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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”