Saturday, May 07, 2011

Cultural Damage at Drumheller Springs

A view of Drumheller Springs in 1936.
Photo credit: Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library

Good intentions may do as much harm as
malevolence if they lack understanding.
~Albert Camus

A local environmental organization and a high school science class recently collaborated to plant trees at Drumheller Springs. At first glance, their project would seem positive, perhaps even noble. While our generation is witnessing unimaginable ecological destruction, many sit back and do nothing. The world needs tree planters – we need educators, community members, children, and everyone else to care enough to take action. Without a doubt, those who participated in the tree planting at Drumheller Springs held worthy intentions.

And yet even positive intentions may do great harm if they lack understanding. The newly planted trees have disrupted indigenous plants and threatened 10,000 years of cultural history. I understand this is a bold statement to make, but perhaps some background information will illustrate my feelings.

Ecology and Culture

The land surrounding Drumheller Springs has tremendous historical value to the Spokane Tribe. One source suggests that the original name was stiuwa’tłxʷ - the nesting place of a mythical bird (Ray, 1936). Other sources indicate that the spring “offered virtually the only water on the North Hill” (the Spokesman-Review, 1966), and that a trail passed nearby, like a highway that connected Spokane Falls, Little Falls, and other indigenous communities. A permanent settlement once occupied the site, and during the winter months, the population increased because of its mild climate and close access to resources. In the 1800s, Chief Spokane Garry constructed a school below the spring, among the first to be built within the boundaries of what would become Washington State. Extensive burial grounds were also scattered over much the land above the spring – a land now covered by city streets, shopping centers, and middle-class homes.

Water was by far the most important resource at the spring, but the land also provided an abundance of native foods, especially brown camas (itxʷeʔ, camassia quamash), bitterroots (sp’eƛm, lewisia rediviva), wild onions (sehč, allium geyeri), desert parsley (sp’xʷenč, lomatium macracarpum), and Indian carrots (sƛuk’ʷm, perideridia gairdneri). These plants were among the principal foods of the Spokane people, and at one time, they were quite abundant throughout the region. However, extensive urbanization has no doubt destroyed most indigenous habitats within the city limits. Drumheller Springs is among the last and best preserved urban sites where traditional foods are still found.

A Family Connection

My immediate family also has direct connection to Drumheller Springs.

When I was a young boy, my great aunt Messie Moses Haines told me a story about Drumheller. She remembered that as recently as the 1930s and 40s, she and her parents drove buck board wagons from Wellpinit to Spokane. They drove most of the day, about 45 miles, and then set up tepees above the spring. They would camp and wake up early the following morning to go shopping in downtown Spokane. At that time, the city did not extend above the hill.

As an adult, I had the opportunity to return and witness the bitterroots blooming as literally thousands of pink flowers emerged from the basalt. It was breathtaking. I felt as though the roots were speaking to my heart and saying, “Where have you been? We knew your grandmother, and her grandmother, and all the elders before her. We’ve been waiting for you to visit us again.” Overpowered by the beauty of that place, I stood there and wept.


I feel a sense of stewardship for the land, water, and plants that once sustained my ancestors, and so my heart sank when I heard about people planting ponderosa pine near our traditional foods. Many of the foods require direct sunlight. The arbitrary introduction of trees, even ones indigenous to this area, threatens to destroy one of the last surviving gathering places in the city.

A friend helped communicate my concerns to the organization responsible for planting the trees. Her response surprised me. She said, “I had heard that the site was historically significant to the Tribe, but know nothing about present harvesting of traditional foods, and did not realize that there was any concern with the trees shading native plants.”

I was also able to exchange emails with the science teacher who participated in the tree planting. She responded in part, “The purpose of the project was to restore Spokane's Urban Forest… All of the history you have provided was known and accounted for. The hope is that the ponderosa pine seedlings (those that do survive) would enhance the ecosystem and not degrade it.”

The so-called urban forest never existed at Drumheller Springs, so I’m not sure what they intended to restore. In fact, there is no shortage of ponderosa pine in the Spokane area, but there is a shortage of brown camas, bitterroot, and other traditional foods. I suspect people must look at that site and see an empty field, but perhaps they don’t realize that Drumheller Springs is a cultural and ecological treasure. Adding trees can only further diminish the unique ecological character of that place.

Seeing the Effects

This morning, my daughter and I visited Drumheller Springs to examine the trees in person. Just as I suspected, most of the trees were planted on locations that will eventually overshadow our traditional foods. But the damage was worse than I feared. In several spots, whole chunks of earth were removed right in the middle of the camas, wild onions, and Indian carrots. Dried camas bulbs littered the ground where someone uprooted the plants to make way for the “improved” urban forest.

Taking Action

I am saddened by these recent events, but I am also committed to responding in a positive, proactive way. I have already requested a meeting with the organization and feel hopeful that they will understand my concerns. Maybe we can agree to remove the trees to a more suitable location.

In the long term, I also intend to address the issue with the city of Spokane. Ultimately they own the land and they gave the final approval to plant the trees. I would like to see the city create some kind of legal ordinance to prevent any further encroachments upon our traditional gathering places. Currently, the land is a city park, but as part of our collective heritage, it should hold a more meaningful designation.

If you feel inclined to support my efforts, please send me a message or leave a comment. Also, please share this post with others who might be interested in this issue. I would like to call upon you again as my efforts move forward.

A newly planted conifer grows right in the middle of a plot of camas that has sustained the Spokane people for thousands of years.

This photograph shows another perspective of a tree that was planted in the middle of the camas. A large piece of earth was removed. Dried camas roots are visible in the removed dirt.

Here is a closer view of one of the dead camas roots.

Another view of the a conifer planted amid the camas. If this tree grows to maturity, it will eventually overshadow the traditional plants and diminish the size of a gathering place that has existed for thousands of years.

Camas and lomatium trinernatum growing side by side.

A monument commemorates Chief Garry's school.

This photograph was also taken in 1936. It shows the "North Hill" looking east from the spring. Ash and Maple Streets now pass through the field that is visible here.
Photo credit: Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library.


Board Gets Plea to Save Landmark. (1966, December 7). The Spokesman-Review , p. 6.

Drumheller Springs-8. (1936, October 4). The Teakle Collection , Neg. SPL 94.687.8 . Spokane, WA.

Drumheller Springs-10. (1936, October 4). The Teakle Collection , Neg. SPL 94.687.7 . Spokane, WA.

Lewis, W. S. The Case of Spokane Garry. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press.

Ray, V. F. (1936). Native Villages and Groupings of the Columbia Basin. The Pacific Northwest Quarterly , XXVII, 136.


Unknown said...

I am in support of your cause 100%. Please let me know what I can do to help!

Unknown said...

Barry ~ Thank you for your thoughtful and sensitive teaching regarding this beautiful area. I am behind your efforts 100%. Let me know how I can help!

Unknown said...

I came across your blog searching about Drumheller because I am leading a walk there tomorrow for our hiking group. I will make your point with our group as it is an important one.
A neighbor there also told us that at one time they wanted to find a way to make the ponds year round until they found out about the Fairy Shrimp that require a vernal pool. I think we have to learn not to fool with Mother Nature.


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