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Environment | Communities

Wapato: A Sacred Food Returns to Yakama Nation

TOPPENISH, Wash. – A restored wetland has returned wapato – a forgotten first food – to the Yakama Nation. The small potato had lain dormant for 70 years. Then nature surprised tribal members and biologists while they transformed wheat fields to wetlands: wapato began growing again. The first feast in generations to put wapato on people’s plates took place this month.

Teachers and students crowd inside a small kitchen at the Yakama Nation Tribal School. They’re hovered over three pots of sacred First Foods, trying to decide what order to serve hundreds of elders and family members. This year’s a little different. For the first time in 70 years students are serving wapato (pdf) at their Elder’s Dinner.

Most elders have not tasted the food since they were toddlers. Some remember their parents or grandparents harvesting it. But no one knows for sure how Yakama ancestors traditionally worked with the vegetable.

Students and teachers transformed the school’s gym into a large dining hall, laid out like traditional longhouses. It’s now up to the students to preserve this sacred tradition, especially as many historic rituals fall out of practice with younger generations.

“I was taught that nothing’s ever lost. It’s just being put away for awhile,” says Emmanuelle Wallahee, a senior at Yakama Nation Tribal School.

Years ago wapato were as important to the Yakama diet as sacred foods like salmon. As chairs are stacked and tables are moved, Emmanuelle says it’s not the only food to disappear.

“My grandma, she talks about all the foods that were missing from the table, and she’d say some of them: eels don’t go on there very much. The wapato just now finally got back on. We even ate birds, like duck and we ate the sage grouse,” Emmanuelle says.

She says it’s important to differentiate between these traditional foods and easy-to-purchase processed ones. She says she’s learning all she can from her elders so she can pass the knowledge on to her children.

Yakama Nation Tribal School teacher Zelda Winnier helped students harvest wapato. She says this feast is a pivotal point in the students’ lives.

“The children are at a stage where they don’t know whether they want to stand by their tradition because there are so many cultures out there to adopt, and our culture is kind of getting old-fashioned. But I think this kind of pulled them back into our culture a little bit because they had such an important part in it,” Winnier says.

Back in September, students rode a bus into the middle of a restored wetland to harvest the wapato.

Kneeling down, their hands caked with mud, the students dug holes, searching for the root. They filled two buckets after a couple hours work. Eighth-grader Mariah Hicks helped with the harvest.

“It just felt good to know, like, don’t let this die down, like how other people’s cultures are. Some people just let them die down and don’t even do anything,” Mariah says.

Two months later, the wapato were ready to be served.

Winnier cooked the wapato in two batches: one with skin, the other without, like past generations would have experienced it. She simply boiled the golf ball-sized vegetables, without seasoning.

“But when they boil, they don’t sink. They just go ’round and around and around. Real cute! They were just cute. Them little, tiny potatoes goin’ ’round and around,” she says.

77-year-old Myra Rosales ate wapato as a child, though she mostly played outside when her mother and grandmother cooked. As a traditional drum beats in the background, Rosales says today’s wapato tasted just like what she ate back then.

“I enjoyed. I ate all my food,” Rosales says.

Rosales says children now-a-days are doing a good job of carrying on the culture.

“They’re not trying to overdo in losing the tradition. And I think our tradition is very, very strong,” Rosales say.

Winnier says it’s not just the students who learned from this experience.

“I’ve grown up eating all the other foods, but this, at my age? I’m 53, and it’s my very first time gathering it, and cooking it, and tasting it,” Winnier says.

The hope is that as more tribal members become aware of the newly returned wapato, more memories will begin to surface. The tradition will only grow from there.