Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

Annual bitterroot dig brings tribal people together

By Alyssa Kelly
Char-Koosta News

Over 200 people gathered in Hot Springs to celebrate and learn about the traditional harvest of bitterroot. (Alyssa Kelly photo)Over 200 people gathered in Hot Springs to celebrate and learn about the traditional harvest of bitterroot. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

HOT SPRINGS – The ancient art of sustenance was celebrated as the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee (SPCC) hosted its annual bitterroot dig. Attended by over 200 people, SPCC Director Tony Incashola said the gathering signifies a connection to ancestral times.

 “The bitterroot is the first plant of the season ready for gathering,” Incashola said. “We give thanks for the bitterroot and we also pray for all the plants yet to come. These plants kept our ancestors alive for hundreds of years and continue to keep us alive today.”

Bitterroot is an important medicinal and food plant for tribes across Montana. (Alyssa Kelly photo)Bitterroot is an important medicinal and food plant for tribes across Montana. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

Each spring, an elder determines when the bitterroot is ready for harvest. In accordance with tradition, the gathering is commenced with a young girl digging the first root before handing it off to an elderly woman for cleaning. The heart, or seed, is cut from the center of the root and buried to replenish a future season.

Harriette McDougal cleaned the first bitterroot harvested in the season. McDougal whispered to the plant giving thanks and prayer as she stripped away the dirt and outer skin of the roots. (Alyssa Kelly photo)Harriette McDougal cleaned the first bitterroot harvested in the season. McDougal whispered to the plant giving thanks and prayer as she stripped away the dirt and outer skin of the roots. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

“The bitterroot is not only food but medicine,” SPCC Senior Language Translator Shirley Trahan said. “When an elder cleans the root, they are also talking to the plant. They thank it for being there for us. We are taught to talk to our plants because all living things are equal to us.”

The traditional story of the bitterroot for the Salish and Pend d’Oreille peoples is one of perseverance. The Creator gifted the plant as a source of food during a time of famine. Its roots bloomed from tears and are bitter to taste.

Similar to the account of its origin, continuing the tradition of harvesting bitterroot has been an ongoing struggle for the indigenous people of the Flathead Reservation. Pend d’Oreille Elder Stephen Small Salmon, 78, said he’s watched the availability of many indigenous plants deplete since he was a child.

Claire Charlo shows the heart of the bitterroot.  (Alyssa Kelly photo)Claire Charlo shows the heart of the bitterroot. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

“There used to be bitterroot all over,” Small Salmon said waving his hand across the prairie landscape. “My dad used to load up all the kids and we’d camp out in Big Draw and dig bitterroot for a few days. We’d dig enough to last the winter… Pretty soon, it was disappearing in the places we used to dig. Farmers tilled up all the land and the bitterroot never grew back.”

Having grown up in Camas Prairie, Pend d’Oreille Elder Patrick Pierre, 88, recalled a similar change in the growth of indigenous plants. “There used to be so much camas entire hills would be purple,” he said. “On a windy day, it looked like waves across the water. I saw a decline in our plants as land went under private ownership.”

The bitterroot dig was finalized with a feast. As with tradition, elders were first to be served.  (Alyssa Kelly photo)The bitterroot dig was finalized with a feast. As with tradition, elders were first to be served. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

With continued factors challenging the tradition of indigenous food gathering, Trahan said it’s vital that tribal people continue to learn. “It’s important that you learn how to dig the bitterroot in a respectful way,” she said. “Changes in the environment, like global warming, are affecting when or even if our plants are coming in the season. We are struggling to protect what we have. We are struggling to protect who we are.”

The bitterroot was prepared for the feast. (Alyssa Kelly photo)The bitterroot was prepared for the feast. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

In accordance with tradition, the gathering ended with a community feed that included traditional foods like bitterroot, deer meat, and huckleberries. The meal also included adopted foods like fry bread. “I would like to thank the young people for stepping up and learning,” said Incashola. “I would also like to thank the Elders for holding on to our way of life and passing it on to another generation.”

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