A city isn’t the most likely place for an Indigenous crop revival. But across the greater Portland area in Oregon, municipalities like Metro and the City of Portland have been partnering with organizations and tribes to promote Native American land access and cultivation of first foods, the term used for traditional local foods that have nourished Indigenous people for centuries.
In a city park, a drained lakebed, an old grazing lot, and along an urban creek, first foods are returning to areas where they once flourished before the land was covered by farms and urban sprawl.
The partnerships are historically significant, considering Portland didn’t even allow Native Americans to live within city limits until 1920. Today, most American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban centers, and Portland is home to the ninth largest urban Indigenous population in the country.
“People in the city have often felt disconnected and without access to the community that goes along with the longhouse,” said Gabe Sheoships, Cayuse and Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Sheoships is executive director of Friends of Tryon Creek, a nonprofit that partners with Oregon State Parks to promote stewardship of and access to a 650-acre state natural area in Southwest Portland. He is also actively involved in Portland’s first foods and traditional ecological knowledge movement.
“Portland has such a large urban [Native American] population, and people who are reconnecting to their culture,” he continued. “First foods that are native to these lands help people find that connection, the knowledge of local tribes.”
Beyond their cultural importance and health benefits, first foods could play a meaningful ecological role in climate change mitigation. “These are the keys to human survival and resilience,” Sheoships said.
Metro makes an unusual offer
About a decade ago, Curt Zonick, the senior natural resource scientist at Metro’s Parks and Nature Department, said he grew tired of the organization’s actionless talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. “I just got frustrated with this nebulous discussion around it,” he said. Zonick brainstormed with colleagues about doing “something real.”
Metro serves the tri-county area that encompasses Portland and surrounding cities. It manages around 17,000 acres of forests, parks, trails, and other pieces of land, according to its website. Zonick oversees restoration projects on about a dozen properties, including Quamash Prairie, a meadow that is about a 30-minute drive southwest from downtown Portland in rolling farmlands past Tigard. Another is the Multnomah Channel Natural Area, a wetland near where the Willamette River splits around Sauvie Island.
Zonick asked the City of Portland’s Parks and Recreation Department to connect him with the Native American Community Advisory Council, which advises the city on parks projects. He set up a formal invitation for NACAC members to examine some of Metro’s properties, and extended the invitation to the greater urban Indigenous community to access and use those properties however they saw fit, with no strings attached.
“We really just had a 20-minute spiel where we showed slides of a bunch of our sites and said, ‘Hey, we’ve restored these. We want to welcome you back to these sites. We think there’s more that could be happening here,’” Zonick recounts. “We wanted to make sure we were offering without asking, welcoming without expecting.”
He said it felt like he had waited 10 years to invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. “And it’s not even my land, right?”
The Indigenous community’s interest in Quamash Prairie was immediate. And Zonick chalked it up to the presence of a legacy patch of small, flowering lilies called camas.
The Kalapuya reclaim an heirloom crop
“Quamash Prairie is in the ancestral homelands of the Tualatin Kalapuya,” said Greg Archuleta, a tribal member and cultural policy analyst at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The tribal government’s 11,500-acre reservation is southwest of Portland, but the more than 30 tribes and bands that make up the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde once lived across what’s now Oregon, Washington and California.
“So the lands are within our ancestral homeland area,” Archuleta said.
He said that was a foremost reason for Grande Ronde’s interest in Metro’s offer. Another was camas.
Camassia quamash, the prairie’s namesake, blossoms in little purple clusters atop tall stems that stand a foot or two high amongst the grasses. A traditional way to prepare camas is to slow roast the bulb for three days in an earthen oven, which brings out a sweet chestnut flavor. It’s an important first food for Kalapuyan people, an ethnic group that includes tribes in the Willamette Valley.
“It was one of the major trade staples for this area,” Sheoships said, explaining that many of the Indigenous people who maintained a presence in this region, even if they didn’t live there year round, depended on camas and wapato through trade channels. While camas isn’t growing directly in Tryon Creek State Park, Sheoships said there's a patch just off the creek up against an affluent residential neighborhood.
The large, dense camas patch at Quamash Prairie, according to Zonick, has likely survived since before colonization. At the time Zonick “inherited” the site through Metro, he said the meadow had been used for grazing, so it hadn’t been plowed, which is why the camas survived. Consequently, however, thick pasture grasses were choking out the bulbs. Metro cleared out the pasture grasses, but in doing so, introduced selective herbicides that the camas bulbs absorbed.
