Camas on the Plateau

Every spring, many of the meadows of the eastern Washington and northern Idaho are dotted with the blue flowers of the camas plant, cammasia quamash. To the Native peoples of the Columbia Plateau these flowers indicated food, marking the nutritious root bulbs that were the staff of life.

For thousands of years camas and other roots made up approximately 50% of the Native diet. Indians in this area did not practice agriculture in the European style; the fish and roots that nature provided were food enough.

Camas digging and cooking were the honored work for Native women. Women would gather root with digging sticks made of fire hardened wood, or deer antler. Sticks were long, and a perpendicular handle allowed the women to dig out the roots more easily. Up to 50 pounds of camas could easily be harvested in this manner in a day.

Harvesting camas required perfect timing. Camas root reaches its biggest size when the flowers have just withered in mid-June. To maximize it as a food source the women had to be in the fields to harvest at this time. Plant knowledge was required, because another type of camas, called death camas, which is far less nutritious was often growing along side the healthier version.

Regular digging of camas actually improved camas patches. The women would only keep the larger roots, returning the smaller roots back to the soil to ensure next year's harvest. Fire, in the shape of spring or fall "cool burns," was also used to ensure that that the open meadows required for camas growth stayed that way.

Camas bulbs need to be cooked to make the carbohydrates more digestible. Cooking was usually done in a pit oven. For long-term storage camas in baked again and made into loaves, a staple item of trade on the Plateau.

Camas harvests decreased with the arrival of the white farmers. Hungry pigs rooted up camas patches that had been nurtured for generations, while others were destroyed by the plow. As Natives were forced onto reservations they had to adopt much of the diet of the invaders, many native foodstuffs were replaced by the "white devils" of flour, sugar, and salt. The harvest of camas never completely stopped however, and today a revival of native food ways is causing an increase in camas in the diet of many native families.