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Camas: The Roots of Life, Story, & Memory in the Land

Known by a few names, Camas (quamash, or more specifically ḰȽO,EL [pron. Kwtla-el]) is a beautiful flowering member of the lily family that brightens many spots along what is now called southern Vancouver Island every spring. With beautiful purples and clear whites, the camas tells us that spring has arrived and that summer is on its way. For many of us who are settlers here, descended from a vast number of peoples who came to these unceded and unsurrendered Coast Salish territories, the camas that blooms beneath the Garry Oaks of the various parks is a lovely spring sight that transforms the pastures of several parks from the rolling, green of winter in a very specific way that is tied to living on these territories. We may or may not know it, though the numbers of these flowers indicate that camas was a major staple food for the L’kwungen and WSÁNEĆ peoples before colonization. There is much more that the camas is trying to tell us newcomers with their late-spring bloom.

Camas grows throughout the Willamette Valley in Oregon (Kramer 2000), as far north as places like Prince George, and has been found archaeologically as far east as Blackfoot territory where it was imported and cultivated (Johnston 1970). Camas was traded, it was a source of wealth to the people in whose territories it grew naturally, central to the diets of pre-colonization peoples in the area (Turner & Kuhnlein 1983). It was grown (and still grows) in such quantity in places like Ku-sing-ay-las (a name for the area that is known as Victoria now) that it shaped the way the Coast Salish connect and communicated with the lands (Suttles 2005), influenced how communities were established and where camps and villages were built. In many ways, camas was/is as culturally important as the salmon, though camas  didn’t move so rapidly or expansively on their own. A starch that travelled well, camas brought people together all over the western coast of Turtle Island (one way of referring to the still existing Indigenous “North America;” based on the Haudenosaunee oral history of Sky Woman, this term was taken up during the 1970’s as an anti-colonial term for the continent), connecting the Coast Salish peoples in ways not always assumed in our colonial society. It is quite possible that Cowichan camas was even traded for the volcanic glass tools (that originated in eastern Oregon), or the jade adze (that came from near Prince George) that were both found at the Ye’yumnuts Ancestral Site in the Cowichan valley (Commemorating Ye’yumnuts).

It’s no secret that the L’kwungen and WSÁNEĆ both used fire to work with the ecosystems that sustained and sustain them (Turner 1999). If you’ve never wondered about the Garry Oak meadows that dot the parks and rare fields around what has become greater Victoria, these are the remains of a managed ecosystem that stretches over most of L’kwungen and WSÁNEĆ territories (and, by all reports, Cowichan and Sci’anew territories as well). It also explains why maintaining the remaining Garry Oak ecosystems is such a challenge for conservation groups like HAT, as early colonial governments outlawed the use of fire. The contemporary “fear” of fire management (or swidden agriculture) among settler populations is an outcome of those racially motivated laws (Turner 1999, especially page 189). From Meeacan (Beacon Hill Park) to “Uplands Park,” the camas fields stretched between villages, providing enough sustenance for many more people than actually lived here, leading to trade with other nations all around the Pacific Northwest.

What we see when we settlers stand at the top of the Beacon Hill in Meeacan and witness the camas, or wander through the camas fields in Uplands Park in May is more than the randomness of the “natural” world, these are the footprints of a people displaced by colonization. The camas are a reminder that humans can live in relationship to the ecosystems that sustain us in a way that increases biodiversity even while it provides more food than a community can eat (Nigh & Diemont 2013). The purple petals of the edible camas are the echoes of that relationship, and as you and your families enjoy a break from isolation in the warm spring air, try seeing the camas as a living reminder of what the ecosystems are trying to teach us; that every inch of this territory knew human hands, human feet, human songs, human laughter. A reminder that those humans are still here, and that the “unspoiled wilderness” that some of us seek probably never existed after all.

If you'd like to spend more time thinking about camas and your relationship to it, why not participate in HAT's "In Your Own Style Challenge"? Click the link (<---) or scroll down to download a camas colouring page!

Sources

Commemorating Ye’yumnuts (2019). “Ye’yumnuts Timeline.” https://sites.google.com/view/commemorating-yeyumnuts/curriculum/context-yeyumnuts-in-space-time/timeline, accessed 20 April 2020.

Johnston, Alex (1970). “Blackfoot Indian Utilization of the Flora of the Northwest Great Plains.” Economic Botany 24: 301-324.

Kramer, Stephanie (2000). “Camas Bulbs, The Kalapuya, and Gender: Exploring Evidence of Plant Food Intensification in the Willamette Valley of Oregon” (unpublished master’s thesis). University of Oregon, Eugene. Available through the University of Oregon, https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/7078/Kramer_Stephenie.pdf?seq accessed 20 April 2020.

Nigh, R., and S. A. Diemont (2013). “The Maya Milpa: Fire and the Legacy of Living Soil.” Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 11: e45–e54. 

Suttles, Wayne (2005) “Coast Salish Resource Management: Incipient Agriculture?” In Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America, edited by Douglas Deur & Nancy J. Tuner. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 181-193.

Turner, Nancy J. & HV Kuhnlein (1983) “Camas (Camassia spp.) and riceroot (Fritillaria spp.): Two liliaceous “root” foods of the Northwest Coast Indians.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 13:4: 199-219.

Turner, Nancy J. (1999). “’Time to burn’: Traditional Use of Fire to Enhance Resource Production by Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia.” In Indians, fire and the land in the Pacific Northwest, edited by R. Boyd. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press: 185-218.

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