“Food Security is what is Indigenous to Our People”

Colonization, Camas, and the Diet of the Coast Salish People of British Columbia

  • Katherine Laurel Turner


Here the complex relationships between culture, power and landscape are explored through the social history of blue camas (Camassia quamash). This bulb was once recognized as 'the number one vegetable' of the Coast Salish People of the Northwest Coast and a primary source of carbohydrates, but is now remember only by a few. The role of camas in Coast Salish society, however, extended well beyond simple nutrition; it was a cultural keystone species. Activities surrounding camas—harvest, preparation, and consumption—were vital sites for Coast Salish knowledge and cultural transmission between generations. After a discussion of the ecological knowledge, social practices, and technologies associated with camas, the paper moves to examine why, only a few generations following the arrival of Europeans, camas all but vanished from both the cultural and physical landscape. European attitudes of racial superiority, the introduction of new crops, land appropriation, the integration of First Peoples into the wage economy, and the imposition of colonial laws, that eroded Coast Salish self-determination, and with it food sovereignty and security, will be discussed. Recently, the right to harvest camas, from which the Coast Salish have long been alienated, has become focus of emancipation because of the important place of camas as a cultural keystone species and because of the growing awareness of the health impacts of introduced foods on First Nations communities. The paper concludes by highlighting the recent successes of indigenous food sovereignty advocates in reviving, at least symbolically, camas harvest on Southern Vancouver Island.