Special to ICT

Charlie Sneatlum, a leader of the Skagit people, died in 1932 but his words live on to tell the story of this prairie before settlers renamed it and turned it into a pheasant farm.

The 175-acre swath of prairie was part of a 1,000-acre area southeast of p’t-sa-tl-y — modern-day Coupeville on the Western Washington island of Whidbey — that had been cultivated for centuries by the Skagit people and their relatives from other tribes, Sneatlum told the U.S. Court of Claims in 1927.

“They were large … because they cultivated it,” Sneatum said of the harvested plants. Those cultivated lands, he said, “were the first ones [the settlers] took.”

For centuries, the Skagits and others kept the prairie clear of unwanted plants through weeding and controlled burning. They loosened the soil with digging sticks, harvested the larger plants and re-planted the smaller ones.

Garry oak trees produced acorns that contained healthy fats and were easily preserved. Nettles produced fiber for clothing, fishing nets and fishing line.

Fourteen kinds of bulb and root plants were grown here, Sneatlum said. The calorie-rich camas bulbs, in those days the size of a small potato, were cooked in a pit and eaten with other foods. With a flavor similar to a sweet chestnut with a hint of garlic, camas can be dried and stored for use over the winter with other dried or smoked foods such as salmon, clams and berries.

Now, the descendants of the first caretakers are bringing the ancestral ways, languages and songs back to Sneatlum Point. Many of them are the seventh generation born since a treaty made this land available to newcomers and forced their ancestors to relocate.

Marvin Velasquez, 11, Tulalip, identifies a patch of camas bulbs to dig April 15, 2023, at the beginning of a three-day Indigenous foods event at Sneatlum Point, Whidbey Island, Washington. Marvin dug the first camas bulb of the event. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker for ICT)

About 65 children and teens from seven tribes camped on the lands on April 14-16 for the Qwlho7el (pronounced qwuhth-lot-uhl) Camas Bake, one of several events organized by the Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps to reconnect Indigenous youth with the lifeways and lands of their ancestors.

With guidance from stewardship corps advisers, the children and teens turned over soil with digging sticks, harvested camas bulbs and readied them for baking. They dug a 4-by-4-foot pit, started a wood fire, and buried the camas atop hot rocks between layers of sword fern, salal, bracken fern, and skunk cabbage. They then tended the pit oven overnight in shifts.

The baked camas were dug up the next day and served with traditional foods brought by others — barbecued salmon, frybread with huckleberry jam, bitterroot, and chocolate lily. Elk, moose and venison roasts were also cooked in the pit with the camas.

“Their hearts are in the right place,” said Laura Price, cultural educator for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, of the youths’ enthusiasm for the work they performed. “They are motivated by hearing some of the elders talk about how this is sacred ground, the knowledge that it represents, and that their generation can learn and experience it and bring it home and teach others.”

Two eagles circled above a group of young people digging their hands into ancestral soil, harvesting camas bulbs that descended from plants tended by their grandparents’ grandparents.

“This is a tactile experience, a sensory memory — the feel of the wet, cool dirt, the camaraderie with other people,” Price said. “They are developing core memories they’ll hold on to. They may not remember everything from the weekend, but they’ll remember the feeling of digging their first camas and feeding the people.”

She added, “It’s in their DNA, to be honest. The culture is awakening all over and our youth are hungry for their culture.”

Mersaedy Atkins, Colville, holds some freshly harvested camas bulbs April 15, 2023, on the prairie near Sneatlum Point in Washington State. The bulbs were gathered and then baked in a cooking pit with other traditional Coast Salish foods. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker for ICT)

Passing down knowledge

Aaliyah Sullivan and Rafe Tom’s faces were still smudged with dirt from the day’s camas harvest as they learned to make Indian hemp cordage under a canopy set up by Mersaedy Atkins, Julie Ann Edwards, Mary Big Bull-Lewis and Sylvia Jane Peasley, all of the Colville Tribes.

Aaliyah and Rafe are citizens of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

“I really like learning about my culture,” Rafe said. “I do that a lot with fisheries, because that’s my dad’s main line of work and I’ll go out on the boat with him and that also gives me a connection. It’s a feeling that these are my roots, this is where I come from, this is what my ancestors have been doing for generation after generation, since time immemorial.”

Aaliyah said harvesting and processing camas felt natural to her. She grew up hearing stories about camas from her grandmother, and last year helped dig and plant bulbs for the first time.

“It’s natural for people who get raised on the reservation to pick up on it,” Aaliyah said, of exposure to cultural teachings. “I started digging clams when I was 4 and I started getting salmon out of the river when I was 9. The knowledge gets passed down, so doing this is kind of instinctual.”

For three days, the prairie — now owned by Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship, a project partner — resembled something Sneatlum would have found familiar: people from various tribes reconnecting with relatives and friends, cultivating together to bolster the land’s future productivity, and caring for and feeding each other.

“It’s important for our youth to be proud of who they are,” said Big Bull-Lewis, a founder of the Indigenous Roots and Reparation Foundation, which advocates for Indigenous cultures and the restoring of land to Native peoples.

