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Archive for February 21st, 2011

 

Wapato

Wapato – Sagittarian Latifolia ( Broadleaf Arrowhead, tule potato, duck potato, arrowleaf).

This story was told to me. I have never seen Wapato. I search for it often to release it back into the wild. This story was told to me by others who love the plants.

In the land whose borders stretched from the area we call British Columbia (Haida, Tlingit, Lleitsui Nuuchah Nuith, and Salish land) to the deep forests and coast of Northern California and Mt Shasta (Tshastl) Wapato grew and kept watch over the people. This was the time before the change.

Once, before the occupation and colonization of the first peoples of Cascadia. Before the times when women and children and the infirmed were taken from the Cow Creek, Umpqua, Siletz, Kalapuya and Chinook. Before the people were lined up and marched on the Trail of Tears to Grand Ronde. Before the strong youth and warriors of those tribe escaped across the Cascades to join the resistance leaders such as Bin, Sister, and Sami of the Carrier Athabasca, Joseph of the Nez Pierce whose real name was In-mutt-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from water). Before the brave ones crossed the deep snows of the Cascades to join the Paiute Leader Wovoka and the Ghost Dancers and the Modoc resistance leader Captain Jack – Keiutpoos.

Before that time the Wapato lived in great green rivers along the slow moving streams and the ponds. It was the glory food of the people.

Wapato grew so prolifically, that it was harvested like crops. First peoples apparently claimed patches that guaranteed rights of harvest. Families or tribes made claims on particular patches of the plant. While Wapato grows all over the North American continent (and the world), it probably came to prominence in the northwest due to mild winters and great abundance of places to grow. Wapato was gathered in October and November when most other ponds in the country are frozen over or too cold for gathering.

Wapato loved the shallow ponds, swamps, slow moving streams, and the margins of quiet lakes. It requires a rich muck that is submerged in water for most or all of the year. In good conditions, Wapato can grow in huge abundance.

According to Pojar and McKinnon a Chinook myth describes Wapato as “the food before Salmon came to the Columbia”. The women of the First People tribes would wade in water up to their chests or even necks, while using their feet, to release tubers from their stems. The tubers floated to the water’s surface, were collected, and tossed into a special canoe.

Wapato was eaten raw (although somewhat bitter) or cooked. Wapato tubers were prepared for eating by boiling, or by baking in hot ashes or in underground pits, after which they could be eaten or dried for long-term storage or trading. The taste of the Wapato is much like that of the potato.

The tuber was an energy food much like potatoes. Only this plant also yielded some iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium and other minerals. It was an outstanding food when there was a shortage of protein. It is very high in carbohydrates. This allowed the people who harvested Wapato to survive long winters with little other food. The tubers stored well and were much sought after as a trade food item.

The Wapato could be pounded into flour that was stored and made into cakes in the winter time. Or it was added to Pemmican or fruit leather.

But during the occupation wars, in order to beat down the people, the great twisting rivers of Wapato were dug up by the occupiers and piled along the stream edges and burned. This was done as part of the genocide against the First Peoples. It was thought that if the plant was destroyed in the wild, the people would be dependent upon the occupiers for food and would not run away.

The women tried to hide the tubers in their belongings in hopes of replanting them at the place of internment. Some Wapato was smuggled to Grand Ronde and into the Coast range. Some were released along the Luckimute and other local rivers and streams.

There are few reserves of these plants.

One is found at the Ridgefield Wildlife Reserve at Ridgefield, Washington. Great flocks of trumpeter swans migrate here each winter.  The Wapato is excellent food for these beautiful birds.  The area is closed to people, but there is an observation area nearby. 

Wapato is an herbaceous wetland plant. The leaves and flower stalk rise above the water. The leaves are arrow-shaped (sagittate). Leaf stems attach directly to the base of the plant like celery. The base is partially submerged in the muck, giving rise to the roots and rhizomes below.

The plants grow in long bands that snake around the curves of ponds, lakes and slow moving streams. Wapato’s white, 3-petaled flowers bloom on a spike from midsummer through early autumn. The flowering stalk is separate from the leaves but rises about as high off the water. Later in summer, small green balls form in place of the flowers. These turn brown in fall and break apart to disperse tiny, flat, winged, floating seeds.

There is a growing movement to replant the Wapato in Cascadia’s waterways. The plant is food not only for humans but for beavers, otters, muskrats, ducks and other animals that frequent water ways.

To learn more about Wapato

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadleaf_arrowhead

Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia

 Thrush, Coll-Peter – The Lushootseed Peoples of Puget Sound Country – Essay by Coll-Peter Thrush viewed on the internet 1/1/2011  http://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/thrush.html#circling  University of Washington – Digital Collections

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