line of cars can be seen from the two-lane highway cutting through
Camas Prairie, a few miles from the schoolhouse. Cars, vans and
yellow school buses litter the dusty field where the people are
standing, preparing to dig bitterroot, the first edible plant food
traditionally harvested by the natives of the area.
crowd mills patiently while members of the Culture Committee consult
with some of the elders. Students of every age and size are there
to be part of the day, from the small students of Nkwusm (a Salish-language
immersion school in Arlee) to the college students in attendance.
Tony Incashola, the director of the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture
Committee, asks for quiet, announcing the beginning of the bitterroot
long time ago, our people were starving, and there was nothing to
eat," he said. "An old woman went out into the prairie
and was praying and crying to the Creator because the people were
hungry. As her tears fell to the ground, the Creator gave us bitterroot
as a promise that he would provide, and that the tribe wouldn't
ever go hungry again. The root of the plant is white from the woman's
hair, and the bitter taste comes from her tears. Since then, each
spring, our people have waited until the elders said the root was
ready to harvest, and gone out to give thanks, and collect this
root, vital to our survival."
spoke to the group about the importance of the bitterroot to our
Tribes, and as a people. Tribal people have had to depend on the
harvest of this, and many other traditional foods to survive. We
are gathered in thanksgiving for the bitterroot, and to pray not
just for today, but for the entire upcoming year. Tony stressed
the importance of carrying on the tradition of gathering the root,
and said that it must be done for the Tribes to survive the year.
The bitterroot is not just a food, but is the culture of our Tribes.
year, there is one person who is selelected to dig the first bitterroot
plant. Tony said to pray for the person, that he or she will carry
on the tradition, and that one day they will be leading the dig.
Being selected as the first person to dig is an honor, and a carries
the responsibility of continuing the tradition.
Pierre, John Stanislaw and Alec Quequesah were called on to say
a few words, and Tony led the group in prayer. The person selected
to dig the first plant was Roian Matt, the daughter of Camille and
the late MaryEllen Lafromboise Matt. Roian cautiously dug the first
root, and brought it to Josephine Quequesah for cleaning. Josephine
carried on the responsibility of cleaning the first piece, which
her mother, Agnes Pokerjim Paul, had done for years prior to her
passing on earlier this year.
asked about how she felt being the person selected to dig the first
bitterroot, Roian said that she felt honored because the elders
explained that it is a big responsibility to perpetuate our cultural
values and traditions. Roian brought her two boys, Dakota, 9, and
Payton, 4, with her for the day, and feels that having them with
her made the event even more special for her because they got to
share in the passage of culture.
group was instructed to go and work hard, and bring back the bitterroot
for cleaning because the sooner it was to all being cleaned, the
sooner Tony was going to get to eat. Families, groups and individuals
set out with their own versions of "diggers" ranging from
screwdrivers, to garden tools, to homemade tools. They cover the
side of the hill, a rainbow of people across the Camas Prarie field.
Filling plastic and paper bags, and the occassional handmade mophead
basket, the people work their way across the areas where bitterroot
grows in well-hidden patches. Find one, and look closely before
moving on, there are likely to be several nearby.
containers of bitterroot are carried back to the cleaners, two large
circles of men and women alike, laughing and visiting as they clean
the sacred root. These modern versions of traditional gatherings
are still a time of socializing, visiting and catching up with friends
from near and far.
and buses are then loaded with riders, students eat their sack lunches,
while others make plans to stop at the river to wash the earth off
their hands where our ancestors may have stopped to clean the same
dirt from their fingertips.
caravan of cars returns to the Longhouse, where the bitteroot is
tradtionally prepared, boiled in broth. Families and friends sit
in groups in the tables lining the room, awaiting the cooking root.
When it is ready, more prayers of thank are said Tony also thanked
everyone who had worked hard to dig and prepare the bitterroot,
especially the young people who came out for the dig to carry on