The University of Washington’s Burke Museum featured an exhibit in 2013 that highlighted the variety and diversity of pre-contact Coast Salish foods. Working in collaboration with members of tribal communities and Elise Krohn, a traditional foods specialist at Northwest Indian College, archaeologists Dr. Peter Lape and Dr. Robert Kopperl surveyed 130 archaeological sites in King, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties and gathered ethnographic data from tribal elders about traditional Coast Salish foods. They compiled the following list of over 280 foods eaten by Coast Salish peoples over the last 10,000 years.
The categories of foods, including plants, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles, and shellfish and other marine life, is significant because it points to variety and seasonality in traditional diets, both of which contribute to health of the body and healthy, sustainable food systems. When contrasted with the typical “modern” American diet consisting of about 12 food types that are eaten on a regular basis, eating a variety of foods provides essential nutrients and prevents diseases that can be triggered by overconsumption of one food type, such as type 2 diabetes. Elise Krohn discusses food diversity further in the recordings on the Burke Museum’s Salish Bounty site, under “Stories of Food and Cultural Values” – you can listen here.
Promoting vegetarianism and veganism are usually considered to be aspects of colonization. However with the spread of colonization, health outcomes have changed significantly for Indigenous omnivore and vegetarian/vegan diets. Cruelty-free diets have resulted in increased sources of magnesium and folic acid (Craig 1) but decreased sources of protein. The nutritional profile of vegetarian/vegan has been similar to Western health outcomes. Usually vegan diets are considered most accessible to white middle-class individuals but as settler colonialism is widespread, Indigenous peoples begin accessing more cruelty free options. The effect of colonial contact on Indigenous bodies has been positive although for many years the Indigenous diet has been considered clean, unprocessed, and adequate to maintain nutritional demands over Western diets. Colonialism did not invent cruelty free diets but has supported their growth among peoples.
Shridhar, K., Dhillon, P. K., Bowen, L., Kinra, S., Bharathi, A. V., Prabhakaran, D., Reddy, K. S., … Ebrahim, S. (2014). Nutritional profile of Indian vegetarian diets–the Indian Migration Study (IMS). Nutrition journal, 13, 55. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-55
Environmental Anthropologist Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (University of Washington) is involved in a project with the UW Earthlab that seeks to foster understanding of the importance of camas and explore the ways camas can be managed and harvested in the context of food sovereignty and Indigenous land and ecosystem management. This UW Earthlab group consists of ecologists, educators, anthropologists, ethnobotanists and conservations from academia, tribal communities, nonprofits, industry and government, working together toward the goals of education – focusing in particular on younger generations of K-12 and college students – and conservation from a cultural and an ecological standpoint. The group began their work in 2017 with a camas harvesting event at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve in southwest Washington, with around 60 tribal members from nine groups participating.
One of the core values of this transdisciplinary group is to work as a self-described “community of practice” learning from the land and also learning from each other; I interpret this to mean disrupting normative values of who can learn what from whom, and considering the possibility that science can learn as much from traditional practice as traditional practice can from science. Crucial to this is the idea of looking at camas and its habitat as a cultural – not merely biological – ecosystem. This conceptualization necessarily centers tribal needs and interests and re-connects Indigenous health and foodways to this ecosystem through a specific plant while acknowledging interdisciplinary, non-normative ways of knowing and producing knowledge.
Further reading on UW’s Dr. Joyce Lecompte-Mastenbrook and the UW EarthLab Project
Project Title: Camas Prairie Cultural Ecosystems Incubator
Project Leads: Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (UW Program on the Environment) and Sarah Hamman (Center for Natural Lands Management)
Tribal Community Involvement: over 60 individuals from nine tribal communities (need to do further research to be able to explicitly state who is involved and the nature of these relationships)
Project Goals: development of transdisciplinary Cultural Conservation Education and Research Program
Values: 1) reciprocal benefits for all participants, 2) shared importance of social, cultural and biophysical values, and 3) transformative learning expressed into clear outcomes (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)
Keywords from the project site: cultural food, deep time, co-evolution, cultural ecosystems, management, community of practice, transdisciplinary
Challenges: privileging certain standards of proof and ways of knowing, building trust between tribal communities, scientists, land managers and agencies (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)
Archaeologist and University of Oregon faculty member Madonna Moss has researched camas as part of the traditional pre-contact diet of the Kalapuya people of western Oregon, part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 2017 she worked with a group of graduate students, under the supervision of Dr. David Lewis (Grand Ronde) and Marie Knight (Warm Springs), to dig camas bulbs and to clean, process, and bake them in an earth oven located at the Many Nations Longhouse on the university campus. In her blog she writes that earth ovens (or pit ovens) for roasting camas have been dated to more than 9000 years ago, and are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Dr. Moss’ blog gives an account of this process. This work is significant because, like the Songhees First Nations camas roast on the University of Victoria Campus, it involves utilizing the platform of the university campus to draw attention to traditional Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty.
Further reading on Dr. Madonna Moss’ archaeological work at the University of Oregon
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
Pre-colonial Indigenous cuisines offer a variety of meals, many which contain animal products. Humans, naturally omnivorous, relied on the environment and surrounding life forms to survive. After settler colonialism, Indigenous Peoples have been tormented for their eating and hunting practices. Eager fighters of animal rights belittled practices that conflicted with Western executions, resulting in changes in lifestyle and diet for Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous fight over vegetarianism and veganism needs to approach Western disproved views of Indigenous food practices by challenging how Westerners treat their own food sources. “Animal domestication, speciesism, and other modern human-animal interactions in North America are possible because of and through the erasure of Indigenous bodies and the emptying of Indigenous lands for settler-colonial expansion.” (Belcourt 1) Indigenous bodies however, have lived in a reciprocal, symbiotic environment with living plants and animals. The deep respect of life forms runs in Indigenous practice. Dissimilarly, settler colonialism exploit and remove both animal and Indigenous bodies through slaughter houses and environmental damage. Through fighting over vegetarianism and humane practices pertaining to Indigenous food ways, colonization takes action. Challenging Western ideals of Indigenous practices and cuisines will begin to decolonize vegetarianism- the practice deemed appropriate by non-Indigenous peoples.