May 17, 2012
Rooted in tradition:
Traditional harvesting begins across the reservation
By Kim Swaney
LONEPINE — Bitterroot is to the Selis and Ktuaxa people just as corn is to the Dine and the strawberry is to the Cherokee. Plants among tribal people had common roots - roots that provided nourishment when there was little to none and stories of traditions deeply rooted in their survival as tribal people
The immergence of the bitterroot in the spring is like a circadian clock for Mother Nature. The deep green tendrils signal that the traditional gathering season has begun for the people here. It is also tells the people it is time for the bears to awaken from their winter sleep.
The bitterroot season also cues the return of many other native plants such as wild onion, wild carrot, camas and a variety of berries as the gathering season continues throughout the latter spring and summer months. The Arrow-leaf balsamroot is usually already in bloom and ready for harvesting too.
In April 1806 Lewis and Clark, accompanied by a botanist named Frederick Pursh, noted that the native people had eaten the stems of the balsamroot or “sunflower” as the native people called it, “with little preparation”.
For the people here, the bitterroot dig and feast is still part of their culture and tradition, and less of main staple as it once was 50 to 75 years ago.
The FBI was on hand to investigate the bitterroot as Dorothy Woodcock’s shirt says: Full Blooded Indian … Fry Bread Inspector, and one not on her shirt that should be added: Famous Bitterroot Inspector. (Kim Swaney photo)
Each year a young woman is chosen to dig the first bitterroot and a mature woman is asked to peel the first root. Typically the young girl chosen will help with keeping the culture and traditions alive, which ensures that the bitterroot returns each year.
This year 10 year-old Patricia Christiansen was chosen. Christiansen is a former student from the NÂusm Salish language school and currently a student at St. Ignatius Elementary. The seasoned peeler chosen was this year was Dorothy Woodcock.
Dorothy has dug bitterroot since she was a young girl but mostly on the other side of the hills near Camas Prairie. Dorothy said her uncle Joe Woodcock would pray and her family would begin harvesting many roots, plants, berries and wild game and cure to last all year.
Josephine Quequesah said she would travel by wagon across Flathead River with her grandparents Clarice (Paul) and Phillip Pierre and camp for several days. “I’m not sure how long but it seemed like at least a week,” she says.
After digging gunnysacks full of bitterroot, Quequesah said they pack up and move to another spot where they would gather camas, then berries and tree moss. The only things they would get from the merchant were flour, sugar, coffee and tea. The people here would gather enough native foods to last all year.
Back at the Longhouse after the bitterroot feast, Trina (Fyant) Felsman peels the stem of an Arrow-leaf balsamroot for a delicate treat. Most people commonly refer to it as a “sunflower.” (Kim Swaney photo)
She said she didn’t have to stay with her grandparents but she loved it and stayed with them until she was old enough to go to school. She in fact has raised four of her own grandkids.
“Bored wasn’t a part of my vocabulary,” says Josephine. “There was always things that needed to be done. If we didn’t have anything to do – we looked for somebody that needed help with something,” she says.
While the bitterroot marks the beginning of the gathering season, it also signifies that winter has ceased and the storytelling season is put on hold until the snow blankets the land once again.