Tag Archives: camas

Wapato, Camas, Tyee

4,000 year old Wapato tubers from archaeological site in Katzie territory.

The Tyee has a nice feature on invigoration of traditional use of Wapato (“Indian Potato”) and Camas.  I visited an open house at an archaeological site in Katzie territory a year or two ago and so here’s a couple of pictures of 4,000 year old Wapato tubers and a digging stick of presumably the same age which would have been used to help cultivate the wet beds.  At that site (almost completely destroyed by the new Golden Ears suburban commuter bridge), there were signs of the creation of enhanced “water gardens” for Wapato, and not just the harvesting of what occurs naturally.  Similarly, camas productivity was greatly enhanced by selective weeding and by the practice of tilling and selective bulb harvesting as well as deliberate burning to manage the camas fields.  All in all, exploitation of many plant foods (and shellfish) formed a practice intermediate between farming and gathering, and thereby are a powerful line of evidence for traditional use of large areas of SW British Columbia.  The Tyee article seems to me to be clear, accurate and informative.  I recommend it.

Tip of a wooden digging stick, ca. 4000 years old, Katzie territory. Two others of the dozens found can be seen in the background.

Captain Vancouver and Camas

Saranne, or lily, harvesting on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May 1792.

I am sure it is well known to local ethnobotanists, but I don’t recall seeing the above account of plant cultivation reference before.  It is from page 123 of Captain Vancouver’s “Voyage of Discovery …. ” (1801 edition, which you can browse online here).

I didn’t figure out the exact locale of this camp but it is probably very close to Port Discovery, near Port Townsend at the north end of Puget Sound.  The camp is carefully noted as a plant-harvesting camp and also a place where shellfish were being processed. The houses are mere lean-tos.  It is interesting to see that the considerable number of “eighty or a hundred” women, men and children were engaged in turning over the earth here, “like swine” (!).  It gives a vivid impression of a well-orchestrated, community-level harvesting event.  Vancouver comments favourably on the product, a sort of paste or flour.

Vancouver refers to one plant as a species of wild onion, while the other two plants being cultivated are termed as resembling “saranne”.  That being a new term to me, I turned to the OED only to find it not listed, which is quite surprising.  Googling turned up some interesting historical references though, in which it is clearly a term used for members of the Lily family (camas is also a member of this family).  For example, see this 1792 clip from Pennant’s Arctic Zoology Volume 3, on the use of Saranne, or Lilium kamchatschense, by the inhabitants of (yes) Kamchatka (let your eyes skim, gentle reader, over the foregoing section on the use and abuse of hallucinogenic mushrooms). Perhaps this term, Saranne, was in use around the North Pacific at that time but it strikes me as odd it did not find its way into the OED.

Anyway, a few pages down from p. 123 you can also find a nice description of the Coast Salish wool dog, which is described as being much like a Pomeranian.

Camas flowers and bulbs. Source: Brenda Beckwith Ph.D. thesis, 2004. http://hdl.handle.net/1828/632

Camas and Cairns

Lekwungen women harvesting camas bulbs on Beacon Hill. Illustration by Victoria graphic artist Gordon Friesen.

Lekwungen women harvesting camas bulbs on Beacon Hill. Illustration by Victoria graphic artist Gordon Friesen. (Edit: a bunch of their pictures are down, even on their site. Click to go to story)

Two small articles look at the archaeology of Beacon Hill Park in central Victoria.   Camas country includes charming illustrations and a knowledgeable write-up by Janis Ringuette, who also summarizes the remarkable story of how Beacon Hill Park workers consolidated a series of burial cairns (in the 1980s, no less), in order to facilitate mowing.  As she aptly notes:

Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Geoff Young promised an interpretative sign. He said the Committee had been planning a marker well before the stones were “accidently disturbed.” He agreed a sign was needed because “They just look like ordinary rocks on the surface. It’s not a spectacular site. You have to know them.” Parks Director Al Smith said, “It’s going to be one of the more interesting features of the park, especially when we get the marker in place. We should have something showing the Indians were the original owners of the land.”

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