The Camas Prairie
A rich past and an uncertain future
Photography: Heather King and Nancy Farese
An image, like this sun-bleached cow skull on a water trough, is for some an analogy of the prairie along the stretch of Highway 20. But the Camas Prairie is as full of history as that skull, but one must overlook the parched façade.
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John Henry steps fully onto the head of the shovel, digging deeper into the hardened earth. He vigorously rocks the handle back and forth. The ground holds firm. He approaches from the other side, securing a beachhead and then again rocking to loosen the ground’s hold. Finally, the earth yields, and he raises a large mound of dirt, grass and root. He sifts through it carefully. In the heart of the mound he finds his prize: the camas bulb. It is of creamy white color and about the size of a large radish. John Henry holds it gently, almost reverently. Across this southern corner of the Camas Prairie, encircling May’s still wet center of the Centennial Marsh, several dozen Indians of the Sho-Ban Tribe begin drumming, signaling the start of homecoming festivities that are held each spring. Rooted in tribal tradition, they echo the same ritual and wrestle the prairie to collect their bounty while embracing the camas of today.
The camas bulb has a special significance to the Indian people and the prairie’s history. For centuries, the Bannock migrated to the prairie from the southern plains each summer to harvest and hunt. The camas and yumpa plants were staples in the Indian diet. The prairie, rich in camas, yumpa, grains and game, was a paradise. In 1878, Chief Buffalo Horn led the Bannock to war against the newly-arrived homesteaders because of the camas.
The Indians were outraged that the newcomers and their livestock were destroying the bulbs. “Those pigs eating the camas was what began the Bannock War,” says Carolyn Boyer Smith of the Shoshone-Bannock Culture Resources Department. Ultimately, the Indians were relocated to Fort Hall, duped out of their lands by a spelling error in the 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty. “In the treaty, ‘Kamas’ was spelled ‘Kansas,’ thereby illegally excluding the Bannock people from an agreed-upon reservation site in the Camas area,” explains Smith.
The camas bloom and harvest is more limited now, mostly centered in and around the Centennial Marsh. But the prairie still evokes the spirit of earlier days. For much of the past century, it has been suspended in time. It humbly but proudly displays testaments to its past. Homesteader cabins, old schoolhouses, sheep corrals, and grain elevators punctuate its wide-open spaces. Upon closer inspection, we can find Indian petroglyphs in Hill City’s rock outcroppings, vestiges of the Oregon Short railroad line that serviced the area, and traces of Goodale’s Cutoff, a detour off the Oregon Trail.
Looking forward, the Camas Prairie as the Indians knew it, and as we have known it, is an endangered place. In the 1800s, it was the homesteaders that rolled into the area. Today, it is expanding populations of Boise and the Wood River Valley that are driving change. The prairie will be developed. The question is when and how. >>>