Friday, May 8, 2020

Camas Roots: How Early Nez Perce Women Built a Business Empire


by 
Misty M. Beller

As I've been researching for my current Call of the Rockies series, I've had the pleasure of diving deep into the culture of the Nez Perce tribe. I found it interesting that one of the primary food sources of The People (as they called themselves) was camas roots.

But what really drew my notice was how the women would cultivate entire fields of camas root, store what they needed for their family through the winter, then use the extras for bartering. Some savvy women would become quite wealthy from their business dealings!



Nez Perce woman named I-ah-to-tonah (or Little Woman Mountain) and her son, ca. 1909. She might have acquired many of these possessions through the trade of camas route.


Why camas root? 
The bulbs of the camas plant are full of calories and nutrients, and each fall, Nez Perce families would travel to their particular camas meadow (a section of land whose camas rights had probably been passed down from generation to generation within their family). Many of these meadows were located near present-day Weippe, Moscow or Grangeville, where the onion-shaped bulbs grew thickly.


Edible Camas Plant. Photo courtesy of Walter Siegmund (public domain)

Women used pointed wooden tools to harvest the bulbs, and could often gather over 50 pounds a day, satisfying their full winter's supply within just a few days.

The Nez Perce are known for their detailed knowledge of the plant life around their region, which was helpful because there was another type of camas that sometimes grew in the same area as edible cams. This other type was called death camas, and the results that came from accidentally eating that bulb are self-explanatory! The two are easy to tell apart by flower color—edible camas is blue, the other creamy white. But since harvest occured after flowering was over, this color cue would not be present. The Nez Perce women had to know their camas roots!

Camas bulbs were cooked to improve taste and food value. A carbohydrate in camas called inulin is difficult to digest, but after cooking for up to two days in a carefully tended pit oven, the inulin converts to fructose, which is more easily digested and tastes sweet, almost like a sweet potato. When Lewis and Clark's expedition spent time in the Nez Perce camps after almost starving to death passing through the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains, they were initially excited to have camas roots to eat. Until the stomach upset started! 

Camas bulb


Baked camas can be eaten right away. For long-term storage, though, the cooked bulbs were sun-dried, pounded into a flour, shaped into a flat loaf, and baked again.

To remain productive, camas meadows need to be open and sunny, free of encroaching tree growth. Fire was used as a tool to accomplish this. Camas bulbs themselves were tended, too. During harvest the bulbs were sorted by size: large ones were collected but smaller bulbs or bulblets were put back into the newly worked-up soil for next year.


A Business Empire

Native American peoples who ate camas include the Nez Perce (Nimíipuu), Cree, Coast Salish, Kalapuya, and Blackfoot, and Yakama, among many others. Not all of these people groups harvested camas themselves. Instead, many relied on trade in order to procure it. Trade networks were established all the way from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, and a shrewd businesswoman who tended her camas meadows well could provide everything her family needed and more!


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Misty M. Beller is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic mountain stories, set on the 1800s frontier and woven with the truth of God’s love.

Her latest release, Hope in the Mountain River, is an epic journey along the path taken by the Lewis and Clark expedition—an epic journey through breathless landscapes and adventure so intense, lives will never be the same.

For a limited time, you can get one of Misty's bestselling novels free here: https://www.subscribepage.com/s8n2o1

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