The Native Americans, along with other Aboriginal tribes around the globe, rely on their knowledge of and relationship with their local environment for subsistence, both physical and spiritual, called Traditional Ecological Knowledge, often abbreviated to TEK. TEK has seven major aspects or “lodgepoles”, according to Menzies and Butler (2006). TEK is:
- Cumulative and long term
- Moral and Spiritual
The Bitterroot Salish-Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille, the three tribes living on the Flathead Reservation in the Flathead Valley of Western Montana, strive to preserve their TEK to this day. A Good example of this is their use of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness on the Reservation to collect edible and medicinal plants, hunt game, and fish. Their TEK is cumulative and long-term because each generation learns from the last and adds to that knowledge in their time, a goal that is continued in field trips taken by students in the NK w’ SM Immersion School. The knowledge is dynamic because, with the exception of the Pend d’Orielle, the Reservation does not contain the tribes traditional homeland, and therefore they hadn’t lived there before the Hellgate Treaty of 1855; their knowledge changed with the landscape they inhabited. This forced movement also makes their TEK historical because there are stories passed down of how it used to be before the Treaty, and how it is now that they live in the Flathead Valley.
The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes: TEK is local, they have a connection with the land where they live. The tribes know the palnts (camas, bitterroot), animals (elk, bear), waters (the Flathead River), and rocks of the Mission Mountains and the Flathead Valley. This local knowledge is holistic, the entire region is treated as a whole and no one part can function without the other. TEK is also embedded, meaning that it is very much a part of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille lifestyle and culture, It is also a part of their moral and spiritual base. As Pat Pierre told us when we went to speak with him at the NK w’ SM Immersion School, you should never take anything from your Mother Earth without giing thanks, otherwise next time your Mother may not give you what you need.
After the arrival of white settlers and the formation of reservations, the language, culture, and TEK of many Native American tribes dwindled and some were even lost. But on the Flathead Reservation Pat Pierrre, Lucy Vanderburg, and Steve Smallsalmon, among many others in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are working hard to keep the language alive and revive the culture. One of the ways they do this is to teach the language to grade-schoolers at the NK w’ SM Immersion School. The culture is being kept alive through the teaching of TEK at the school and at events through the People’s Center. One event that combines some of the aspects of TEK is the gathering and baking of camas, a traditional food.
In early summer the women go out and collect many pounds of camas roots from the Mission Mountains and other traditional locations. The gathering of camas is done only by women traditionally because it was believed that if men collect camas, they will bring bad luck to the tribe. Once the camas is gathered, a large pit is dug and a fire is started within. The fire must be large enough to produce enough coals to cover the bottom of the pit evenly. The coals are spread out and large, flat rocks are placed over them. Alder branches, skunk cabbage leaves, and fern fronds are layered over the stones, then camas and black tree moss, wrapped in skunk cabbage leaves, are placed in the pit in one layer . Another layer of alder branches, skunk cabbage leaves, and fern fronds are laid on top, covered with pine bark, and left to bake and steam. A stick about two inches in diamter is held in the middle of the pit for the duration of the layering process and is removed once finished to allow a channel for the adding of water. The cams is left buried for three days, with additional water poured in in the mornings.
The preservation of this traditional method of harvesting and preparing camas is also preserving the language and culture of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille peoples, which when taken as a part of knowledge of a place and a cultivated relationship with it will bring people together. On this trip I have had my first real taste of mountains and as our group trekked through green valleys, burnt forests and alpine conifers, we have grown closer. With each new piece of knowledge and every mile walked we develop a rapport with the earth, the air, and each other. In the first section Sara shared her local knowledge of plants with us and through her passion we got to know her better. As we moved from alpine meadows to coniferous forests to the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, our conversations were dynamic, spanning such topics as fire ecology, grizzly bear management, and community involvement. It may not be traditional ecological knowledge, or even local knowledge gained from living your life in a place like this, but this knowledge is a part of a relationship built with the land and that is something to preserve and cultivate.