Business & Development, Cottage Grove

Kalapuya Roots – Still Blooming


Before the settlers began following the Oregon Trail, and Hudson Bay traders and trappers found their way into what was to become Oregon, Native Americans scratched out a pretty decent living.
The Willamette Valley provided a diverse environment that included prairie and oak savannas, fir groves, forests, marshes and lakes that provided sources for an abundance of foods.
The Kalapuya year was divided into 12 lunar months and each month was named for the part of the growing cycle and the importance of certain foods.
The year had two seasons in their sustenance round, summer and winter. The summer months were spent in mobile camps as they collected and prepared various foods when they became available. The winter time was spent in their more permanent villages when the weather became colder.
What they had managed to store up over the gathering season was the food they depended on to get them through the winter. In the month around February, known as the ”Out of provisions moon,” stored stables would be running out and hunters would spend more time looking for food.
There are four mainstays to the Kalapuya diet that still are found in our valleys. The one that was most important is also one of the most beautiful, the Camas Lily, Camassia quamash. When the camas fields are in bloom with the rich blue-violet flowers you can imagine how many of the starchy bulbs are there underground.
Families would travel to favorite gathering sites and spend days digging the larger bulbs and replanting the smaller ones for future harvests. The Camas bulbs were roasted slowly in earthen pit ovens to convert the starch. Some of the resulting sweet food was eaten immediately with great celebration. The rest was dried and stored for future use.
Acorns were harvested but had to be treated to get the tannins out to make them edible: Ground into meal and sifted to remove the hulls; the meal was put into a bed of sand. Water (heated in baskets by hot stones) was poured over the flour to leach out the tannic acid. The result was not unlike oatmeal.
Collecting Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) also known as ”Arrowhead” or ”Indian potato roots” was a muddy job. The Lewis and Clark expedition learned of this food source, and it helped them get through the Fort Clatsop winter.
Merriweather Clark recorded, ”March 29, 1806, Women getting into the water, sometimes to their necks, holding by a Small canoe and with their feet loosen the wapiti or bulb from the root and imedeately [sic] rises to the top of the water, they Collect & throw them into the canoe.”
The tubers were roasted or dried and made into flour or cakes for storage.
Common Tarweed (Madia elegans) was a highly prized staple that required fire to harvest it. When the seeds were ripe, the fields were burned off leaving the plants and the seed pods standing. Then droves of Kalapuya would gather and collect as much as they could by holding their baskets in front of them and beating the pods with racquets made of twigs.
The seeds were roasted and either eaten or ground into flour. All of this food, after preparation, could be mixed with hazelnuts and berries, making a ”Native American energy bar.”
To insure a steady source of these food sources, local bands developed extensive land management practices: Burning, tilling, weeding, pruning and selective harvesting all helped guarantee a continued source of food for the people. Harvesting itself helped spread seed for later crops.
So this spring when the blooming camas causes fields to have a mirage like sheen of blue, think about the Kalapuya tribe, their way of life and their reverence for the land and its bounty.
I also have a correction from last week’s column: I misstated the monthly presentation by the Historical Society at Magnolia Gardens. These will be on the fourth Tuesday of each month from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Join them on Tuesday the 26th for an old-timey Valentines presentation.

Dana Merryday can be reached at 541-942-7037 [email protected]



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