In a wooded spot a half-mile from Washington State University’s Pullman campus, an older woman with long braids and an apron emblazoned with the words “got buns?” tended an alderwood fire. Geraldine Jim, a salmon expert from the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, used the back of a pickup truck as her staging area. She threaded the salmon halves lengthwise onto long, stripped sticks of dogwood and ironwood. While the fish roasted, she circled the fire, running her hand up the skin side to feel for doneness. She pointed out how a half-section of the fish is threaded down the stick, the thin tail end at the top, furthest from the fire. Note how the tail hangs over the top of the stick, she said, so the salmon doesn’t slide down into the flames as it cooks. This is how it has been done for centuries.
Roasting salmon is a time-consuming effort. You have to go slowly, but the result is a rich, smoky, alder-flavored pink fish. Delicious even without salt. Using the right sticks is key, said Wilfred Jim, as he scraped them clean afterward. Ironwood, because it gets harder as it ages, is ideal. Some of the sticks that he and Geraldine use are 20 years old.
The Columbia plateau has always provided its residents with a rich variety of foods, and salmon has been at the heart of it, says Mary Collins, associate director of the WSU Museum of Anthropology. “That’s no surprise, considering that environmentally it is extraordinarily diverse,” she says. “We have everything from desert to cedar forests. And among its Native American inhabitants there has been a strong tradition of cooperation in terms of access to food resources from both trading relationships and family relationships.”
In that spirit of cooperation, volunteers and organizers spent months gathering the foods to be served at the campus feast during the Plateau Indian Conference at WSU last fall. Members and descendants of many of the plateau cultures including the Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, and Walla Walla, came together to share in the rich variety of foods that have a home in their histories.
To prepare for the meal, they dug camas root, bitterroot, and Indian carrot from around the Palouse. Some hunted and dried deer meat. Others picked and preserved berries and collected moss from the forest. The moss is a special treat, which takes some doing to prepare. It has to be cleaned of sticks and pitch and then baked for a very long time, said Sharon Redthunder of the Colville Reservation as she helped set up the meal. The final step is to cook it into a pudding, she said, lifting a lid to reveal a black, wet mass.
More than just the food, the tradition comes in the serving of it. The dishes were presented in the order of the season in which they were ripe and ready, and by the people who were responsible for collecting them. The men brought out salmon and dried venison. Then came the women serving camas roots, the bitterroot, the chokecherries and the berries.
The first course, though, is always water, said Redthunder, as the servers placed filled pitchers on a table. “It’s the source of life.”
So alongside huckleberry pie and roasted camas root, several hundred guests had a generous serving of tradition.