Coast Salish Camas Cultivation

  • By Russel Barsh and Madrona Murphy
  • Posted 4/26/2016
  • Essay 11220
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Camas (Camassia spp) bulbs were harvested and baked as a sweet, fructose-rich food by Native Americans throughout the Great Basin and the Pacific Northwest. Camas meadows or "prairies" were often burned periodically and carefully tended to maintain productivity. Moreover, in the Salish Sea, including the inland salt waterways of what became the state of Washington, there is historical and ethnographic evidence that camas was grown in marked, cultivated fields that were meticulously hoed, weeded, and periodically replenished with bulbs collected from wild camas populations. Gardens were privately owned and processed camas was an important item of trade. These camas gardens are just one indication (others include additional cultivated plants and herds of dogs raised for their wool) of the agricultural aspect of pre-Contact Coast Salish societies, which has often been overlooked. Camas cultivation paved the way for Coast Salish peoples' rapid adoption of potato cultivation by the 1820s if not earlier, and potatoes largely supplanted camas as a dietary staple by the 1860s.

"Extensive Verdant Lawns"

Climbing a steep ridge overlooking Sequim Bay on the northeastern Olympic Peninsula in early May 1792, Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798), commanding the British expedition to the North Pacific, enjoyed the view of "an extensive lawn covered with luxuriant grass and diversified with an abundance of flowers" (Vancouver, 226). As he continued his exploration of the Quimper Peninsula and Hood Canal, Vancouver was surprised that the forests were broken by "extensive spaces that wore the appearance of having been cleared by art," reminiscent of the countryside "in Old England" (Vancouver, 227). Near Port Orchard, the British sailors discovered a "beautiful meadow covered with luxuriant herbage" at the edge of which was a collection of temporary cattail-mat shelters. The people "were busily engaged ..., rooting up this beautiful verdant meadow in quest of a species of wild onion, and two other roots, which in appearance and taste greatly resemble the saranine, particularly the largest; the size of the smallest did not much exceed a large pea: this Mr. Menzies considered to be a new genus" (Vancouver, 259-262).

Vancouver was thinking of Sarana-heen, a native lily bulb of Siberia dried, fried, and eaten widely by the indigenous peoples there, now identified as Lilium medeoloides, related closely to the Lilium columbianum of the Salish Sea. But "the larger bulb," a paste of which Vancouver declared to be "very palatable," was undoubtedly camas (Camassia leichtlinii or Camassia quamash), while the "smallest" was a Brodiea, probably Brodiaea coronaria, which grows with camas and flowers after meadows have been burned (Vancouver, 262). A few days later, on Whidbey Island, the British seamen were feasted with "roasted roots" and dried fish at a village surrounded by "extensive verdant lawns" (Vancouver, 284) -- most likely well-tended camas fields.

American explorers Lewis and Clark encountered camas in September 1805, not on the sea coast but at Wieppe Prairie in present-day Idaho, where the Nez Perces feasted Clark and his party with dried salmon and "root bread which they call Comass" (Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis ..., 288-290). Unfortunately the Americans were stricken with cramps and nausea, probably from eating some of the camas roots raw without the lengthy baking required to convert their indigestible inulin into pleasantly sweet fructose. Their widely referenced report of this incident spoiled Euro-Americans' interest in eating camas for another century.

Few later explorers or settlers in the Salish Sea took much notice of camas roots, although passing references abound in early records. On Sunday, December 21, 1829, for example, the Hudson's Bay Company factor at Fort Langley on the Fraser River in British Columbia reported a large party of Cowichans (a Hul'qumi'num speaking group of villages in the Cowichan Valley): "their canoes are loaded with Kamas which I believe is procured in abundance on [Vancouver] Island -- with it and the Salmon they left in Cache last fall they propose living well for the Winter" (Fort Langley Journals, p. 90).

