ID - For generations, the camas root was a staple of the Nez Perce
But development is taking its toll, and
tribal member Gwen Carter is committed not only to keeping the root
as part of the Nez Perce diet but also to preserving the remaining
"The problem we have is they are
so difficult to find," said Carter, who talked about the root
at Monday´s annual Weippe Camas Festival commemorating the
role of camas in Nez Perce culture and the arrival of Lewis and
"The Camas Prairie was named because
the plant was so abundant," Carter says, recalling summers
as a little girl spent gathering the ripe roots in the traditional
digging area. "I know my grandmother and aunts went digging
as children, and I learned from my mother."
The plant is in full bloom now, its bright
blue flowers spread out over the wetlands.
A digging stick, usually a three-foot
metal probe with a handle, is used to pry the root from the ground.
The stem is severed from the bulb and placed back in the ground.
The bulbs range in size from a thimble to a golf ball.
They are baked in an outdoor pit for about
three days with driftwood, bear grass, moss and other ingredients
used as fuel and seasoning. But what was once a dietary staple is
now consumed only at pow wows, festivals and other special occasions.
"It´s a taste you have to acquire,"
Carter said. "That´s why Lewis and Clark got sick."
The root today seems smaller than in the
past, she said, probably because there is not enough digging. The
disturbance thins the bulbs so those remaining are bigger. The scarcity
is increasing the value. Carter said a jar of prepared bulbs or
crushed and dried camas might bring as much as $30, although tribal
members have always shied away from selling camas.
Some say traditional camas digging areas
enticed the Nez Perce to travel beyond their 1863 reservation boundaries,
contributing to the start of the 1877 war with the United States.
Like the generations before her, Carter
hopes to pass the tradition and the secrets on to her own children
although she concedes that takes time.
"It´s like anything else,"
she said. "You don´t appreciate the things you´re
taught until you´re older."