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Return of Umatilla’s Annual Children’s Root Feast

Jun 1, 2023

By Jill-Marie Gavin for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

MISSION – The Children’s Root Feast returned to the Mission Longhouse after a 3-year hiatus due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. Nearly 500 community members gathered on May 11 to celebrate the in-person return of this annual celebration and feast.

More than 300 students, family members, and educators travelled to a traditional gathering spot on the Umatilla Indian Reservation on May 8. The programs from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation involved were the Cay-Uma-Wa Head Start, Ataw Miyanasma Learning Center, Umatilla Language Immersion Program, After School Program and Nixyaawii Community School. | Photo contributed by Erika Wilson.

Three days before the feast, the Umatilla Education Department took more than 300 participants to the Blue Mountains to gather xous (pronounced “kowsh”) roots, a traditional First Food used by all the Plateau Tribes. The gathering of roots for the feast was done as an educational opportunity for both tribal and non-tribal students from Cay-Uma-Wa Head Start, the CTUIR After-School Program, Nixyaawii Community School, Ataw Miyanasma Learning Center, and Umatilla Language Immersion Program.

Cooks worked long hours in the days leading up to the Children’s Root Feast to provide meals for nearly 500 people in attendance. From left are cooks Syreeta Azure, Teara Farrow-Ferman and Wenix Red Elk making fry bread on the day of the feast, May 11. | Photo by Jill-Marie Gavin/CRITFC.

On the day of the feast, after the roots had been carefully peeled and cleaned, elders called for all the first-time root diggers to come forward. Eventually 217 youth assembled at the head of the longhouse. They were instructed that since this was their first dig, they must prepare bundles and the roots they gathered to give away to a very special person in their life, customarily an elder, family member, or close friend. After a traditional song to honor the return of the roots, each digger called their honored guests to the front of the longhouse to present them with their special bundle and first roots.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Vice-Chair Corinne Sams, left, stands with son Kellen Herrera, front, and Guy Herrera, right, during the first dig ceremony at the Children’s Root Feast. Sams is also a Board of Trustees member at large for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. | Photo by Jill-Marie Gavin/CRITFC.

Only a few families still practice these customs independently, according to Don Sampson, Chief of the Walla Walla Tribe and Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

“Many people aren’t familiar with these customs and often times our families don’t have the opportunity to participate when the Tribes and community isn’t organizing these types of events,” he said.

Fallyn Plume, right, followed by Dahza Joseph, left, follow the line of servers bringing roots to the some 500 hundred Children’s Root Feast guests at the Mission Longhouse May 11. | Photo contributed by Ashley Picard.

After the first dig ceremony, a young hunter was honored for his first successful deer hunt with a first kill ceremony. Following this, the feast began, with the students serving nearly 500 guests.

Cole Sazue, right, prepares to dance three songs and then tell the story of his first successful hunting trip as part of the first kill ceremony. Photo by Jill-Marie Gavin/CRITFC.

“It was so wonderful to see everyone participate and no one felt as though they were out of place. This being done in a good way ensures that the next generation of gatherers will be able to retain the knowledge shared and pass it on to future diggers and hunters,” Sampson said.

Longhouse cook Teara Farrow-Ferman, center, directs youth on how to line up during the serving of food during the Children’s Root Feast. Over half of the 300 diggers were students, who were guided throughout the day as they learned the First Foods customs and traditions. | Photo contributed by Ashley Picard.

Elders at the event reminisced about the beginning days of the event in the early 2000s when only 40 diggers gathered to hold the feast. They became emotional as they talked about the echo of children’s voices in the longhouse that was now packed to the brim. They spoke of the importance of carrying on these traditions and pointed to the possibilities of cultural growth when community members remained engaged and dedicated to passing on the lessons of their elders.

Walulah Jade Green, right, is gifted a beaded medallion by her grandmother Keysha Ashley, left. Green, an Ataw Miyanasma student, gifted Ashley a bundle containing the roots from her first dig. | Photo by Jill-Marie Gavin/CRITFC.

One concern shared both during the event and after was climate change and how it affects the First Foods of the Plateau Tribes. The seasons and timing of gathering roots have been affected by drought and earlier summers.

Donald Sampson, Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation takes a break from drumming during the Children’s Root Feast at the Mission Longhouse May 11. | Photo by Jill-Marie Gavin/CRITFC.

“It is important that the young people who are learning about their roots also know what time of year the foods are ready. They need to have a good understanding of that, especially as climate change affects the land. The diggers will need to know how to plan for that and adapt,” Sampson said.

He also shared that getting students and young gatherers started earlier will allow for closer monitoring of the food.

“The ones growing up now will be the protector of our foods. They need to understand the impacts of climate change. We are seeing more drought conditions and earlier drying of the roots in lower elevations. All these things are important to monitor and with more diggers going out we will be able to catch these changes earlier on,” he said.

The feast closed with a song and ringing of the bell.

“It was a proud day. I was so happy I had the opportunity to drum, sing, and witness our children honoring our First Foods in this way. You could hear all the children singing proudly and with all their strength all the way from the far side of the longhouse,” said Sampson. “Our elders were smiling down on them as they witnessed our precious children carrying on these traditions.”