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Volume 15, Issue 3
March 2017


Wapato Lake
Wapato Lake currently in farmland. A project is underway to allow the lake to return. Photo by David Lewis

Foods and fires of the Tualatin

By David G. Lewis, PhD, (Kalapuya, Chinook, Takelma, Molalla), Ethnohistory Research, LLC

The Kalapuyans were about 19 tribes and bands living in the Willamette Valley. The tribes and bands in the Tualatin Valley were the Tualatin Kalapuyans. Historical documents also called these people Twalaty or Atfalati.

Many Tualatin villages were situated around Wapato Lake. The lake provided a vast amount of resources—reeds and sedges for basketry, fish, crayfish, waterfowl, and wapato (a starchy tuber that grows in shallow water) as the major staple food of the tribes. In the early 20th century the lake was drained to make more croplands. Water management in the little valley near Gaston, Oregon is so expensive that in the 1990s, many agriculturalists opted to have the government buy back the land and restore the original Lake. The Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge is finally being developed at this time, managed out of the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge at Sherwood.

Inatye with camas
The author's son Inatye holds camas
bulbs that he harvested

The Tualatin lived throughout the Tualatin Valley and used trail systems that took them over the Tualatin Range (Portland Hills now) and into what is now the Portland Metro area. They would take the trails on regular visits to the Multnomah Chinook territory at Wapato Island (Now Sauvie Island) and to Willamette Falls and the villages of the Clackamas and Clowewalla Chinookan peoples. Many of their trails are now our roads.

Much of their interaction with neighboring tribes and bands was economic—they would trade large amounts of wapato for products available in the Columbia River trade network. These included dentallium (shell money—Hiaqua from Vancouver Island), bison skins (from the eastern buffalo hunting tribes), Clamels (Tough elk skin shields for stopping arrows) and wind-dried salmon from Willamette Falls peoples. Additional trade networks with the Clatsop Chinookans at what is now Astoria, and with the Tillamooks on the Oregon Coast, are also well documented.

The Tualatin practiced the seasonal round—a lifeway where they lived within the seasons, off what the natural world and the natural cycles of the land and environments produced. Tribal groups travelled about their traditional territories to different environments in the different seasons to gather, hunt, fish, and trade with others for the foods they wanted.

Camas flowers
Camas flowers. Photo by David Lewis

The Kalapuyans wintered in central villages, in houses normally made of cedar planks, built into the ground. These were permanent dwellings that could last through many years and provide safe, warm, and comfortable quarters for the winters. During winter, much of the time was spent indoors—weaving, making tools and telling stories. Basketry and nets were woven to provide the tools and storage containers for capturing, containing, carrying, and cooking foods gathered during the rest of the year. Winters were also a time for oral histories.

The native hazel is a small nut-bearing tree. The nuts were harvested, dried, cracked open and eaten. The Kalapuyans would tend the trees by manipulating branches and shoots. They were burned or snipped, to spur new growth. The next year the new branches would be straight, perfect for basketry. Once gathered, dried, and rehydrated, hazel is very strong.

Wapato tubers
Wapato tubers

The Tualatin did not manipulate the land as agriculturalists did in other regions of the world. But they did set fire to the prairies. The environment of the region is like a rainforest with plenty of sunlight and water to create a lush landscape. It would be very difficult for humans to move across the unmanaged lands if the plant overgrowth was not checked in some manner. The anthropogenic fires they set annually would clear the extra brush and help the land renew itself.

Wapato leaves
Wild wapato still grows in the valley. Photo by David Lewis.

Fires would clear the land of overgrowth and begin a cycle of renewal where plant corms, bulbs, roots and seeds safe underground could then begin sprouting, creating new growth. Oaks are fire resistant and the fires spur greater production of acorns, which the tribes gathered prepared and ate as mush. The many benefits of fire included nutrients deposition, efficient management of overgrowth, and eliminating insect pests. Then after regrowth, the young tender shoots would attract deer to come down from the hills to eat, where they would be hunted.

Native people would also be able to see unobstructed across the land, which has many benefits. Within a month, it would be tough to see that a fire had come through. Fire management for at least 8,000 years created the parklike setting of the Willamette Valley that we enjoy today. This is the environment and setting that caused settlers in the 1840s to want to come to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, as the land appeared prepared for farming.

To find more stories of the Kalapuyans visit David’s website at


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Published monthly by Cedar Mill News LLC
Publisher/Editor:Virginia Bruce
PO Box 91061
Portland, Oregon 97291
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