force that came out of my short tutelage was to reinforce my support for sustainability and deep ecology philosophy and combine it with a simple but powerful guide voiced by the Nez Perce: "Take a little here, leave a lot there."
"Camas, like the spring salmon runs, is all tied to a circle -- a great circle that is a cycle within the culture. Everything is tied together. Please remember that when you write your story," Grey Owl said with a goodbye hug.