A potato from western First Nations heritage

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One secret about to become a mild food fad in the next year is probably the “first nations potato”. As many know, the potato is originally from the American continent. In the US, we have long been accustomed to Idaho potatoes and the like. However, some have done some research into the phenomena of native american potatoes of the West Coast.

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There has long been a rumor of a native american potato that can be found on the west coast of North America, from Oregon to British Columbia. Indeed there are many contenders. Many different tubercules and bulbs were consumed by native tribes in these areas. Now thanks to archeological finds and oral tradition among the native communities of these states and province, the original potato like staple has probably been found.

The potato of this subject isn’t actually a potato. It is, in fact, a kind of tuber that grows in wetlands. It is called the wapato. Also known as the duck potato, the plant yields a tuber the size of a golf ball or smaller. Many tribes harvested this starch filled tuber. They traded the surplus among neighboring communities. Among the people that used the wapato as a staple are the Tenino people of Oregon.

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Tenino woman and children.

The tubers were and still are harvested by digging and displacing the silt at the bottom of wetlands where the sagittaria plant is found (also known as bent arrowroot). Often bare feet were used, and the small potato like tubers were detached from the lower roots and float to the surface where they are gathered and placed in a canoe and transported back to the village.

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The wapato plant: sagittaria latifolia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Free_Documentation_License photo by user: bouba

The wapato plant has a tendency of absorbing pollutants such as heavy metals. This is why the US department of agriculture lists it as unfit for human consumption. This did not keep some Native American communities from replanting this plant and harvesting it as a staple of their people, celebrating it’s return to the plate.

Recently, in British Columbia, Canada, workers were digging a road, not far from Vancouver. They accidentaly uncovered a 3800 year old wapato garden. The site had preserved the wapato bulbs that were  planted as well as some digging sticks used for harvesting them. The garden was planted using a technique to prevent the bulbs from growing to deep, keeping them easy to harvest, as often, the best wapato are from the deepest roots.

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The wapato tuber is excessively bitter in it’s raw form, much like eggplant. Once cooked, however, it yields tender and tasty starch filled food. The same that sustained the Clark & Lewis expedition when they came into contact with the western first nations. Today, some nations have made it their duty to bring back the wapato and get the younger generations acquainted with it. It is a part of the task of preserving their traditions and heritage. As today it is possible to grow food in an organic manner, many harvesting sites have been proven to produce very clean tubers, exempt of any pollutants.

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Wapato tuber https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ Photo by Nathan Sandel

I think, personally, as people are more and more in search of original foods, the wapato could make a commercial comeback. If wapato from native communities were to find it’s way to grocery chains such as Whole Foods, many would be very enthusiastic about their availability. In Canada, wild rice harvested by manitoban first nations can be found in many supermarkets. Consumers are ready to pay a higher price for such unique products. Hopefully, one of the native communities will find a way to produce the wapato and be able to sell the surplus to conventional supermarkets. Buying the whole plant from native sources is already possible here: wapato.

Cooking the wapato may be a challenge for non-natives, however know that one easy way to enjoy the “indian potato” is by making chips out of them. Simply delicious, it reminds me of yam with a subtle note of chestnut. Enjoy!

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