Generations Join Together to Harvest Camas

Photos and story by Lisa Pemberton, Puyallup Tribal News Editor

In an area surrounded by pavement and industrial warehouses, a large plot of vacant land in Frederickson appeared overgrown with trees, weeds and a grassy meadow of wildflowers.

But those bright bluish purple star-shaped flowers with a kiss of yellow in the middle were more than eye-candy. They were camas, a traditional food and medicinal plant for the Puyallup people.

The Culture Department recently led a series of local field trips to harvest camas bulbs, which can be eaten or steamed fresh or dried and saved for later. Camas bulbs have a mild flavor and make a delicious addition to soup, salmon and other meat, said Culture Director Connie McCloud. 

The prairie plant was once widely available and traded in Puyallup territory. In fact, the community of Lacamas, which is near Spanaway and Roy, was named after the plant by early non-Native settlers, McCloud said.

“Some of the undeveloped areas still have camas growing,” McCloud said.

After a prayer of gratitude for the plants, the gathering began. Although the bulbs can be carefully dug out by hand, it’s much quicker and easier to use a pronged root digging tool. Much like gardening, camas gathering requires a strong back and willingness to get your hands dirty.

A couple of moms and young girls joined in one of the events. One of the girls tasted a camas bulb. She said she was surprised it didn’t taste like an onion. The girl described the bulb as crunchy and sweet, similar to an apple.

That multi-generational sharing of the experience is important to ensure camas gathering continues, McCloud said.

Gathering traditional foods in the tribe’s home territory can have a healing effect for the entire community, she said.

“We’re always in prayer and always using our traditional foods and medicine to help our community, and to remember these were ways of our people,” McCloud said. “(The traditions) weren’t lost – they’ve been growing here. We just need to pick it up.”