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Native Tribes Are Bringing Prairie Land Back to the Pacific Northwest

The state of Washington resembles a fist. If you hold your thumb up alongside your clenched fingers, it becomes the Olympic Peninsula, with the space in between forming Puget Sound. Seattle sits maybe an inch below the knuckle of your pointer finger. At the tip of your thumb, you’ll find a place called Sequim.

The town sits between the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains, with stunning views of both. It’s a small, quaint place, where many roads bear the names of families who still live there. Notably, Sequim proudly declares itself the lavender capital of North America. The number of people there nearly quadruples every July when 30,000 visitors from all over the world descend on the annual Lavender Festival, where streets overflow with purple-tinged ice cream, lattes, candles, soaps, and all manner of baked goods. But the fragrant botanical’s history in Sequim only dates to the 1990s, when civic leaders sought to preserve the town’s agricultural character by cultivating an agritourism industry. Long before that, the landscape was blanketed for millennia by another flower: camas.

ƛ̕əw’cən Mackenzie Grinnell, a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, recalls stories from his grandmother—who heard them herself when she was young—about standing on a hill and look out at a sweeping expanse of the blue and violet flowers stretching to the Salish Sea a mile away.

“During May, it would be hard to tell where the camas stopped and the water started,” Grinnell tells me.

Before European settlers arrived in the late 1700s, prairie habitat covered some 180,000 acres of western Washington. It was maintained by Native communities like the S’Klallam (a Salish word meaning “strong people”), whose lands extended from the forested mountains to the clam- and salmon-rich waters. Blue camas, a common prairie flower, grows from a starchy bulb that was once a staple carbohydrate in the diets of the S’Klallam people and other neighboring tribes.

Today, less than 3 percent of the native prairies remain. The open grasslands that sustained Indigenous communities for millennia were, in the eyes of settlers, land to be turned into farms, pastures, and towns. Development relegated the prairies to fragmented pockets, endangering native plants like the golden paintbrush, pollinators like the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and some species of birds and mammals. Camas all but faded away as a food source.

Now, that’s beginning to change.

Grinnell is the coordinator for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s Traditional Foods and Culture Program which, is attempting to reestablish camas and other prairie plants on the Olympic Peninsula and reintroduce them to local diets. The Jamestown Tribe isn’t alone in such efforts. All over the country and around the world, Indigenous communities are striving to reestablish traditional diets and cultural practices by restoring the ecosystems that sustain them. That kind of holistic approach offers a host of ecological benefits in addition to the added food security and cultural significance native crops can bring. Still, two centuries’ worth of destruction and disruption can’t be reversed over night. Grinnell and other leaders see this essential work as an investment in the future.

“Our traditional foods take decades to grow, and harvesting them takes a lot more effort than a garden or a farm,” Grinnell says. He and others in the tribe are beginning the work now so they can one day bring back a traditional camas feast. “We have a lot of responsibilities around our foods and making sure they don’t go away,” he says.

A field blooming with camas flowers on Whidbey Island. (Photo credit: Adam Martin)

The S’Klallam people have lived on the Olympic Peninsula for over 10,000 years. Today, they’re divided into three federally-recognized tribes: the Lower Elwha Klallam, the Port Gamble S’Klallam, and the Jamestown S’Klallam (known in Sequim simply as “the tribe,” and the second-largest employer in the county).

Unlike the other S’Klallam bands, the Jamestown Tribe has no reservation. After the signing of the Point No Point Treaty in 1855, settlers began encroaching on what the treaty describes as the “usual and accustomed grounds” of the S’Klallam, Chimakum, and Skokomish people. About 20 years later, a group of displaced families realized that remaining on their homeland would require embracing the European approach to land ownership. Under the leadership of tribal citizen Lord James Balch, they pooled $500 in gold and bought 210 acres along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It became Jamestown Village, which is now part of Sequim.

Lisa Barrell, a tribal elder who lives on one of the original properties at Jamestown Beach, grew up gardening, gathering, and preparing food with her mother. “According to the world, she was the best cook there was,” Barrell says with a chuckle. She absorbed a lot about ancestral foods from her mother, and later in life sought knowledge from elders in other tribes. She began hosting dinners, skillshares, and other cultural activities for the Jamestown Tribe.

Mackenzie Grinnell holds a camas bulb on the Sequim prairie site. (Photo credit: Miranda Wilson)

Mackenzie Grinnell holds a camas bulb on the Sequim prairie site. (Photo credit: Miranda Wilson)

In 2017, the tribe surveyed its 500-odd citizens to determine their needs and priorities. Barrell was excited to see that most wanted to learn more about their ancestral foods and cultural practices. The tribe decided to seek a grant to start a traditional foods program, and asked her to lead it. “To do what you’ve always been doing for a job—so cool,” she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the program with a four-year grant in 2018 (it was reupped for another five in 2022), to improve the health and wellbeing of tribal members by increasing access to nutritious and culturally relevant foods—like camas.

The Camas Plant

Blue or common camas—not to be confused with “death camas,” a similar plant with cream-colored flowers—stands roughly knee-high. Its small bulbs range from about the size of a garlic clove to an entire head. Raw, a blue camas bulb is almost bone white and has the texture of a water chestnut. Slow roasting brings out a caramel color and a sweet flavor that some have compared to a cooked pear.

The bulbs contain inulin, a prebiotic fiber that feeds gut flora. Eat it raw or cook it too hastily and it’ll give you major gas. That’s why camas is traditionally slow-cooked over one to three days in an earth oven—a pit lined with red-hot rocks—to let the inulin break down.

For Grinnell, health is one reason for urgency behind restoring prairie plants. The inulin in camas can improve digestive health and control diabetes. “We didn’t have diabetes before the 1940s,” he says. “It didn’t exist in Native communities until we started getting commodity foods. Then we got diabetes, we got heart disease, and now we’re at the top of the list in those numbers.” He believes restoring an ancestral diet will help address those ills.

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