You may have seen its intensely purple blooms popping up in meadows across southern Vancouver Island: camas, known as kwetlal in lək̓ʷəŋən, is in full bloom.
And while its beauty can be seen in its purple petals, its value is what’s under the ground.
“Traditionally, this was an amazing food resource for my ancestors and a prime source for trade sought across the Pacific Northwest,” said Cheryl Bryce, a Songhees knowledge holder whose grandmother passed down her cultural practice of cultivating, harvesting, and preparing kwetlal.
Kwetlal’s white bulb is a complex carbohydrate that becomes sweet when cooked (traditionally in a pit cook under the earth). Bryce says it’s eaten as is or mixed with berries.
“Made into a fruit leather like fruit rollups!” said Bryce.
Before colonization, the women of Songhees and Esquimalt Nations cultivated and traded kwetlal for thousands of years.
“People would come from different nations up and down the coast to trade. We would trade for ooligan up north and sturgeon from the Fraser,” said Bryce. “It was very sought after and a very important food, and it still is today.”
But the knowledge around kwetlal was nearly wiped out. First with the physical takeover of traditional territories, then again with the devaluing and eventual banning of Indigenous cultural practices.
“It’s the most visual way to see the impacts of colonialism,” said Bryce. “When you look at all the invasive plants, the land that they have occupied and the space they take up, while they smother out and kill all the native plants.”
For the past 20 years, scholars believe only five per cent of the kwetlal food systems (also known as Garry Oak food systems) remain. Bryce thinks today, it’s even less.
“There are so many impacts of colonialism, and environmental colonialism is one of them,” said Bryce.
Cheryl says the now fragmented kwetlal meadows that remain are a visual metaphor for the fragmented Indigenous peoples living on reserves.
Trying to reconcile this ecological colonialism is Metchosin’s Sea Bluff Farms.
“The reason that you and I are standing here right now is because of this flower,” said Robin Tunnicliffe, who runs Sea Bluff.
They’ve been restoring the meadows around their Garry Oaks for the past five years. Tunnicliffe says it’s not been easy removing all the invasive species, but it’s something that’s already seeing a positive impact.
“It’s very symbolic of clearing out the invasive blackberries that were here that were very tenacious, then making room for the native plants,” said Tunnicliffe. “The camas is one the number one attractant of pollinators and insects, it’s just off the charts when you see how many pollinators visit it. It has the power of ecological restoration and cultural restoration, and they’re just gorgeous.
Bryce suggests replacing invasive species with native ones in your backyard as a tangible act of reconciliation which anyone can do.
“I encourage people to plant Indigenous plants,” said Bryce. “Not necessarily as their food garden, but as a way to make those connections between what’s remaining…Imagine those conversations over a family BBQ when you can say, ‘Yeah, these are Indigenous plants.'”
An earthly invitation to reconcile and honour the land and people before us.
“We’re still here, we’re still taking care of the land in our way,” said Bryce. “But there’s a long way to go.”
Bryce encourages people not to collect the endangered wild kwetlal but to instead buy responsibly gathered and cultivated Indigenous seeds and seedlings, like businesses like Satinflower Nurseries. Bryce also suggests donating whatever bounty is grown to their local Nations.