Week 3 Highlights: Featuring Team SPAW’s Sashay Camel and Isadore Mitchell

By Isadore Mitchell, Team SPAW:

This week we came up with our research topics.  I chose to make my paper about the historical aspect of common camas.  The camas is a culturally significant plant to so many different tribes.  I look forward to finding information on how other tribes use it.  After the meeting, I contacted the People’s Center to double check what time the annual camas bake begins.  The Salish way is to keep the men away from helping with the bake.  It is said the camas will not turn out.  So I helped by providing firewood and my truck.  We went to several different places around the reservation to collect the supplies for the pit.  The alder branches and other greens provide the flavor for the camas.  Some of the layers are just to protect the bulbs from being burned.  While we waited for the fire to be ready I talked with tribal elders.  They each had contributing pieces of advice that will help with my paper. After the final fire was built, I helped clean up and I asked questions about the baking.

After the camas bulbs are cleaned and placed in a layer inside the canvas bag they are white to translucent.  After they bake for several days the color should be brown to dark-brown.  The moss is also placed in bags separate from the camas.  When they are done the bulbs should be eaten immediately or dried for later use.

A section of my paper will be on the local CSKT ways of using camas, but I will also look at how all the tribes used it.  The beginning will introduce camas and then I will begin talking about the importance of culturally vital plants.  At the bake, it was easy to see why the other plants were just as important as the camas.

I have been reviewing literature about medicinal and food plants of the Rockies.  The areas that people historically gathered at will be looked at.  My summer research will summarize the CSKT gathering sites and also some other important locations.

Next week I will start organizing the papers I have already reviewed and get the good info from them.  I will also be checking the archives at Salish Kootenai College. There has already been research done on the gathering sites and it is stored there.  My paper is my priority now and I have already got a good start on the history of camas use.

Camas growing in moist field in Camas Prairie on the Flathead Reservation. Photo by Isadore Mitchell, Team SPAW.

Camas fruit. Photo by Sashay S. Camel, Team SPAW.

Isadore is looking at camas bulbs in Camas Prairie on the Flathead Reservation. Photo by Sashay S. Camel, Team SPAW.

By Sashay Camel, Team SPAW

This week we began by meeting with our advisor, Rick Everett, to discuss our research papers.  I have my thesis statement started and I worked on refining it to cover my topic.  As you know both Isadore and I have been working on the “Camas Project,” but we will have a different product in the end.  My paper will be on the biology of the camas plant.  I consider myself an avid lover of botany and doing this research is like second nature to me.  The best part about learning about native and non-native plants is I can help teach other people.  This is a tool that every natural resource manager needs.  I want to describe camas beginning with the very first observations and fill in the research that is added each year.  There are plenty of resources available at Salish Kootenai College.

The research paper will go over the habitat requirements optimal for camas.  I have many questions about soil moisture and plant associations because we found camas in several differing sites.  We found it at many different elevations, displaying many different colors and heights.  I hope to find more answers in the background research so that I can link what data we collected to my results.  As of right now, we are just compiling the resources and looking at peer reviewed camas related work.  That is what I did at the start of this week, but this week is also the start of the annual CSKT People’s Center Camas Bake.

The collection of the camas bulbs happened the previous week.  They chose to dig camas bulbs in the Camas Prairie area, on tribally leased land.  The participants were the Montana Youth Conservation Corps.  When we spoke with Lucy Vanderburg the week before we told her we would bring some camas as well.

On Monday the kids went into the mountains to collect the “greens” needed for layering in the camas pit.  We were unable to help on that day, but Tuesday morning we went to the Saint Ignatius Culture Committee Longhouse to help out.  Before that, we drove to a place called Magpie Creek to collect the sweat rocks needed for the pit. They didn’t collect enough supplies so we volunteered to go get more.  We drove back into the mountains and collected more red alder and we also found some fern fronds. Once we got back to the longhouse the pit was dug and the fire was started at the bottom.  The tradition is that only women can help with the bake.  The rocks go in the fire and it burns until the wood is gone.  Then come the layers of alder wood, skunk-cabbage leaves, alder leaves, fern fronds, camas in canvas bags, black tree moss in bags, and repeat.  Then the whole thing is covered with bark and more soil.  A final fire is built on top of the pit.  Throughout the whole gathering we talked with many different tribal elders and I learned so much about the details that go into making it happen.

Someone was assigned to keeping a fire, twice a day, from Tuesday afternoon until Friday morning, which is when the last fire was built.  Then the layers come out and the camas is removed.  The pit is filled back in.  The camas is done when the bulbs turn a dark-brown to almost black color.  They taste sweet and bland like a yam.

Next week will be spent beginning the writing of the research paper.  I have plenty of good reading behind me and in front of me.

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