Greg Archuleta slings his backpack around his shoulder, dons his handmade cedar hat, snags a few Doritos from a friend and heads into Canemah Bluff Nature Park in Oregon City to look for plants that are used by members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Walks like these are a regular part of life for Archuleta. He walks through forests, prairies, wetlands and more throughout greater Portland, surveying plants that can be used for food, medicine and art materials. Because Metro’s goal is to restore native plants and habitat, its natural areas and nature parks have become regular destinations for Archuleta.
Canemah Bluff is close to Archuleta’s ancestry. Among other tribes, Archuleta is Willamette Tumwater Chinook and Clackamas Chinook, who lived in villages on either side of Willamette Falls near Canemah Bluff.
He hardly takes five steps along the trail before he stops and takes out his camera. Little camas plants are unfurling their stunning, violet flowers. He documents the plant with a click of his camera.
It’s good to see camas here, Archuleta says, but this wouldn’t be a harvest site like Quamash Prairie, a Metro natural area in Washington County where Archuleta and several other Native Americans have worked to cultivate camas. The garlic-sized camas bulb is a traditional staple food, but there are few sites with plentiful camas.
Restoring those camas fields creates a paradox. A test at Quamash found that the camas bulbs store some compounds from pesticides, possibly from Metro’s restoration work or from farming by previous land owners. While the amounts are well under Environmental Protection Agency safety guidelines, tribal members feel it’s unsafe to eat the bulbs in large quantities. A goal of cultivating camas patches is to eat the bulbs, to make a heritage food a regular part of native people’s diet; but without spraying pesticides there’s no practical way to control the invasive weeds like reed canarygrass and meadow foxtail that swallow up the camas fields.
Archuleta resolves this paradox by taking the long view. He feels that pesticides should be a last resort, but if it takes a few years of treatments to re-establish a healthy camas community, that’s worth dealing with pesticide residue. Archuleta might not be able to gather and eat the bulbs, but future generations will.
Archuleta hopes that, through their partnership with Metro, the tribes’ traditional ecological knowledge and practices might offer less drastic ways of keeping weeds at bay. Grand Ronde tribal members are working with Metro scientists at Quamash Prairie to conduct a controlled burn of the prairie in part to reduce invasive plants.
“Some people think it’s best to be hands-off, to let nature fix itself,” Archuleta says. “We’re more hands-on.”
He grabs hold of a hazel stem and points to the spot where he would cut it to produce, in a few years, young and supple branches for basket making. That’s how his elders taught him.
For thousands of years before European settlers arrived, native people used their traditional knowledge to shape the Willamette Valley.
For instance, the tribes would set ablaze large fields of tarweed, a wild sunflower. The fire would burn away the tarry substance, and people could then harvest the parched seeds and process them into flour or mix them with other foods like berries. Fire was also used for hazel, huckleberries and acorns.
Indigenous land management of the Willamette Valley existed in the 1850s, when the federal government forcibly removed the tribes and bands living in the valley and moved them to the Grand Ronde Reservation.
The confederation includes peoples from the coast to the Cascades and Portland to the Klamath Basin, representing 27 tribes and bands speaking at least six different languages.
Archuleta teaches tribal members about their first foods like camas, wapato, salmon, eels and more. He teaches arts like basketry, weaving and carving. It seems a mind-bogglingly rich array of cultures to hold, protect and advocate.
“I don’t know, I just do it,” Archuleta says.
“There’s ancestral memory, too,” says Maiya Osife, Metro’s intertribal cultural resource specialist, who has been deeply involved in Archuleta’s work.
She has worked to make it simpler for indigenous people to practice their traditions and culture on Metro properties, all of which are lands ceded by tribes to the federal government. Metro’s cultural resource permits provide indigenous community members access to land to hold cultural events and ceremonies and to harvest culturally significant plants.
Deeper on the trail at Canemah Bluff, Archuleta walks slowly, pointing to berry plants and saying their names quietly – thimble berry, huckleberry, salal, bunch berry, gooseberry, raspberry.
Archuleta finds another hazel, this one with young shoots that might make good basketry material. He begins to wrap it around his index finger, recounting how a friend told him that the wild variety of the plant would twirl around a finger while cultivated hazel would be too stiff.
“Oh! Look at this,” he says as the stem winds a second loop around his finger. His voice gets more excited as the stem completes a third loop, “Look at this! I think it’s a wild hazel.”
He steps back, snaps a photo, admires the plant and then looks around for any more. Archuleta has seen several hazel shrubs on the walk, and maybe the others are wild, too. If there’s enough to harvest, he could use them in his basketry classes, but for the hazel to support the basketmaker, the basketmaker has to support the hazel.