Grand Ronde has been monitoring the herbicide levels closely, and Archuleta says they’re now low enough that they wouldn’t be harmful if the camas were eaten. Archuleta also mentioned other traditional foods growing in Quamash Prairie, including cattail, tarweed and wapato, as well as plants used for basketry. The prairie is giving urban Native Americans access to first foods, cultural resources and ceremonial space that’s hard to come by in a metropolitan area. And one of the ways Grand Ronde has stepped in to care for the land is by burning it.
Environmentally friendly foods
Two years ago, Grand Ronde’s fire program visited Quamash Prairie to conduct a controlled burn. Prescribed fire has grown more popular in recent years as a way to prevent uncontrolled wildfires, but it’s also a traditional form of managing first foods that was practiced for centuries before colonization. Burns cultivate fire-resilient food species like white oak acorns, and the ash nourishes camas growth. The Willamette Valley now has a reputation for vineyards and Douglas fir forests, but originally it was mostly white oak savanna, carpeted with camas, sprinkled with edible acorns and maintained with good fire.
Zonick said it might have been easier to hire a contractor to do a controlled burn at Quamash Prairie. But he knew burning was important to local tribes, so he went to Grand Ronde.
“It was so easy,” Zonick said. “It was one of the best fires I’ve ever done.”
Archuleta, for his part, says Grand Ronde is also looking forward to more burns in the future. And Zonick wants to make sure that all tribes and Indigenous people in the area, not just Grand Ronde members, are able to access and maintain Quamash Prairie.
First foods also provide a more climate-friendly model of eating. Consider a hamburger, Sheoships suggests: streams in Oregon have been channelized to promote livestock grazing.
“So that cow may have trampled on some salmon habitat in John Day and is now being served on your plate for a profit,” Sheoships says, adding that beef represents competing interests with meat that comes from “natural relationships,” like salmon, buffalo, elk, moose, and deer.
The key to prolonging our collective survival, Sheoships says, is first foods, including restoration of native fish, first food plant resources, healthy game, and healthy ecosystems that include fire. “Long-term resilience in general, with climate change, etcetera, is how all these things come together to complement one another,” he said.
Restoring a dry lakebed
Another 15 miles west, just south of Forest Grove, Oregon, lies the depleted footprint of Wapato Lake. It was once home to a thriving crop of wapato, a plant that grows in wetlands and produces a potato-like tuber that is another Kalapuyan first food. It’s also known as broadleaf arrowhead, duck potato, Katniss (it’s the namesake of The Hunger Games protagonist) or Sagittaria latifolia. The bulbs were traditionally harvested by wading into the water and digging them up with your toes, then tossing the whole plant into a canoe.
Wapato Lake was once surrounded by over a dozen Kalapuyan buildings, and was an important food resource center. But it was drained in the early- to mid-1900s by a coalition of farmers. Since the early 2000s, the land has changed hands between organizations interested in wetland restoration. It’s now owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Archuleta said Grand Ronde hopes to replicate its success at Quamash Prairie on Wapato Lake.
“We're working with them there to hopefully be able to one day in the future be able to gather wapato there again,” Archuleta said.
Sheoships says wapato and camas were traditionally the biggest plant foods of the Willamette Valley. “All of the wetlands and sloughs in the metro area supported camas,” he explained, “and wapato, of course.”
First foods are also making a comeback elsewhere around the metro area, including in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood where the city’s parks and recreation department has worked with Indigenous community members to develop a Native Gathering Garden. And out by Grand Ronde’s reservation, the Nature Conservancy has returned to the tribe over 600 acres of land, which holds some of the last remaining white oak savanna in the region.
At Metro, Zonick is piloting a five-year, inter-governmental agreement to hire various tribes to burn at a number of Metro-operated sites, a different one every year, for land restoration, just like they did at Quamash Prairie.
“I’m glad it happened sooner rather than later,” Zonick said of the successful Quamash Prairie collaboration. “But it could’ve happened sooner. We could’ve done this 10 years earlier.”
Sheoships is pleased to see more Indigenous people “finding ways to connect in urban environments.”
“In cities and urban environments, I think there’s a lot of people who maybe feel shut off from their culture,” he said. “It’s harder to access their traditional foods or their cultural practices.”
But growing first foods and keeping alive traditional ecological knowledge bridges those gaps.
“First foods that are native to these lands,” Sheoships said, “help people find that connection.”
Lead photo: Camas bulbs are traditionally slow roasted, producing a flavor that some liken to a sweet chestnut. Photo by Holly A. Heyser/photo.hollyheyser.com