Camas – economic staple or gourmet trade item?

Camas diggers (L to R) Jenny Stern, David Lewis, Ann Bennett Rogers, Damion Sailors, John Steele, Matt Napolitano, Sophie Miller, Jeff Hall, Tim Herrera, Madonna Moss

Camas with ripened seeds (photo by M. Napolitano)

Camas bulb in profile (photo by Matt Napolitano)

Camas bulbs with roots, stems, and soil debris (photo by M. Napolitano)

On June 14, 2017, our intrepid group dug camas at the Oregon Country Fairground (OCF). The project was part of ANTH 610, The Archaeology of Wild Foods, in which graduate students Jeffery Hall, Sophie Miller, Matt Napolitano, and Damion Sailors are helping me develop my new course, ANTH 248, The Archaeology of Wild Foods and Pre-industrial Cooking, to be taught for the first time in Fall term. Archaeologist Ann Bennett Rogers of OCF made it possible; she has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project from the start, and has special knowledge of camas growing on OCF property.  Ann is also on the Board of OCF and arranged for us to dig in places where we wouldn’t disturb archaeological material in our pursuit of camas. We were also privileged to have David Lewis take part; I had asked David to supervise us, since he has dug camas before and is very knowledgeable about Kalapuya traditions and history. David has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from our department, but is also a Grand Ronde tribal member, descended from the Santiam Kalapuya, Chinook, Molalla, Takelma and Yoncalla Kalapuya peoples of western Oregon (See his blog at https://ndnhistoryresearch.wordpress.com/about/). But David wanted to dig too.  Many thanks to Chris Ruiz (OSMA) for arranging for our equipment.

We dug in four separate locations and each had its own challenges. The locations had standing water during the winter and into the spring when Rogers and Moss visited in late April.  In the shaded area shown to the left, we found camas bulbs at depths of 8-10 inches, and it’s unfortunately very easy to damage a bulb with a shovel. The soil is very clay-rich and it took work to find the bulbs within the soil matrix.  We tried using a replica Kalapuya digging stick, but the soil was too compacted for this to work. Certainly plots of camas that were tended and routinely dug would exhibit different conditions; and we can imagine that a digging stick would be effective and more precise if the soil weren’t as compressed.  We were grateful for the previous week’s rains which certainly softened the soil somewhat.  We waited until mid-June to dig until the seeds had ripened, so this plot can be replanted by Ann in the fall.  In the other patches, challenges included dense tree roots, mosquitoes, and in a more open location, invasive grasses making it hard to find and extract the bulbs from the sod. But we persevered, and obtained 3 partial buckets-full, may 3-4 gallons total, although this included alot of soil and roots.  With 10 people digging over 5 hours, our production seemed minimal.

The following day, we prepared for building an earth oven at the Many Nations Longhouse on the University of Oregon campus. Gordon Bettles made this possible and through his work with the fire marshal, we were allowed to have an all-night bake. This is the first time camas has been cooked in an earth oven on campus since the Longhouse was built. We know that Kalapuya ancestors have been cooking camas in this part of the Willamette Valley for more than 9000 years; camas ovens have been found throughout the region, and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History has ancient burnt camas bulbs in their collections (See Stephenie Kramer’s 2000 Master’s paper, Camas, Intensification, and Gender: a Case Study of the Kalapuya and their Predecessors, Willamette Valley, Oregon). But to prepare for baking, and following the instructions of our expert cook, Marie Knight (Warm Springs), Moss and Steele gathered 10 lbs. of Oregon grape, 10 lbs. of salal, 10 lbs. of bigleaf maple, 20 lbs. of ferns, and 5 lbs. of Douglas fir tips. These would serve as the green vegetal packing in the oven.  Moss and Steele also cleaned the camas bulbs using a high pressure garden hose which took longer than anticipated, so we were late!

Cleaned camas (photo by M. Napolitano)

Damion Sailors about to initiate fire in earth oven (photo by Matt Napolitano)

Marie Knight and M. Moss arranging camas between layers of ferns (photo by M. Napolitano)

The bake was scheduled to start at 5 pm, but the fire was built by around 6 pm. Unlike the circular camas ovens found in the Willamette Valley, Marie had us build a rectangular trench-like pit in the Longhouse fire pit.  We were so very grateful to be able to use fuelwood from the Longhouse: oak, alder, maple, and fir (thank you, Gordon Bettles and Jason Younker). The rocks were laid on top and more fuel was added. After about 2 hours when the rocks were hot, those who could stand the heat (thank you, Matt, Damion, John, Tim, and Justin) removed the still burning wood from the rocks.  Then we had to move quickly to lay down the vegetal packing on the hot rocks in the following order: Oregon grape, salal, maple, half the ferns, and Marie placed the camas intermixed with the fir tips, and then the rest of the ferns.  Then Marie quickly poured on a 5-gallon bucket of water, we covered the pit with a cotton canvas, and quickly shoveled on an earth and sand cap, about 8 inches thick.  Then a second fire was built atop the oven which we would maintain all night long.  Thanks to those who maintained 2 hour shifts: Hannah, Sophie, Matt, and Damion… Well Damion took the worst shift, not only because it was 3-5 am, because it was more like 3 to 7 am, while some of us slept….  Thank you, all!

