Camas lily is a key cultural resource as well as an important ecological component of wetland communities. Camas lily was historically one of the most widely utilized plant foods of the Nez Perce people and remains so for many tribal members today.
To help the park monitor the health of the camas community, local high school students work hand-in-hand with scientists and resource professionals. The park get’s vital data to help it manage the camas populations at its Weippe Prairie site and the students have the opportunity to learn about the Nez Perce and careers in science.
To the Nez Perce people and to many other tribes, camas is and was one of the most widely used root foods in the Pacific Northwest. On their expedition through Idaho, Lewis and Clark wrote that fields of camas were like “blue lakes” on the landscape. Over the last one hundred years, however, camas populations have declined as seasonal wetlands have virtually disappeared due to development and agriculture.
In historic times, camas was critical for winter survival and was valuable as a trade item. Weippe was one of the largest camas gathering grounds for the Nez Perce. During the summer, people traveled from many different places to play games, arrange weddings, have dances, organize buffalo hunts, meet up with friends from other tribes, and trade goods. Camas was also dug and eaten by the Nez Perce during the battle of 1877 in the Big Hole valley. As in times past, Nez Perce families still harvest camas bulbs in the traditional way for use at feasts or gatherings.
Today, Nez Perce National Historical Park and the Upper Columbia Basin Network Inventory and Monitoring program are using citizen scientists to monitor the status and trends of national park resources. Just as a doctor monitors the vital signs of a patient, scientists are looking at plant or animal species and ecosystem characteristics to monitor the health of park sites. Camas (Camassia quamash), a plant in the lily family, was chosen as a vital sign for Nez Perce National Historical Park’s Weippe Prairie site in Idaho and Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana because of its value as both a cultural and natural resource.
Camas tends to grow in seasonal wetland prairie ecosystems, such as those found in the interior Columbia Plateau. Monitoring existing camas populations will allow the park to find ways to promote their survival in places where they can still thrive.
To determine the status of camas populations, data is collected annually by dedicated staff and local “citizen scientists” – young volunteers who are trained to perform research-related tasks. Students from three high schools near the Weippe Prairie are taught every year about camas biology, the cultural importance of camas, and data collection methods. In May, after 3 days of classroom instruction, the volunteers go into the field, using Global Positioning Systems, or “GPS” units, compasses, and handheld field computers to collect data. Within a given research plot--or “quadrat”-- Citizen Scientists and National Park Service staff record the:
> Number of camas plants > Number of flowering camas plants > And the presence of two weeds: orange hawkweed, Heiracium auranticum and sulphur cinquefoil, Potentilla recta.
The camas monitoring program serves a variety of purposes. For example, by tracking long term trends, the data collected by citizen scientists will help park managers make objective decisions about restoration and weed control techniques, based upon scientific findings. By working closely with scientists, students gain exposure to the field of natural resources. In addition, the focus on camas allows local students to understand its value, not only as a cultural resource for the Nez Perce, but also as an indicator for the health of the prairies they live around.
This program engages the public in a unique and compelling way. The collaborative efforts between students, teachers, National Park Service personnel, volunteers and scientists will ultimately help preserve these national park sites for the enjoyment of future generations.
Every year, scientists, park service staff, and high school students descend on Weippe Prairie, Idaho to count and monitor Camas Lily. This plant, a traditional food for the Nez Perce Indians, used to thrive. The NPS is monitoring the health of this population and use the information to craft a management strategy.
Camas is a flower in the Lily family, it’s a perennial species. Camas can be light blue, it can be purple, it can be a darker blue. It can be different heights too. It’s all dependent, scientists think on the pH of the soil. The bulb of camas is sort of like an onion. It’s got these layers. I mean, it’s edible. So it was a pretty important food, a root crop for the Nez Perce and for other Native Americans around here.
We are at the Weippe Prairie, it’s a site of Nez Perce National Historical Park, and it’s significant because the Nez Perce were here and they harvested traditionally camas out in these fields, and what is even more important for the history of the United States is that Lewis and Clark, when they came out of the Bitterroot mountains, they met the Nez Perce out here. So they were starving, and the Nez Perce were harvesting camas bulbs and they met on the Weippe Prairie.
This is the point of contact between two cultures, between the Native peoples of the interior Columbia plateau and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. That makes this area very nationally historically significant. That’s why it’s included in the National Park Service, and especially in Nez Perce National Historical Park. Well, the reason that people were here, the reason the Nez Perce were here, were because of the camas. Nowadays, the camas density is much much less that it used to be.
The reason we are monitoring, the reason that we are paying as much attention to it as we are, is because it’s a focal resource for this site. Not only is it important as a natural resource, as indicator of a healthy wetland. It’s also historically important as a reason why the Nez Perce were here, and so to us, to the National Park Service, maintaining this habitat, in some instance is possibly restoring this habitat to allow for the camas to flourish again is right in line with what the National Park Service does.
In helping people understand the importance of the Nez Perce use of camas, it’s good to know something about their tools. And so, the women were the traditional food gatherers of plants, and they would have used something called a “tookas” or digging stick, originally made from wood, and a wood handle or bone. Of course you have to have something to hold that, just like nowadays we have bags of all kinds to collect things, and take things where we want to go, they would have a bag to collect their camas, but it would have been much larger. It would have been hand made from materials that they gathered, and the Nez Perce are known for having two different sides to their bags, two different designs.
Of course there’s camas itself, and this camas has been cooked in the traditional way, which is in an earthen oven. They would start a fire at the bottom with hot cooking rocks. When it went out, they’d fill a pit with camas, covered with leaves and grass and start another fire on top, and it could take up to three days to cook a pit of camas. They would then dry it, because camas is so much natural oils, it needed to be cooked before they could dry it, and then sometimes crumbling it, or preserving it whole. Nowadays, maybe just canning it in a jar, like we can other things. And, camas has a really smoky taste, kind of like sweet because the sugars are concentrated, but it’s also high in protein, and it’s very nutritious. Citizen Science is science that’s done with students or volunteers or local people, that come and help real scientists and ecologists do their work in the field. And so, we have three different high schools in the area, around Weippe Prairie, who are helping us, the students are helping us monitor camas populations.
Our park staff go to the high schools and provide education in the classroom so that when the students get to the site, they know what camas is, they know how we are doing the monitoring, and they understand why we are doing it.
“And if you have any questions, you will have your staff member in your group.”
They use a compass. They maneuver to a certain compass bearing that has been pre-determined on their data sheet, and then they set down their quadrat, and then count the camas plants within that.
“Forty-seven? and eleven”
I think it is a great opportunity for park staff because we get to work with young people. They are usually very enthusiastic. It can rain, it can be hot, and they might complain a little bit, but they are out there, doing the job.
“This is more fun! This is a lot of fun!”
I think it is good for the students as well, because they have an opportunity to see what a resource professional does in the field. How we gather information, and how the information can be used then to make management decisions over the long term for the site.
The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve the resources for the enjoyment of future generations. One of the best ways we can do that is to involve the future generations in the management of the resource. And so I think, at a site like this, we are a small park, we are in a small community, we have a small site, we can come out and do this kind of intensive monitoring project with only a couple days worth of effort. But, it can make a lasting impression in these young people, that if we are going to manage resources and use them wisely in the future, we have to understand what their value is. It’s our job, as the Park Service, to preserve this resource, so that others can understand how that plays into their future and the past as well.
Did You Know?
Big Hole National Battlefield bears witness to a tragic event. Over ninety women and children died at the battle of the Big Hole. Almost everyone lost two or three relatives.