One of the major staple foods of traditional native cultures throughout the Northwest was (and for many, still is) the edible roots of numerous plants including the blue-flowered camas (genus Camassia). Wild root crops abound at this latitude, with its cold winters and fairly short growing season, and indigenous societies at similar latitudes elsewhere in the world also devised ways to tap into this subterranean bounty. In the Northwest, the camas and other plants including bitterroot, wild carrots, wapato ("Indian potato"), and balsamroot, were dug by the women with a digging stick featuring a curve at the pointed end for prying the roots out of the ground. Huge amounts of bulbs and roots could be harvested this way for roasting in firepits or other means of preparation and storage.
The camas fields of old were vast and impressive. Today's fields are smaller and scattered due to a couple hundred years of encroachment and development by nonnatives, but in some places, one can get a sense of how they must have looked in the precontact past. Southeast of La Grande is the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Refuge, which boasts a few camas areas at its eastern edge. I took these pictures last month when the plants were in bloom. From a short distance, they look like deep blue water, and this was, in fact, how early nonnative visitors to the region described them.
A swath of camas in bloom in Ladd Marsh, looking northwest. Beyond the first line of trees, you can see some of open water ponds of the marsh. Mt. Emily is in the background. The city of La Grande sits at the base of the mountain.
I had hoped for a less overcast day because when the sun hits the fields, they are unbelievable. Unfortunately, it was cloudy for several days, so I had to take pictures before the plants stopped blooming. But I think it's obvious how beautiful the fields are.
The scene immediately behind me while taking the first picture.
A closer view of the flowers. Camas must be harvested while in bloom to see the color of the blossoms. Never eat the white-flowered variety: they don't call it death camas for nothing!
Long before I saw the camas in bloom myself, I had read a fascinating book called Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1840-1847 (translated and edited by J. Donnelly, 1967), a collection of the journals and paintings of Nicolas Point, one of many Jesuit missionaries stationed in the Northwest beginning in the 1840s. (I am preparing a whole series on the interpretation of the missions and missionaries in the Northwest.) Point, like many of his fellow Jesuits, was an artist as well as a writer and astute observer, and left to posterity a collection of tiny paintings done in the field which now provide an invaluable record of the people and places he encountered. Like many others, he was amazed by the camas fields. Below is one of his miniatures depicting the brilliant blue color.
Nicolas Point's painting of camas in bloom. This is close to the actual size of this and many of Point's paintings. Wilderness Kingdom is now out of print, but I was fortunate to find a copy on eBay. I'll say more about Nicolas Point in a future post.
It pleases me to photograph similar scenes 160 years later! To this day, Northwest tribes, who maintain treaty rights to hunt and gather traditional wild foods even off the reservations, celebrate the first harvest each year of roots, berries, salmon, and so forth. Sometimes the public is invited to these ceremonies to learn more about the importance of these foods to the native people of the Northwest, not only in the past, but to the present day.
Update (7/6): Here is a historic photo of a Nez Perce woman processing camas bulbs, from an article about camas on the website Discovering Lewis and Clark:
Caption on website: "Annie Yellow Bear pounding camas bulbs, Kamiah, Idaho, c. 1890. Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historical Park, Stephen D. Shawley Collection."
[All photos of Ladd Marsh camas fields by K. Dahl, copyright 2008.]