The Camas Bloom Again
Written by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter
May 1, 1993
Just as sure as the sun rises and sets each day one can be sure that each spring the blue camas flowers will bloom to flood the Nisqually prairies with a sea of blue blossoms waving in the wind as they stand anchored to the earth in a carpet of green foliage. Year after year they return and multiply unaware that the Nisqually Indian people who dug them year after year for thousands of years cannot come to dig their roots, for if they did, they would be trespassing. Yet the camas await in anticipation that perhaps this year, the people will return...
In the years long past the Nisqually Indian people who lived in their village homes along the banks of the Nisqually River and its tributaries depended on the natural resources of the Nisqually River Basin for their entire food supply. The seasonal quest for food began in the spring of the year and ended when the first snows of winter fell. Bulbs, roots, berries and nuts added to the salmon, deer and seafood, kept the winter food storage baskets full for the Nisqually Indian families.
One of the most anticipated seasonal treks to the open prairies was the trip to dig the camas bulbs. Being one of the staple foods of the Nisqually Indian people, a bountiful harvest of this little bulb represented food on the table come next winter. The camas never disappointed them.
In those times before the whiteman came into Nisqually country the prairie lands stretched for miles between the Nisqually and Puyallup Rivers. Kept in shape and free of unwanted vegetation by the annual fall burning by the local Indian people, the vast expanse of prairie land yielded a crop not matched until the potato was introduced into the British gardens at Fort Nisqually in 1833. Even then the camas stayed in first place, for it required no planting, no weeding or hoeing and it also reseeded itself in preparation for a new crop. There was no injury to Mother Earth in this process.
Each year the April rains turned the brown prairie lands into a carpet of green foliage to make ready for the warmth of the May sun to add the bright blue blossoms. As the flower buds faded, the seeds dropped to the earth, and the cycle continued.
When the time was right and the bulbs were ripe, the people came into the prairie to set up a temporary campsite along a fresh water stream to set into motion an array of events that would be repeated by different Indian groups at different locations.
The preparation for the trip to the prairie took careful planning for the extended family consisting of as many as fifteen to twenty people expected to stay out for three to four weeks. Each person, able to work, young and old, was expected to bring his own ironwood handled, sharp-pointed digging stick as well as an open-meshed cedarbark gathering basket. Each one was responsible to bring personal items and a sleeping blanket. If men accompanied the group, which occasionally they did, they packed the rolls of cattail mats and tipi poles needed to erect a temporary shelter. With the absence of menfolk, the ladies fared for themselves, happy to be off on a vacation of sorts.
The family traveled light, bringing only certain staples, hoping to gather additional food items to sustain their appetite. Fresh soft shoots from the ferns, cattails, sunflowers and salmonberry plants which grew in the marshlands could be blanched in the hot water cooking baskets. Salmon could sometimes be caught in the nearby streams, and, if the family was fortunate, berries could be found in the occasional thickets that dotted the prairie landscape.
If the family had used this particular spot the year before, remnants of the previous camp would prove helpful in setting up camp. Tipi poles were often left behind when the family returned to their winter home and could be raised and tied in place with nettle rope with the rolls of cattail matting laid in a circular fashion around their circumference.
The summer shelter was used mainly for a refuge for sleeping in case of rain as well as a safe place to store provisions out of sight of roving wild animals or small rodents. If poles were not available a shed-like slanted roof structure was put up if sufficient wood pieces could be found. Because the campsite was next to a fresh water stream, small trees and bushes often grew along the water's edge.
With the shelter in place and an outside cooking fire established, the next agenda item would be to dig steam baking pits as the Nisquallies would steam and dry the camas bulbs and pack them in storage baskets to be taken home for use during the winter months. If baking pits remained from the previous year, they were repaired and made ready to receive the freshly dug camas bulbs. If not, new ones must be prepared before the digging began.
A round hole was dug to a depth of four to five feet and about three feet wide. The earthen bottom and sides were lined and reinforced with two layers of small stones about the size of one’s fist. A fire was built in the very bottom to heat the bottom stones. The hot ashes were then pushed aside and a bundle of camas bulbs, securely wrapped in large leaves and sprinkled with water, would be laid on the hot rocks. Then came a layer of ferns, leaves or small boughs with the next several inches filled with earth. A slow burning fire was built on top and kept going for about two days. A stick, planted into the center of the pit, could be pulled out and more water added through the hole. When the bulb bundle was considered cooked, the bulbs were unpacked and laid out on a rack to dry before being placed into storage baskets.
While the bulbs were cooking, the diggers were expected to be at work digging up a new batch of bulbs. All able-bodied members were expected to work. The men might be excused if they planned to go fishing or hunting, otherwise they joined the digging crew. When a sufficient amount of bulbs were dug, steamed and dried, prayers of thanksgiving drifted through the air for a bountiful harvest as the family returned to their permanent village home.
And this was the way it was in those days long before the white man invaded our land. Today the camas continue to grow and bloom in all their glory as they cover the lands of the Nisqually prairie. Like the dog who waits at the gate for his deceased master to return home, so the camas remain as sentinels of the Nisqually prairies, waiting for the Nisqually people to return. I believe I hear them coming!