A quarter-century later, as British and American settlers began streaming into the Salish Sea, and British and American authorities struggled to agree on a water boundary, the self-proclaimed "first Colonist" on Vancouver Island, Walter C. Grant (1822-1861), wrote:

"The open prairie-ground, as well as the patches of soil which are met with in the clefts of the hills, are principally covered with the camass, a small esculent root about the size of an onion, with a light-blue flower, the Camassia esculenta of botanists. The camass constitutes a favourite article of food with the savages, and they lay up large quantities of it for winter consumption, burying it in pits in the ground in the same way as they keep potatoes. This root has strong astringent qualities; the savages prepare it for food by digging large holes in the ground, throwing in hot stones, on top of the stones placing quantities of camass, and covering the whole up with sticks and mats until the root is sufficiently baked. The camass digging is a great season of "reunion" for the women of various tribes, and answers with them to our hay-making or harvest home" (Grant, 289).

Camas Garden Plots

When William Warren and C. B. R. Kennerly (ca. 1830-1861) of the U.S. Boundary Commission visited Stuart Island in the San Juan archipelago on February 8, 1859, they found the hillsides "had been dug up a great deal by Indians gathering Kamass roots," and realized that camas beds on Stuart and San Juan islands had been carefully marked out by "lines of cobble stones" by the inhabitants of a nearby village (Warren, 118-20). "On these grassy summits & slopes, grow in quantities a kind of Kamas," Kennerly wrote in his notebook, "which the Indians gather for food" (Islands of the Haro Archipelago, p. 75).

Wayne Suttles (1918-2005) interviewed Straits Salish elders in the 1950s who described how their people maintained camas plots that they harvested in the spring, then covered with seaweed and burned off in the fall. "There was no grass then" in their gardens, they told Suttles, "because the patches were cared for," i.e. weeded ("Coast Salish Resource Management," 181). Plots were sometimes marked with cobblestones and could be owned by men or by women. Soil surveys conducted at Iceberg Point on Lopez Island by the authors of this essay suggest that a single garden plot was roughly a sixteenth of an acre, which is consistent with at least one ethnographic source cited by Suttles.

As pioneering ethnographer and linguist George Gibbs (1815-1873) recognized, breaking up the soil by digging, hoeing, or plowing increases the size of camas bulbs. A number of ethnologists in the early to mid twentieth century, including Sally Snyder, Marian Smith, and June Collins, recorded elders' stories of Coast Salish people hoeing, weeding, and transplanting camas, and at least some Straits Salish families were growing camas exactly this way when Brenda Beckwith researched her 2005 dissertation. Suttles argued that the organization of camas-plot ownership and use, as well as Coast Salish peoples' rapid acquisition and cultivation of potatoes, are consistent with pre-Contact agriculture.

Camas and the Potato

Recent genetic research on the potato varieties grown by Native peoples of the Salish Sea indicates that they acquired this plant through indirect trade with California or Mexico in the eighteenth century, rather than from American or British fur traders in the early nineteenth century -- that is, prior to fur traders' establishment of European gardens from which indigenous Northwest peoples could have learned agriculture. Suttles observed that there were distinctively Coast Salish names for at least nine potato varieties. The Hudson's Bay Company purchased barrels of potatoes from Coast Salish villages as early as the 1820s, and in 1841 sailors of the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) commented favorably on the "fine patches of potatoes fenced in & well cultivated" around Indian villages (Charles Wilkes ..., 133).

According to "first Colonist" Walter Grant, writing in 1857, "the potato is almost universally cultivated by all the savage tribes on the south of Vancouver Island, as well as on the opposite mainland. They have had this valuable root for a long time among them" (Grant, 290). He noted that the potato was gradually displacing camas as a staple, with camas more of a "delicacy." A clue can be found in the Lushootseed (Central Sound) language, in which the term for camas is č'ábid from č'aÊ” ("to dig"), whereas the term for potato is sqwúc from qa ("many"). Potatoes divide more quickly and produce more edible mass per plant per year.

