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02 May, 2009

Roots, Rocks, Drums

After a week of training other people to be aware of cultural resources, I was lucky enough to get some education myself this past weekend. Headed over the mountains to attend the first foods celebration of the Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce. Arrived Friday evening to find a roomful of women getting ready to peel roots they had walked to and dug all day, women who welcomed my intrusion as a visit, answered my unpreparedness with a meal, and let me watch and learn while they worked, talked, and laughed. They had prayed, cleansed, and harvested the first roots of the year for a feast that would feed the tribe, and open the way for everyone else to begin harvesting. My contribution: helping set up chairs for the Sunday feast.

Day 2: My host took me to gathering grounds for bitter-root (better here than further south, where these roots get bigger, but lack the fine flavor), wild carrot (usually found higher in the mountains, but this patch was conveniently located lower on an ancient trail), black camas (a lomatium, rather than the lily camas of western Washington), and "little potatoes" (denizens of high ponderosa stands). Tribes are worried about the loss of gathering areas to development, privatization of public lands, cattle, and climate change. So it was a happy discovery to find that one of the good gathering areas is in a square mile of state land where I may have some say in protecting these resources.
My agency has been managing natural resources for just over 50 years, but tribes in the northwest have been doing so for about 200 times longer. By using a stick to pry up the roots just after seed set, and leaving the tops at the source, they aerate the ground and plant the next generation. Thousands of generations of plants and hundreds of generations of people have stayed happy in this way.

On Sunday, long-house services began at about 10AM and went for two hours. Drumming, dancing, and no more than 5 minutes of anything you might construe as preaching. I soaked in the songs without comprehension, feeling the energy and letting my heartbeat ride the drumbeat. After that, mats were laid out and tables set in preparation for the feast. Water, salmon, deer meat, bitter and other roots, choke-cherries and berries--all the native foods laid out in a line, each bowl of it blessed, each one tasted in order. Then an array of everything from hot dogs and apple pie to dried fish.
Drumming and songs continued during the meal, and people had the chance to speak to the gathering. My host introduced me, and I offered thanks for his family's hospitality, and that of the Nez Perce people, and of the earth that produced the food. Speakers offered family news, wisdom, and humor--everyone thanked the women who had prepared the meal. Conversations meandered around the tables, and bowls emptied. The final mouthful was a bit of huckleberries for all, and then zip-lock bags were distributed to all, so every family could leave with food for later (even visiting archaeologists), and each person got an apple as well.
On the long ride home, I stopped at a few more pieces of state land. What had looked like rocks and sagebrush a few days before, a beautiful but seemingly barren landscape, revealed a buffet of roots.

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