After more than a century of boarding schools and federal assimilation policies, “it’s important we reclaim our culture and create those ties with each other and not lose those sacred ways,” Big Bull-Lewis said. “It’s important we give appreciation for the ground and the roots and the trees and not think of them as objects. They’re living beings as well.”

Sam Barr, the historic preservation officer for the Stillaguamish Tribe, which has ties to Whidbey Island in Washington State, works with his young daughter, Seli, 4, to dig into a cooking pit at an Indigenous food event for youths April 14-16, 2023. Barr is a citizen of the Samish Indian Nation. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker for ICT)

Edwards said hands-on teachings are necessary for cultural survival; the young ones learning about camas one weekend will carry the knowledge with them and someday pass it on to the next generation.

“Every other culture that’s in the United States and in South America and Canada, if they forget how to cook a certain meal or they forget their [ancestral] language, they can go back to somewhere and learn it,” she said. “Italians can go back to Italy, Germans can go back to Germany. Everybody has a place to go back to except us. Once we lose all those things that are special and unique to us as Natives, it’s gone forever. This is where we originated. That’s why this is important.”

Camas resurrected other teachings as well during the weekend, said Sam Barr, historic preservation officer for the Stillaguamish Tribe, which has ties to Whidbey Island.

“There is an entire culture around camas which involved landscape management — setting fire to vast swaths of land to maintain this huge prairie,” said Barr, a citizen of the Samish Indian Nation. “You had people going out and changing the entire landscape — it shaped what the islands look like. When we talk about restoring the environment, that can’t happen in the absence of Coast Salish people doing the same land management they have done for 6,000 years.”

It also brought communities together, Barr said.

“Another part of camas culture is the community,” Barr said. “It’s a slow food, as opposed to fast food. It takes a couple of days to harvest and with a big group of people — all these families and extended family coming out to what used to be generationally tended patches. There’s this community aspect of it, like a family reunion. After you harvest it, you have to cook it. For 36 hours you tend the fire and you work on crafts, visit with relatives and catch up with grandma. There’s a huge culture around it.”

Another teaching: The historical role of camas and other coastal foods in trade between Coast Salish and Columbia Plateau peoples. Peasley combed out speitsen, also known as Indian hemp, which she uses for weaving round baskets and flat bags. The lightweight silky strands are as soft as hair but when twined are as strong as cable — ideal for use in making fishing nets and fishing line.

This was an important trade item for our people,” Peasley said. “This bundle we could trade for dentalia shell or sea foods. This was like gold for us. It’s as soft as a cotton T-shirt but it’s very durable.”

Coast Salish teens and young adults carry camas bulbs and meats, contained in a bed of ferns and skunk cabbage, to a cooking bed to be baked, April 15, 2023, during an Indigenous foods event at Sneatlum Point, Whidbey Island, Washington. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker for ICT)

An all-inclusive experience

Twelve children and teens participated in the first Qwlho7el Camas Bake five years ago. Since then, the stewardship corps has grown in participation and in programs.

Upcoming events include huckleberry habitat enhancement on Mount Higgins in the North Cascades, and a cultural resources survey, reef net fishing demonstration and study of traditional land management practices in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago bordered by British Columbia and mainland Washington state.

Dr. Marco Hatch, Samish, is an environmental science professor at Western Washington University and a member of the stewardship corps advisory board. Looking at the participation in this year’s camas bake, he said he was at a loss for words.

“I think the event is well attended and successful for a variety of reasons, one of which is the approach we’re taking — to be very open and welcoming for all Coast Salish and people of other tribes,” he said.

“They’re working on something that binds and connects us — traditional foods that have been cultivated for thousands of years,” he said. “We’re starting to see first-hand what camas looks like that has been cultivated and uncultivated. Cultivated camas is the size of a tangerine. An uncultivated camas is the size of a grape. It’s the same plant and the same age, but one is larger because the land was managed and cultivated. The level of camas productivity can come back with people digging and tilling and taking care of the camas.”

The land is showing benefits from the partnerships like that of the Pacific Rim Institute, the Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps and other organizations. Some 30 species of plants are now found on 38 acres, up from four acres in 2009, said Robert Pelant, chief executive for the Pacific Rim Institute. All told, the institute owns 175 acres, which are in various stages of restoration.

Pelant, who worked with marginalized peoples in Asia and the Americas, founded Pacific Rim Institute to purchase the land from an environmental studies school. If his organization had not purchased the site, it could have been developed into housing, he said.

“Our starting vision was to restore the land, to reach out and build as many relationships as we can, and help neighbors rekindle the relationship that we’ve all lost with the land,” he said. “We believe there is a Creator, that the world was created and we are called to be stewards. A steward is someone who cares for something that belongs to someone else and that can be the Creator or the next generation. We have that responsibility.”

The result has been all he had hoped for, Pelant said as he joined in the three-day event.

“I’m on the edge of tears to see people reconnecting with their historical roots, their cultural roots,” he said. “This makes this place not just an ecological restoration area, but a soul and heart restoration area, too.”

Lead photo: Coast Salish teens and young adults wrap camas bulbs in skunk cabbage to bake in a cooking pit April 15, 2023, during a three-day Indigenous foods event on Whidbey Island in Washington State. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker for ICT)

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an ICT correspondent reporting from Western Washington.