The Coast Salish significance of the little-known blue camas plant

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      The following excerpt is adapted with permission from the book “The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past” by Taras Grescoe (Greystone Books, September, 2023). Available wherever books are sold.

      By Taras Grescoe

      Of all the plant foods consumed by the peoples of the Northwest Coast, none was more important than the tasty bulbs of the flowering plant known as blue camas. Among the Coast Salish of Vancouver Island, it was the principal source of carbohydrates in a fat- and protein-heavy diet. Ethnobotanists estimate a single family might have gathered 10 thousand bulbs in a season, and as many as 10 million were harvested on the island every year.

      Camas, as I was about to discover, never went away. It still flowers, turning meadows into pools of alpine azure every spring, and its bulbs swell in the shade of oak trees on islands all through the Salish Sea. Like a lot of secrets buried underground—secrets not at all secret to the Coast Salish—it’s waiting for the right time to return to the light.

      “Camas was our potato,” said Earl Claxton Jr. “That’s what we ate, camas and salmon. Until the hwunitum came, anyway. They introduced potatoes to us, and potatoes were so similar to the way we cultivated our camas, we easily switched over. Now when we talk about eating salmon, it’s always with potatoes. That’s our good meal to have. A lot of our people don’t even know that we used to eat camas.”

      Claxton had met me outside his house on the Tsawout First Nation on the Saanich Peninsula, north of Victoria, with a lyrically understated Senćoten language greeting: “Íy cens tácel.” (“It is good that you’ve arrived.”) He invited me to follow him to the grounds of the tribal school, which includes an elementary school, an adult education center, and a language survival school; he wanted to show me the garden where the Nation was growing traditional plants.

      In a small greenhouse, Claxton introduced me to potted plants that had long been valued by his community. There was devil’s club, Oplopanax horridus, whose wicked-looking spines caused long- lasting burns but whose bark could be used to make black face paint for mask dancers. There was thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, whose crunchy shoots could be dipped in sugar and enjoyed as an early spring treat. There was Indian consumption plant, Lomatium nudi- caule, whose seeds people would burn on the stovetop to alleviate tuberculosis symptoms. Outside the greenhouse, he showed me a Garry oak, little more than five feet tall, beneath which camas plants were growing in a rectangular plot. The camas had suffered in the recent heat wave, and the seedpods on its brittle stalks were a papery yellow. The goal, Claxton said, was to grow enough to hold a pit cook for the students at the elementary school. But they weren’t there yet.

      We sat down in plastic chairs, and Claxton told me about himself in measured tones. “Claxton,” he explained, was an anglicized version of The-THANK-ton. (He could pronounce the original name, but wasn’t sure how it would have been spelled.) His great-great-grandfather, a medicine man, had refused to adopt one of the English surnames, like Smith, Williams, or Henry, now common among the Tsawout. Claxton’s grandmother Elsie taught him about cooking and traditional plants. Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner was a frequent visitor to Elsie’s kitchen, where she helped fillet salmon while learning about how the Claxton family used edible plants. Much of the food, Claxton said, was no longer eaten in his community; they’d set up this garden in an attempt to keep the old practices alive.

      “We used to cook camas in pit cooks, and this converted the starches to good sugars, ones that didn’t raise the sugar levels in our system. Because our people ate salmon and camas, they regularly lived to be over one hundred.” Claxton was worried about his own health. “I’m prediabetic. All the potatoes and sugar in my diet. I have to watch myself closely.”

      The question of potatoes is a fraught one in Coast Salish culture. The previous day, I’d had lunch at one of the only Indigenous-run kitchens on Vancouver Island. Songhees Seafood & Steam is a food truck on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen Nation, also known as the Songhees. I ordered a thick fillet of wild sockeye salmon, served with a garlic-rich aioli, which I ate at a picnic table in a parking lot next to a cannabis dispensary. The salmon was served on a bannock bun. Another menu option was the Bison Indian Taco, a slice of bannock slopped with bison-meat chili, served with a side of fries.

      Food historians believe that Spanish, and possibly Russian, explorers brought potatoes to the Northwest Coast from their centere of origin in the Andes in the late eighteenth century. The first potatoes reached Mi’wer’la (the Kwak’wala name for Vancouver Island) by way of Fort Langley, on the mainland, where they had been cultivated since at least 1842. Potatoes were enthusiastically adopted by the Coast Salish, and for good reason. With the exception of calcium and vitamins A and D, they provide all the nutrients required to sustain life; eaten fresh, they’re a rich source of vitamin C. A single acre planted with potatoes can provide 10 people with nearly all their energy and protein needs for a year. Unlike camas, which grew in the meadows that the colonists had taken over, potatoes could be grown anywhere. They became a staple of Indigenous diets, while camas came to be considered a rare delicacy.

      Claxton, a resident elder in the school system who gives talks to the children of settlers about Coast Salish creation stories, spoke calmly about colonialism. But frustration bubbled up as he described all that has been lost. Pointing up the road from which we came, he said, “That used to be cedar forest there. Where we got the wood for our canoes and longhouses. A settler family came in, and cut down the cedar trees. The elders said, ‘They didn’t even use the wood. They burnt it.’

      “My dad said there used to be so much salmon, you could find them spawning in every stream, every creek.” Claxton pointed out a roadside culvert. “Even there, salmon used to spawn in the ditches. Now the sports fishery takes more salmon than all the other users combined.”

      Claxton was looking forward to the day when there would be enough camas for a proper pit cook. But he figured that was still a year or two off; he promised to send me an invitation when the big day came. He confessed that he had never tasted camas himself. He was glad that, like the Senćoten language and the Tsawout Nation itself, the bulbs had survived to the present day.

      “I think the hwunitum were really hoping we would have disappeared by now,” Claxton mused as I drove him back to his house. He was lost in thought, and seemed to have forgotten that he was talking to a settler—which was all right with me. “That’s probably why the treaties were done in the first place. They didn’t expect us to be around, so they would never have to live up to their word.

      “My grandmother used to call them ‘squati hwunitum.’ Crazy white people. They wanted it all. They still do. Their greed is insatiable.”