All night fire (photo by M. Napolitano)

Uncovering the oven, with ferns unburned (photo by M. Napolitano)

Marie Knight pulling baked camas from between fern layers (photo by M. Napolitano)

Baked Camas (with fir needles)… to be cleaned…(photo by M. Moss)

Cleaned camas, ready for freezing (photo by M. Moss)

The next morning, after John cooked us a hearty breakfast (thank you, John), and after Lyle and Sophie procured coffee (thank you, Sophie and Lyle), Marie directed the opening of the oven about 10:30 am. We dug off the earthen cap for the “big reveal.”  The camas had baked beautifully, to a golden brown color.  I had never tasted it before; to me it tasted like roasted chestnuts in both flavor and texture. It was delicious! But having spent an additional 7 hours cleaning the camas and freezing it for our ANTH 248 tasting during the upcoming fall term, I wonder about how this could be a staple food.  It required alot of work to obtain, to clean, to roast, and to process.  The earth oven also consumed alot of fuelwood, perhaps a full cord of wood.  This seems like a very labor and fuel-expensive food; so I wonder: did the Kalapuya rely on camas as a staple food eaten routinely throughout the year?  Or was it a feast food?  Or was camas such a prized food that it was a valuable trade commodity?  If I were to appraise it, it would have to sell for $30/pint.  From our efforts, we have an estimated 7 quarts prepared for the fall term. In the past, of course, camas fields were larger and not infested with invasive plants. The Kalapuya were more knowledgeable about camas and were used to working harder for their food than we are. If you, too, have had the privilege of digging camas, what do you think?  Thank you so much Marie Knight and Gordon Bettles for making it possible for us to share this experience.

Empty space in Longhouse woodshed where we took fuelwood for earth oven (photo by M. Napolitano)

5 comments on “Camas – economic staple or gourmet trade item?
  1. Dear Madonna- thanks a lot for this account, it is fascinating! I’m sure that Lucile Housley, Mary Ricks, and Kay Folwler would find your suggestion about Camas as a possible gourmet food fascinating, and I hope you will send them copies of your post . They have all worked with Native Americans in the Great Basin, and had opportunities to go harvesting with Native women. I’ve tasted camas harvested and prepared by Lucile, and thought it was tasty, but the sheer scale of camas fields and roasting sites in eastern and western Oregon, Idaho, and northern Nevada to me surely suggest that icamas was a storable staple for the Native people and not just a gourmet dessert.. Mel

  2. Lucille Housley sent me a very helpful message. She explained that having researched many documents and talked with lots of different tribal people in Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon, camas was clearly a staple food for pre-contact people. From what Lucille wrote, it seems likely that tribal folks were able to gather it much more expeditiously than we were. Lucille wrote that “camas was eaten all across the west and everywhere else it grew.” Areas that haven’t been dug recently apparently get crowded out by weeds, but regular digging would make it easier with sticks; many people today use metal digging sticks. Thank you, Lucille Housley!

  3. Sounds delicious! I know Coos people got some camas in trade, or gathering rights probably based on some trade. I have found descriptions of where some coastal camas fields were and some still are (like at Whiskey Run and Cape Perpetua. There was one where the mouth of Coos Bay is now, so it is said, but since the bay mouth shifted south some, I don’t know, 2 centuries ago that is gone!) but there are stories of bay people going to Camas Valley for camas.

    With a fall class…folks gonna head south and pick myrtle nuts in the late fall? If there is much of a crop this year (there isn’t every year. Here in CA we’ve had no crop to speak of for a few years now)? The roasted nuts can be good – a funny taste of coffee, unsweetened chocolate and notes of burnt popcorn.

  4. Thank you so much for your comment, Patty. I will have to look into myrtle nuts… Can you recommend a good source?

    Also, I thought I’d add a quote from Aikens et al. (2011:325-326), Oregon Archaeology. They wrote, “A few camas-processing ovens dating older than 7,000 years have been reported, but their numbers increase dramatically after about 6,000 years ago. Camas ovens are the most common and visible archaeological feature in the Willamette Valley, and their common occurrence in the period after 6000 BP marks the beginning of regular food storage that is correlated with a more settled residential strategy.”

    • Interesting about camas ovens. Awhile back I read about the Standley site in Camas Valley and IIRC there were myrtle nuts found there along w/ camas in ovens.

      There are plants that SW OR Indians often called ‘little camas’ that were gotten too. They are related plants in the genera brodiaea and Dichelostemma. I wrote a little about them here: https://ethnobotanywesternoregon.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/harvest-lily-brodiaea-coronaria/

      For sources, there are no commercial ones out there I know of, so people have to forage for them. In late October or early November when they are usually ripe (skins turn purple-brown and are falling off the trees. I’ve collected from tree and ground, the ground ones are generally fine). And that means finding a place with a sufficient number of trees that get enough sun so they have nuts…and not all years are good years. I know here in CA state parks can be shirty about gathering (I collect from a Sonoma county park that has a ton of myrtles/laurels). I’ll have to ask my cousins how the trees are this year. Hopefully I’ll be in Coos county in August and September I’ll try to look around at a couple of places while I am there, see how the trees are this year.

      Last few years in Sonoma county, during the drought, there weren’t many good acorns and few myrtle nuts. Since we had a soggy winter this time around, I am hoping that has changed a bit this year!

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