Camas: the Healthy Staple Starch

Camas prairie in bloom

Of the plant-based foods in the diet of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, camas bulb (Camassia quamash) is one of the most prominent. A member of the lily family, camas has nutrient-dense starchy tubers. Unlike potatoes or other starchy vegetables not native to this region, the camas tuber contains inulin, a complex sugar that breaks down into easily digestible simple sugars, promotes gut health, and aids the body’s management of insulin, helping regulate blood sugar and prevent type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes (Krohn and Segrest 2010), which has affected Indigenous North American and Alaska Native people at a much higher rate due in part to the post-contact introduction of processed carbohydrates and diminished access to traditional foods (LeCompte-Mastenbrook 2015). Traditionally, the tuber is dug in the spring when its blue flowers distinguish it from inedible, white-flowering death camas. It can be cooked a variety of ways, like a potato; traditionally it was steamed in an earth oven and could be dried after steaming for later use (Krohn and Segrest 2010), indicative of its importance as a year-round dietary staple.

In addition to being a traditional food of great significance to First Nations communities along the Pacific North Rim, it may be a key factor in their future health. More than 20 indigenous cultures in western Canada and the United States still tend, collect, clean and pit-roast its bulbs for special seasonal events. Many of these communities hope that camas can help keep their children free of diabetes.

Gary Nathan, Food from the Radical Center

Due to settler colonization of the camas praries in this region, the plant has become both less prolific and less accessible to Indigenous groups. During the period of settler colonial contact, potatoes were introduced in the 1830s and generally replaced camas in the Indigenous diet (Turner and Turner 2007). Invasive plant species introduced by settlers took over their wetland-prairie habitat. For thousands of years, Indigenous women practiced sophisticated land management through controlled burns and through the digging involved in the practice of cultivation and harvest, allowing the plant to be sustainably harvested for use as a dietary staple. European settlers in the period of settler-colonial contact made these controlled land burns illegal, disrupting the ability to cultivate and harvest the plant (Krohn and Segrest 2010). More recently, camas habitat has been disturbed and ecosystems disrupted by the Army Corps of Engineers flood-control efforts that involve draining of marshy grassland (Nabhan 2018).

Efforts by tribal communities to reclaim camas as a wild food source and healthy starch include work by Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. On Tlchess (Discovery Island) in British Columbia, the Songhees First Nations have been harvesting, preparing, and pit-roasting camas as well as engaging in intergenerational teaching and culture sharing.

There is still so much work that needs to be done with regards to camas and cultural restoration. There is a growing need to have access to traditional food in Lekwungen Territory. Even more so to environmentally safe food to consume. Cultural roles and practices need to be included in the restoration of these ecosystems.
 

Cheryl Brice, Lekwungen
Songhees First Nations Lands Manager

Lands Manager Cheryl Brice (Lekwungen) has spearheaded educational work – including harvest and pit roasts – at the Tlchess site and at the University of Victoria Campus (for more, see Camas on Campus). In Washington and Oregon, similar tribal-led harvests have proven effective at educating community members on the health benefits of eating this native starch.

Further reading on camas and other Indigenous food resources

Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest, Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit. Chatwin Books, 2010

Nancy J Turner and Katherine L Turner, Traditional food systems, erosion and renewal in Northwestern North America. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 2007

Further reading on camas in Indigenous-led food sovereignty movements

Restoring Camas and Culture to Lekwungen and Victoria: an Interview with Lekwungen Cheryl Brice, 2006 http://www.firstnations.de/media/06-1-1-camas.pdf

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