Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Natives still return to Camas Prairie

Tribes claim ownership of traditional wetlands

Express Staff Writer

The Camas Prairie blooms in May. Under the purple camas lily is a bulb that has been used by many native tribes for sustenance across the Northwest. Courtesy photo by George Martin Jr.

Last in a four-part series about Native Americans who lived in and around the Wood River Valley.

The vast Camas Prairie stretches for 25 miles along state Highway 75, north and south of Fairfield. It consists of 250 square miles of marshes, streams and agricultural fields.

The prairie gets its name from the camas lily (Camassia quamash), which sprouts during May, covering thousands of acres with a sea of purple blossoms.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were introduced by the Nez Perce Indians to the importance of the camas bulb as a food source, when their Corps of Discovery expedition ran low on food supplies. The high-protein bulbs had been dried and smoked and used for bread making by many Northwestern tribes.

In 1806, Lewis mistook a vast field of camas lilies in northern Idaho for a lake.

"So complete is this deseption that on first site I could have swoarn it was water," he wrote.

Wes Fields was born on the Camas Prairie in 1926. His grandfather had filled two railroad box cars with the family's belongings and livestock in 1906, and headed east from Colfax, Wash., to homestead near Fairfield, Idaho, disembarking first in the town of Hailey.

Fields' father was only 13 when he drove a horse team from Hailey for three days to the vast Camas Prairie to homestead 160 acres of land given to his father by the federal government.

The Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, required in exchange only that the Fields family improve the land and file for a deed of title, both of which they did.

The family improved its lot considerably over three generations. Ten years ago, they sold about 10,000 acres to the McCaw family of Seattle, known for early success in the cellular telephone industry.

Wes Fields now lives with his wife, Marypat, on their remaining 10 acres of Camas Prairie south of Fairfield. Nearby is the protected Centennial Marsh, home to many species of migrating water birds, raptors and herds of deer and antelope.

Fields said irrigation for agriculture over the past 100 years has made the Camas Prairie a major source of organic hay and barley, much of which is shipped to Colorado and Texas.

"There used to be camas all over here," Fields said.

He said that when he was young, in the 1930s and '40s, the area was covered by many small farms.

"Now there are only five farmers farming 90 percent of the land."


One spring day five years ago, Fields said, he saw some Indians driving past his house on their way to the Centennial Marsh, a 3,100-acre wildlife management area under control of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The last time Fields had seen Indians going to "the swamp," as he calls it, was when he was a young boy.

"They came on an iron-wheeled wagon from Fort Hall," he recalls. "They gathered camas bulbs and hunted woodchucks [marmots]. They dried the meat and then rode back to Fort Hall."

Fields, who has driven cattle and ridden horses all of his life, estimates that the one-way trip took them 10 days.

As a boy, Fields watched the Indians come and go, never approaching them. But five years ago he got curious and followed the Indians to the swamp.

"I wanted to see what they were up to," he said.

He met and befriended Carolyn Boyer-Smith and her father, Lionel Boyer, Fort Hall Indians who have revived the tradition of gathering camas bulbs from their ancestral foraging ground.

"There were about 30 Indians," Fields said. "We had fry bread and salmon, and an elderly woman sang a prayer song before we ate and then as I was leaving."

Fields has had time to reflect on the way valuable lands have been taken throughout history from native people.

"We didn't treat them fair, but that has been the way the world has been forever. It doesn't make it right, but if someone has a different color skin, and different religion, they are not treated the same."

Four years ago, he helped organize the annual Camas Lily Days Festival in Fairfield, which takes place during the first week in June. The festival features Indian dancing, arts and crafts and the traditional baking of camas bulbs in rock-lined fire pits covered with wet grass and earth.

"I've gotten quite close with them," Fields said of his new friends from Fort Hall. "They like to tease you and joke around a lot."

The Boyers and many others at Fort Hall maintain that they have ownership rights to the Camas Prairie guaranteed to them under the Bannock Treaty of 1869.

Native rights to Camas Prairie were addressed in "The History of Bannock County" by Arthur C. Saunders. He wrote in 1917, 10 years after Fields' grandfather arrived with his family on Camas Prairie.

"The document [treaty] stated that the Indians should have a portion of the Kansas prairie, instead of [saying] Camas," Saunders wrote.

"The two words were synonymous to the Indians, but wise men among the whites foresaw that the mistake would cause future trouble."

Saunders wrote that in the spring of 1873, John Hailey, the founder of the Blaine County town, had called on the secretary of the Interior and the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington, D.C., urging that the mistake be corrected. The effort was to no avail.

"The treaty still read 'Kansas,' and the Bannocks still believed that they were entitled to a portion of the Camas Prairie, where there were no white settlers at that time, and where the Indians roamed at will," he wrote.

In recent years, the Shoshone and Bannocks have initiated a legal campaign to reclaim the prairie, or portions of it.

Lori Edmo-Suppah, editor of the Shoban News in Fort Hall, expressed the feelings of many Fort Hall Indians.

"The most interesting thing about the Camas Prairie is that we still own it," Edmo-Suppah said.

Fields said he has seen a copy of the treaty, along with the misspelling of Camas Prairie as "Kansas Prairie."

Fields said he is familiar with the Indians' claims.

He also said he had become close with tribal members, especially after attending a summer pow-wow at Fort Hall.

"We [he and his wife] left in awe and with a lot of respect. We appreciate their culture," he said.

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