Another line of evidence for pre-Contact cultivation on a widespread scale is fire. A number of studies of changing Salish Sea landscapes confirm that Coast Salish people burned off underbrush to promote deer browse, and burned camas plots to eliminate grasses and encroaching shrubs. Burns were relatively small, light, and flashy. Fire-free intervals in landscapes where camas was grown or harvested, determined from fire scars in tree-ring records, were less than 10 years and the areas burned rarely more than an acre or two. This pattern stands in stark contrast to the extensive annual burning of prairies by hunting and gathering peoples in arid regions of the West.

No less an authority on plant breeding for gardeners than Luther Burbank (1849-1926) experimented with camas as an "edible lawn" combining beauty with sustainable functionality. He summarized his experiments in an essay titled "The Camassia -- Will It Supplant the Potato?" After extolling the variety of flower colors he was able to produce from wild Camassia species, Burbank observed:

"But it will be prized also for its bulb, which, in the developed and selected hybrids, is assuming satisfactory proportions, as already pointed out, and which has undoubted food value, surpassing the potato even, both as to nutriment and flavor. And of course the work of development in this direction is only at its beginning. The results already attained justify the expectation that the bulbs of the developed camassias will be of really notable size, constituting a garden vegetable of very exceptional food value" (Luther Burbank ..., 249).

The nonprofit organization Kwiaht revived Burbank's experiments in 2014, with the support of the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant program and the Swinomish Tribal Community, using an experimental camas garden on Lopez Island. As Burbank observed, camas can be selected to divide like garlic, which increases its annual yield fivefold or more, but this trait disappears in the absence of selection. It is unlikely that Coast Salish people achieved the large harvests observed by early explorers unless they were selecting strains that divide and produce more underground edible biomass than their wild relatives.

Indigenous Agriculture of the Salish Sea

It remains to consider how it is possible that American anthropologists long failed to recognize the Salish Sea as a distinct indigenous agro-ecological system similar to Andean tuber agriculture, Polynesian taro-yam agriculture, and Mexican-Mississippian maize-beans agriculture. Franz Boas (1858-1942) lumped the agricultural Salish Sea together with the hunting-gathering peoples of the North Pacific Coast, asserting that "The staple food of the[se] Indians [was] furnished by the sea" and consisted "almost entirely" of salmon and other fish (Boas, 2). A generation later, Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) asserted that the Northwest represented "a totally non-planting and non-breeding culture -- perhaps the most elaborate such culture in the world" (Cultural and Natural Areas, 213). Indeed, Kroeber argued that the dense human population of the coastal Northwest was an anomaly for a non-agricultural civilization, not considering that the Salish Sea might have been agricultural.

More recently, however, Wayne Suttles compiled ethnographic evidence that Coast Salish people managed and harvested a number of other edible roots, possibly in the same gardens with camas, among them Columbia lilies (Lilium columbianum), Chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis), Brodiaea coronaria, and Indian carrot (Perideridia gairdnerii), as well as Bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) and Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii) for starch and for salad, respectively. To complete the agricultural picture, there is even stronger evidence for Coast Salish people keeping livestock.

The earliest European visitors noted that the Coast Salish were clothed "principally in a woolen garment of their own manufacture, extremely well wrought" (Vancouver, 230). "The dogs belonging to this tribe of Indians were numerous, and much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger. They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England; and so compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation" (Vancouver, 266). The Spanish explorer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1744-1794) was "offered new blankets, which we afterwards concluded were of dog's hair, partly because when the woven hair was compared with that of those animals no difference was found and partly from the great number of dogs they keep in their villages, most of which were shorn. These animals are of moderate size, resembling those of English breed, very woolly, and usually white" (Spanish Explorations, 256). So too George Sinclair with the Wilkes expedition noted in his journal for June 10, 1841, "They have no domestic animal except the dog, which are quite numerous" and provided a source of yarn for spinning (Charles Wilkes ..., 181).

Recently published evidence of extensive systems of pre-Contact rock jetties and "clam gardens" (mariculture) in the Salish Sea reinforces the re-emerging recognition of Coast Salish peoples as agricultural to much the same extent as, for instance, pre-industrial villages on the west coast of England, Scotland, or Denmark.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum. 


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