Stepping Back

Time of Digging


Meriwether Lewis marveled over the camas prairie he came upon in June 1806. “The quawmash is now in blume and from the colour … at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have sworn it was water.”

The camas (Cammasia quamash) bulb was the most important of all the bulbs and roots sought by Native people in Puget Sound. Every group traveled in May and June to the prairies that were openings in the forest, joining friends and relatives to dig and process camas, a carbohydrate-rich dietary necessity. The largest of the prairies was the Nisqually Plain, an immense prairie at the head of the Sound. This undulating, open space developed on the glacial outwash deposited during the recessional stage of the Vashon glaciation 14,000 years before present.

A warmer period between 7,500 and 4,500 years ago allowed a suite of prairie plants like lupine, camas, sunflower, chocolate lily, buttercup, Garry oaks, enormous bracken ferns and berries to become established. The prairies persisted beyond the climatic period of their creation by the active land management of Native people. The prairie soils are well-drained, dark brown to black in color because they are infused with charcoal from repeated burning by Indians every few years. Women regularly tilled and aerated them through gathering activities that required digging sticks.

The soils are considered to be anthropogenic, that is, produced through human intervention. Low intensity fires suppressed Douglas firs, increased the nutritious blue bunch grass for horses and deer, and encouraged berries and new oak trees. Burning also fertilized the bracken root crop, the second carbohydrate source for Native people.

Camas, chocolate lily bulbs and sunflower roots were cooked in the same way that bear and beaver were prepared: in an earth oven. Camas was layered between salmonberry, alder brush and skunk cabbage leaves above heated rocks dropped into a pit. Dirt was spread over the whole. Heal-all and hedge nettle, both herbs, or fireweed could be laid over the camas to add seasoning during cooking. A fire built on top of the dirt was kept burning for three days and nights, when the earth oven was opened.

The thick syrup collected in the skunk cabbage leaves was a delicious drink. Cooked camas was stored in baskets for winter until prepared for meals. Then, it was boiled with fresh or dried salmon until the chunks were tender and a thick gravy was formed. Some Native women dried camas cakes in the sun. The cakes were soaked for half a day and flavored with nuts when eaten. They lasted for years, the finger ridges of the preparer a reminder of the woman who baked the camas and shaped it into cakes.

The bracken fern, another staple for Native groups throughout Western Washington, grew to prodigious size on the prairies, as high as seven feet. The roots were dug in the fall and sometimes winter and were the basis of bread. To make bread, bracken fern roots were pounded, mashed in a stone mortar and mixed with deer tallow. The dough was then shaped into small cakes that preserved for some time, but were more likely to be eaten steadily because the bread became unpalatable after a while. When eaten fresh, the roots were dry roasted, the outer skin scraped off the long root, and the root pounded and pounded before being cut up and eaten with salmon eggs, fish or meat.

Because it was essential to their diet, the Native people of the Key Peninsula dug camas. Did they travel across the Sound to the prairies of Steilacoom, Spanaway, and what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord? Undoubtedly. Villages broke up in the spring, families loading their canoes with their belongings, crossing Carr Inlet or Balch Passage to the Nisqually Plain. The opportunities for socializing, politicking and visiting during the large prairie congregations were as essential as digging camas. In the fall, Native groups from the Key Peninsula and other groups throughout Puget Sound traveled to the Nisqually Plain, the chief source of acorns in Puget Sound.

Were there prairies on the Key Peninsula? I think there were, but there is little contemporary evidence to prove it. Hogs enthusiastically rooted up camas, and between the settlers’ grazing practices and fire suppression, few prairies relative to their historic locations are extant anywhere in southern Puget Sound. Prairies were reduced in size within 20 years of fire suppression and invaded by non-prairie species. Scot’s broom was one of the first plants to encroach, along with Douglas fir, and Evergreen and Himalayan blackberry. One can still see prairies near Olympia and Hood Canal and on JBLM, where the Army has actively maintained the remainder of the Nisqually Plain on the post through controlled burns. They have also allowed bluebirds, a prairie species, to be reintroduced.

Closer to home, I am thinking of scraping away the duff near the Garry oak tree on the fringe of my pasture and looking for those well drained, charcoal infused soils holding the memory of a prairie.

Lynn Larson is an anthropologist and archaeologist who lives on Filucy Bay.