Char-Koosta News

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Springtime signals the season of the bitterroot

By Adriana Fehrs

Felicite “Jim” Sapiye McDonald was the elder chosen to peel the first bitterroot of the year. Onlookers hushed as she spoke a soft prayer while cleaning off the root. (Adriana Fehrs photo) Felicite “Jim” Sapiye McDonald was the elder chosen to peel the first bitterroot of the year. Onlookers hushed as she spoke a soft prayer while cleaning off the root. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

CAMAS — It was a windy day for the annual bitterroot dig, but that didn’t deter diggers from showing up. A massive crowd of people gathered around Tony Incashola, Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee (SPCC) Director, with their pece? on Friday May 2. Tony set the theme for the day when he said, “We must keep [our annual bitterroot dig] going. We have to be serious about passing on our traditions to our younger people. We are losing a part of our identity if we don’t, so we must keep this as a part of our tradition.”

SPCC Salish Elder Pat Pierre speaks a short prayer before the first bitterroot is dug at the annual bitterroot dig on May 2. (Adriana Fehrs photo) SPCC Salish Elder Pat Pierre speaks a short prayer before the first bitterroot is dug at the annual bitterroot dig on May 2. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Incashola spoke with conviction on the importance the bitterroot holds for many Salish. “The bitterroot is the first food plant of the year. That is why we come here; to pray over our food and medicine for the year. We also pray for our past loved ones.”

Digging bitterroot is a centuries old tradition. “Bitterroot is like the mother plant of all, and there are many different stories about the plant,” says Incashola. It is known to the Salish that Creator placed certain animals onto the earth, and the animals created the plants in preparation for humans. Incashola urged the people, “We are losing a part of our identity if we don’t keep up this tradition. How well we listen now, will determine how much of our culture and traditions we will pass down to our children.”

Eva Green shows her sons, Marlo and Elijah Tonasket, proper digging technique at the annual bitterroot dig. ‘Passing on tradition’ was a main theme for the day. (Adriana Fehrs photo) Eva Green shows her sons, Marlo and Elijah Tonasket, proper digging technique at the annual bitterroot dig. ‘Passing on tradition’ was a main theme for the day. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

After the words of caution Dolly Linsebigler, SPCC Elder, said a short speech in Salish, and then translated it to English. “I am so very happy to see all these young people. Us elders won’t be here much longer, so I am really happy to see all of you here. I hope I have a few more years to come to these digs. I am happy to see all of you here to learn about our ways, and to pass our traditions on.”

Incashola says we have many things to be thankful for, “We are a family, and if we stay together as a family we will continue to prosper, to grow, and to pass on our traditions. That is how we’ve survived for thousands of years.

Dezalynn Mohr, pictured left, looks onward as her mother Caroline Mohr shows the youngsters how to dig up bitterroot. (Adriana Fehrs photo) Dezalynn Mohr, pictured left, looks onward as her mother Caroline Mohr shows the youngsters how to dig up bitterroot. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Respect was also a topic Elders focused on during the dig. Incashola says, “Every year we teach our children to respect the plants and animals. When you kill a deer you thank it. You thank those living things.” Shirley Trahan, SPCC Elder, followed up by sharing a Salish word, n?osne, she recently learned, which she translated as “If you don’t have respect for the bitterroot it will disappear back into the ground.”

In May and June the bitterroot flowers bloom and display whitish to deep pink petals, after which it cannot be harvested. The Latin name, Lewisia rediviva, comes from German-American Botanist Frederick Pursh after Lewis and Clark brought samples back to Europe.

Children and elders gather together to peel and clean bitterroot during the annual bitterroot dig on May 2. Even with the wind, Ruth Swaney says, “We are having a great time.” (Adriana Fehrs photo) Children and elders gather together to peel and clean bitterroot during the annual bitterroot dig on May 2. Even with the wind, Ruth Swaney says, “We are having a great time.” (Adriana Fehrs photo)

After a prayer from Pat Pierre, SPCC Elder, Brianna McCrea was selected as the young woman to dig up the first bitterroot of the year. As tradition goes, she then presented the bitterroot to elder Felicite “Jim” Sapiye McDonald. The crowd hushed as McDonald cleaned the roots and spoke a soft prayer in Salish.

The large gathering of people then dispersed into the sagebrush covered hills to dig up what would later become their dinner. Elders, parents, and children all excitedly set out, even though occasional winds would blow dirt into their eyes.

Volunteers Kristina McClure, pictured front, and Kanyon Stevens, pictured middle, help clean the harvested bitterroot with Sunny Real Bird, pictured left, the new Ronan School Indian Education Director on May 2 before the large feast commenced at the Long House in St. Ignatius. (Adriana Fehrs photo) Volunteers Kristina McClure, pictured front, and Kanyon Stevens, pictured middle, help clean the harvested bitterroot with Sunny Real Bird, pictured left, the new Ronan School Indian Education Director on May 2 before the large feast commenced at the Long House in St. Ignatius. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

After an hour or so, everyone had plastic bags and buckets filled with cleaned bitterroot. Soon after, the crowds reconvened at the Long House in St. Ignatius.

SPCC cooks and volunteers were ready at the Long House to cook up the bitterroot. Gloria Whitworth, SPCC Office Manager, says, “We’ve been busy getting ready for the feast. We started prepping last afternoon.” Sunny Real Bird, the new Indian Educator for the Ronan School, was there to help out younger volunteers Kristina McClure and Kanyon Stevens to clean the bitterroot. A splendid feast of chicken, fry bread, salad, dinner rolls, cake, and bitterroot were presented to the hungry bitterroot diggers.

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