Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 19, 2003 - Issue 85


pictograph divider


Annual Feast of Aboriginal Food lets Indians Return to their Roots

By Lynda V. Mapes - Seattle Times staff reporter
credits: photo 1: Tribal elder Kathleen Burke, 87, takes a handful of bitterroot at the Colville Indian Reservation root feast on Saturday. Seated with her is another tribal elder, Marguerite McCuen. photo 2: Jake Atkins, a member of the San Poil band of Indians on the Colville reservation, sings and prays in the four directions before picking sunflowers to be eaten at the root feast. - Harley Soltes - The Seattle Times

Tribal elder Kathleen Burke, 87, takes a handful of bitterroot at the Colville Indian Reservation root feast on Saturday. Seated with her is another tribal elder, Marguerite McCuen. KELLER, Colville Indian Reservation - As long as these sage-covered hills have bloomed with balsamroot and salmon have come back to the great Columbia River in the spring, there have been root feasts to celebrate the new harvest year.

For with spring comes the camas root, sweet and starchy, and bitterroot, with a crunch and flavor bright as spring itself - and Indians hungry for a taste of their aboriginal foods, served at a traditional root feast.

And so on Saturday afternoon, scented with spring rain, the longhouse in Keller was full of Indians from all over this reservation and beyond, feasting on camas and bitterroot.

A feast like this, prepared for dozens of guests, is not prepared in a day: For the past week, Jake Atkins of the San Poil band - one of about a dozen on this reservation - gathered roots for the feast with his 12-year-old son, Ben.

Traditionally the first fresh food of the season, these roots mark the new year. For tribal members who keep the old ways, the calendar comprises not just months, but foods, each gathered in its season.

"This is why we are here," Atkins said, holding up a bitterroot, with its forked legs, freshly peeled and creamy white. "This is the beginning of our year. Without our four seasons, we have nothing."

A picture of Burned Arm, the last chief of the San Poil band and Atkins' ancestor, hangs in the longhouse, a reminder to him and others to carry on the tradition of the spring root feast.

Once one of the largest bands on the Colville Indian Reservation, the San Poil is now one of the smallest, and Atkins is one of the last fluent speakers of his native language.

He learned to dig roots from his elders. "We didn't ask if we could go, we knew we were going," Atkins says. "We were the diggers, and we would carry the water. It wasn't like we were going to be gone three or four hours, in a car. We would camp for a couple of weeks. That's how I learned."

According to San Poil legend, bitterroot - called the Root That Has Many Legs in his native language - at one time was whole and long, like a carrot. And the roots were people; the human race was not yet born.

The trees too, were people, and bitterroot lost a bet with them. For their punishment, the roots were made to live in the ground, to feed the new people: us, Atkins says.

The camas, too, gambled with the trees and lost. Asked what it wanted to be, Camas answered, "I want to be round, I don't want to be split, like bitterroot, and I want to be pretty," Atkins says.

Jake Atkins, a member of the San Poil band of Indians on the Colville reservation, sings and prays in the four directions before picking sunflowers to be eaten at the root feast. And so it is, according to San Poil legend, that the camas blooms with a beautiful blue flower in the spring and has nourished Indian people always, with its round, sweet roots.

As the feast approaches, Atkins, who has put on this ceremony for six years, sleeps less and less. He is full of anticipation and a thousand details: getting a truck to pull a travel trailer for guests traveling to the feast from the coast; peeling roots; rounding up cooks and servers.

The night before finds him pacing the longhouse porch: "I wonder if I need to go looking for my bus," Atkins says, fretting about his niece, the fry-bread cook, who is overdue to arrive from Omak in a remodeled school bus.

No bus, no niece, Atkins turns in for the night under a sky full of stars shining on the 1.4 million acres of this reservation, silent but for the wind singing in the Ponderosa pines. "Everything will work out beautiful," he says, veteran of many root feasts.

The morning of the feast dawns soft, with lavender clouds promising spring rain. As cooks put the final touches on the food, Atkins rattles over the cattle guard in his van, heading out to the highway in search of balsamroot flowers to decorate the feast tables.

Finding a promising patch, he works amid the sage, snapping the stems of yellow balsamroot flowers with his fingers and singing a song to the earth, the sky, the water and the wind.

He wears moccasins for gathering, because they are gentle on the earth. He offers a prayer before he takes the flowers, and lifts them to the sky in thanks as he finishes. He leaves the largest blossoms for the birds. "They love sunflowers."

Back at the longhouse, more than an hour before serving time, elders begin to arrive, their eyes fixed on the kitchen. Elsie Picard, 70, says she has been coming to root feasts since people were served sitting on the ground on a canvas cloth.

"This is food as it is supposed to be," Picard says. "It is very healing."

She often gathers balsamroot and other wild foods with salt in her pockets for snacking on the flower stems, wild celery, tiny wild Indian potatoes and roots as she works.

"It's so nice to be an Indian," Picard says. "You can live anywhere and feed yourself."

As she talks, servers pile the tables with food: chinook salmon; bowls of roots; beef stew; roast beef and baked ham; macaroni and potato salads; huckleberries and raspberries; jiggling Jello salads; pitchers of Kool-Aid; and the last-minute gift of steaming hot, fresh fry bread, rushed in the door by Atkins' niece Stella Peters - who arrived in that school bus after all.

Elders Kathleen Burke, 86, and Marguerite McCuen ("I'm old" is how she reported her age) bless the food in their native language, and everyone digs in.

"He makes really good camas," Burke says, sounding a bit surprised, before uttering the highest of compliments: "Just like my mother's tasted."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Colville Indian Reservation, WA Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!