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Dec. 5, 2021

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Native tuber wapato reintroduced at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge

It was diet staple for Chinook Indians

By , Columbian staff writer
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3 Photos
Doug Kreuzer, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership restoration ecologist, joins Alvey Seeyouma, a member of the Hopi tribe also working with the partnership, as they plant wapato in the cold, muddy area along Gibbons Creek at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon. At top, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership principal restoration ecologist Curtis Helm holds wapato. The native plant once was an important part of local diets.
Doug Kreuzer, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership restoration ecologist, joins Alvey Seeyouma, a member of the Hopi tribe also working with the partnership, as they plant wapato in the cold, muddy area along Gibbons Creek at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon. At top, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership principal restoration ecologist Curtis Helm holds wapato. The native plant once was an important part of local diets. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — When families sit down Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner, they likely won’t find wapato among the dishes covering the table. But for the Chinook Indians, the wetland tuber that tastes much like potatoes was a diet staple that helped see them through the winter months.

Wapato is being reintroduced in the floodplain at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge as part a $25 million project to restore 965 acres of wetland habitat, the largest restoration project of its kind attempted on the Columbia River.

Project members from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership and the Chinook Indian Nation gathered at the refuge Monday to celebrate the importance of the plant and its reintroduction to the Steigerwald Lake refuge.

When the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through the area, first in 1805 while headed to the Pacific Ocean and again in 1806 on the return voyage, Chinook Indians already had well-established villages and trade routes from the mouth of the Columbia stretching to the area that would become The Dalles, Ore.

“As I stand here, I think of the ancestors that were in this area and the work they did to improve the area, what they did for the animals,” said Sam Robinson, vice chair of the Chinook Indian Nation.

Robinson represents the five tribes of the lower Columbia River, which includes the Cathlamet, Willapa and Lower Chinook tribes in Washington and the Clatsop and Wahkiakum tribes in Oregon. Collectively, their territory stretched from present-day Kalama to Willapa Bay.

Wapato was such an important crop to the Chinook that the area now called Sauvie Island was named for it. Sometimes called broadleaf arrowhead, duck-potato, Indian potato or Katniss, wapato is a perennial, leafy plant that grows in wetland areas and produces edible tubers. The plants can grow to 6.5 feet in length or more and are native to southern Canada, most of the contiguous United States, Mexico, Central America and some parts of South America.

At Steigerwald Lake, the plants typically begin to appear in the spring and early summer, growing 2 to 4 feet tall into late summer and early fall, said Curtis Helm, principal restoration ecologist for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

“It grows flowers and it grows seeds late in August and September. Then it dies back underground in the early fall. When it dies back underground, all that energy from the above-ground plant is translocated to the rhizome (the subterranean plant stem) and out into the roots,” Helm said. That action produces the tubers.

Anyone harvesting the tubers must keep track of where wapato grew in the warmer months, Helm said, because once the plant dies back, there’s no evidence it was ever there.

In addition to around 3,000 wapato bulbs, other native flora are being planted as part of the restoration project.

“We’re looking at half a million trees and shrubs going into the ground across 250 acres. A lot of seeding is going on,” said Doug Kreuzer, restoration ecologist for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

In addition to wapato, tule is also being planted. It was another plant important to Native Americans for its use in making bowls, baskets and clothing.

“We’re still in an active construction phase,” Kreuzer said. “We’re working on the trail network, our bridge, the Gibbons Creek channel that connects to the Columbia River, the approaches. A lot has been accomplished, but we still have some work ahead of us.”

“It’s been so inspiring to be part of it and work with (the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership); they have amazing biologists and project managers working with us,” said Juliette Fernandez, project manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

8 Photos
Sam Robinson, Chinook Indian Tribe vice chairman, left, performs the song "The Changer", which honors upcoming change, while joined by Alvey Seeyouma, a member of the Hopi Tribe working with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, before the wapato planting at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon, Nov. 22, 2021.
Steigerwald Wapato Planting Photo Gallery

Before the heavy earth-moving equipment could be brought in and the habitat-restoration work begun, many aquatic species had to be relocated.

“During this project, there were 45,000 lamprey moved, over 11,000 bony fish were moved and 500 mussels were moved. So it’s really a big success,” Fernandez said.

Robinson was at the refuge while the lamprey were being moved to bless the effort. He is also working with partners to restore habitat along Tansy Creek on Chinook traditional lands in Warrenton, Ore.

“We really like to do this kind of work, to make it happen,” Robinson said. “I’m really happy to know all of our fin friends will be coming through here and have a place to rest as they travel up or down the river.”

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