Native tribes bring prairie lands back to the Pacific Northwest

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The state of Washington looks like a fist. If you hold your thumb alongside your fingers tight, it becomes the Olympic Peninsula, with the space in between forming Puget Sound. Seattle is perhaps an inch below the knuckle of your index finger. At the tip of your thumb you will find a place called Sequim.

The city is located between the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains, with stunning views of both. It is a picturesque little place, where many roads bear the names of families who still live there. Notably, Sequim proudly declares itself the Lavender Capital of North America. The number of people there almost quadruples every July when 30,000 visitors from all over the world flock to the annual Lavender Festival, where the streets are filled with purple ice creams, lattes, candles, soaps and all kinds of lavender products. bakery. But Sequim’s history of fragrant botany dates back only to the 1990s, when city leaders sought to preserve the town’s agricultural character by cultivating an agritourism industry. Long before that, the landscape was carpeted for millennia by another flower: the camas.

ƛ̕əw’cən Mackenzie Grinnell, a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, remembers stories from her grandmother – who heard them herself when she was young – about standing on a hill and watching a vast expanse of blue and purple flowers stretching to the Salish Sea a mile away.

“In May, it would be hard to tell where the camas stopped and where the water started,” Grinnell tells me.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the late 1700s, prairie habitat covered some 180,000 acres of western Washington. It was maintained by indigenous communities like the S’Klallam (a Salish word meaning “strong people”), whose lands stretched from forested mountains to waters rich in clams and salmon. Blue camas, a common grassland flower, grows from a starchy bulb that was once a staple carbohydrate in the diet of the S’Klallam people and other nearby tribes.

Today, less than 3% of native grassland remains. The open grasslands that sustained Indigenous communities for millennia were, in the eyes of settlers, lands to be turned into farms, pastures and towns. Development has relegated grasslands to fragmented pockets, endangering native plants like golden paintbrush, pollinators like Taylor’s checkered butterfly, and some species of birds and mammals. Camas has virtually disappeared as a food source.

Now that is starting to change.

Grinnell is the coordinator of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe Traditional Foods and Culture Program which is trying to reestablish camas and other grassland plants on the Olympic Peninsula and reintroduce them into local diets. The Jamestown Tribe is not alone in such efforts. Across the country and around the world, Indigenous communities are working to restore traditional diets and cultural practices by restoring the ecosystems that support them. This type of holistic approach offers a host of ecological benefits in addition to the food security and cultural significance that indigenous cultures can provide. Yet two centuries of destruction and disruption cannot be reversed overnight. Grinnell and other leaders see this essential work as an investment in the future.

“Our traditional foods take decades to grow, and harvesting them takes a lot more effort than a garden or a farm,” says Grinnell. He and other members of the tribe are now starting work so that they can one day bring back a traditional camas festival. “We have a lot of responsibility for our food and making sure it doesn’t go missing,” he says.

A blooming field of camas flowers on Whidbey Island. (Photo credit: Adam Martin)

The S’Klallam people have lived on the Olympic Peninsula for over 10,000 years. Today, they are divided into three federally recognized tribes: the Lower Elwha Klallam, the Port Gamble S’Klallam and the Jamestown S’Klallam (known in Sequim simply as “the tribe” and the second largest large employer in the county).

Unlike other S’Klallam groups, the Jamestown Tribe has no reserves. After the signing of the Point No Point Treaty in 1855, settlers began encroaching on what the treaty describes as the “habitual and customary lands” of the S’Klallam, Chimakum and Skokomish peoples. About 20 years later, a group of displaced families realized that staying in their homeland would require adopting the European approach to land ownership. Led by tribal citizen Lord James Balch, they pooled $500 in gold and purchased 210 acres along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It became Jamestown Village, now part of Sequim.

Lisa Barrell, a tribal elder who lives on one of the original Jamestown Beach properties, grew up gardening, picking and preparing food with her mother. “According to the world, she was the best cook ever,” Barrell laughs. She absorbed much of her mother’s ancestral foods, and later in life she sought the knowledge of elders from other tribes. She began to organize dinners, skill sharing and other cultural activities for the Jamestown Tribe.

Mackenzie Grinnell holds a camas bulb at the Sequim Meadow site.  (Photo credit: Miranda Wilson)

Mackenzie Grinnell holds a camas bulb at the Sequim Meadow site. (Photo credit: Miranda Wilson)

In 2017, the tribe surveyed its approximately 500 citizens to determine their needs and priorities. Barrell was pleased to see that most wanted to learn more about their ancestral foods and cultural practices. The tribe decided to apply for a grant to start a country food program and asked him to lead it. “To do what you have always done for a work— so cool,” she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the program a four-year grant in 2018 (it was renewed for five more in 2022), to improve the health and well-being of tribal members by increasing access to nutritious and culturally relevant foods, such as camas. .

The Camas factory

Blue or common camas—not to be confused with “death camas,” a plant similar to cream-colored flowers—stand about knee-high. Its small bulbs range from the size of a clove of garlic to an entire head. Raw, a blue camas bulb is almost bone-white and has the texture of a water chestnut. Slow roasting brings out a caramel color and a sweet flavor that some have compared to a baked pear.

The bulbs contain inulin, a prebiotic fiber that nourishes the intestinal flora. Eat it raw or cook it too quickly and it will give you serious gas. This is why camas are traditionally slow-cooked for one to three days in an earthen oven – a pit lined with red-hot stones – to let the inulin break down.

For Grinnell, health is one of the reasons for the urgency behind grassland plant restoration. The inulin in camas can improve digestive health and control diabetes. “We didn’t have diabetes until the 1940s,” he says. “It didn’t exist in indigenous communities until we started getting staple foods. Then we had diabetes, we had heart disease, and now we’re at the top of those numbers. He believes restoring an ancestral diet will help combat these ailments.

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