The Return of the Wapato: The Story Behind the Bag

Jon Shellenberger

Return of the Wapato: The story Behind the Bag


Wapato and Swans beaded bag by Native Anthro (2023)

When I first started at Yakama Nation Wildlife, I was asked by my then-boss to create a film about the return of the wapato potato that had been reestablished through the work of our restoration program. The story of the return of the wapato on the Yakama Reservation is simple yet miraculous. We essentially brought back a food tuber after an 80-year absence by simply reconnecting the natural hydrology of a nearby creek. This allowed the formation of a wetland that triggered the growth of the dormant plant. No seeds or bulbs were planted; we just reintroduced water to the area, and boom, we had wapato.

Wapato is a traditional plant to the Yakama, but due to agricultural practices in the Yakima Valley, much of the natural flow of rivers and creeks had been diverted and disconnected from their floodplains. This didn’t happen overnight, but the cost included the loss of hundreds of traditional foods and medicinal plants.

By the 1970s, our Yakama Nation Tribal Council had a severe cultural dilemma. Our tribal languages were disappearing, the drive to learn cultural ways was outcompeted by outside interests, and elders, who had lived a traditional, subsistence lifestyle were all but gone. We were embroiled in the Fish Wars and litigation with the State of Washington and Oregon regarding our Treaty Reserved fishing rights. Practicing our traditional religious ceremonies wasn’t legal until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. As several elders have shared with me, this was a time when being Indian wasn’t “cool.” You couldn’t take a hand drum and sing on the streets of Tacoma without sanctions. These were just some of the pressures our people and our leaders faced. From that, the leaders wanted to bring back the health of the rivers and creeks on our reservation. They wanted a stronger relationship between the people and the land to solve their problems. This was their dream.

Finally, after the passage of the Northwest Power Act of 1980 and a biological opinion in the late 80s identifying impacts to wildlife habitat due to the Columbia River dams, the Yakama Nation had its window. The Yakama Nation was the first of the four Columbia River treaty tribes to submit a wildlife plan to the Northwest Power Council that outlined the intent to restore lands to their historic use. The Yakama Nation purchased their first property with the mitigation money and began their restoration process. The Yakama Nation Wetland and Riparian Restoration Project was underway and consisted of an interdisciplinary team of biologists, field technicians, tribal elders, and archaeologists.

Based on their work to understand the area's hydrologic history, they discovered through tribal oral history, geomorphology, and archaeology that beavers were crucial in managing the creeks and rivers. They were the ultimate wetland managers but were nearly wiped out in the 18th and 19th centuries as they were perceived as a nuisance to irrigation. This catapulted the Project into restoring complexity to the creek systems by constructing beaver analog structures, thus lifting creeks out of their incised channel and flooding surrounding areas. This was a significant step in the right direction. The other component that was missing was the factor of time.

Having flooded lands wasn’t a problem anymore. However, the team noticed that the water that once flowed through the area doesn’t flow like it used to. Historically, the area received over a dozen freshets. A freshet is a flood from rain and snow, most of which comes from the mountains. Now, the Yakima Valley is lucky to get five of these events. The snowpack is melting too fast to maintain a wetland in the lower Yakima Valley. How does one fix this problem? Easy. Installation of half-round risers allows managers to raise and lower a wetland by adding and removing 2 x 6 boards. We could maintain a wetland for extended periods once these were installed on our first property. The first year saw an immediate response with the return of the wapato, which had the team scratching its head. No one planted them, and they couldn’t have come in on the wheels of machines or vehicles. The answer was simple: it was the water. After 80 years of lying quietly beneath hay and barley fields, the water allowed the dormant plants to grow.

This was great, but no one was harvesting them. They were gone for over 80 years, and elders had trace memories of the plant from their youth, but that was it. This is what happens when people are disconnected from the land by force. The memory had faded, and we were struggling to put together the rest of the dream our tribal leaders had had 30 years prior. So, when my boss asked me to make a film about wapato and its story, I had a mental block for months. I knew the story and the history. But I never felt like I should be the one to tell it. After all, the roots are looked after by our women. They have the authority to speak for these resources. Finally, my wife approached me about potential topics for a Master’s project she needed to complete to obtain her degree. She asked what project I would do, and I told her the story of the wapato. It was perfect timing because I was dragging my feet and didn’t understand why then, but it clicked as soon as she asked. This story must be told by a Yakama woman and not some male archaeologist. As a woman, she better connected with gatherers and elders to help better understand how to manage this sacred resource. You can watch the video she created about Wapato here.

In honor of the return of the wapato, I beaded this bag to help tell its story so that, hopefully, we never forget it again. I currently have a canvas print of this and a tote bag with the beadwork printed on it. For more about the work my wife, Emily Washines, did on Wapato click here



A much younger me during 2009 fall wapato harvest

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