Ancient Tribal earth ovens built long before the Egyptian pyramids were excavated as part of the first archaeological project made public by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

Conducted in collaboration with Washington State University archaeologists, the excavation could reveal new insights into the foods the Kalispel people have been preparing and eating in the Inland Northwest for the last 5,000 years.

“As a Tribe, we’ve never shared this kind of historical excavation experience with the public,” says Kalispel Tribal elder Shirley Blackbear. “But I think it is important for non-Natives to learn and understand more about our Tribe. Our history and traditions are very rich and important to us. Cooking techniques have been passed down from generation to generation.”

The earth ovens, one of which radiocarbon dating suggests is 5,000 years old, were discovered after the Kalispel Tribe purchased land near Newport to accommodate the need for additional Tribal housing near the reservation.

Professional archaeologists and fourth-year students in a WSU archaeological field school worked this summer to delineate oven features. Soil samples were also collected and analyzed in the lab in the hopes of identifying charred seeds, nuts, and even bits of protein that could paint a clearer picture of the diet and food processing techniques used by ancient Tribal people living on the banks of the Pend Oreille River.

The oven remains and other discovered artifacts were carefully removed from the ground to make way for essential Tribal housing.

“The broader-level question we are asking is why were the people of this region picking this particular place to cook their food at again and again over a period of thousands of years?” says Shannon Tushingham, a WSU professor of archaeology who led the archaeological field school in collaboration with the Kalispel Tribe. “Earth ovens have been excavated in this area before, but now in 2023 we have all these wonderful new technologies that give us the ability to better determine what types of food were being eaten and how they were prepared.”

One of the main foods the archaeologists hope to learn more about from the excavation is camas, a small flowering plant with roots that can be cooked fresh or ground into flour for baking over several days. While the Tribe has preserved the tradition of baking camas bread by passing it down from generation to generation, not much is known about the oven technology they used before 3,000 years ago.

“When we combine what we find from archaeological investigations like this with environmental reconstructions and ethnographic data, we can begin to start getting a much clearer picture,” says Kevin Lyons, Kalispel Tribal archaeologist.

Traditionally, Tribes have not always been consulted when it comes to archaeological digs, especially when the property is owned by private non-Tribal landowners. However, since the early 1990s, the Kalispel Tribe has grown its own capacity to answer questions about its past as it sees fit, employing archaeologists of its own to preserve Tribal history.

Lyons said Tribal leadership decided to partner with WSU experts on the project given its scale and scientific complexity.

“This is one of those rare occasions where the Tribe, with its own expertise, could do this on its own, but we would wind up doing it to the exclusion of everything else, and we already have other standing obligations,” he says. “We are partnering with WSU archaeologists on this project because we have a long tradition of working with them and know that they will do justice to the Tribe’s history and its tangible footprint.”

For WSU, “It is really about teaching students the archaeological skills they will need to get jobs in the growing field of cultural resource management,” Tushingham says. “We are training the next generation of professional archaeologists how to work with Tribal communities and interact with them in a meaningful and professional way. We are honored to be hosted by the Kalispel Tribe.”


Read more about the partnership with the Kalispel Tribe. (WSU Insider)