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Climate change is making a springtime tradition for the Umatilla tribes hard to uphold

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Around this time each year, women and girls from the Umatilla Tribes in northeast Oregon gather wild celery. They say their ancestors come back through the plant. And the tradition marks the arrival of spring. The Northwest News Network's Anna King reports.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Off a remote highway outside of Mission, Ore., a crew of women and girls gets ready to dig.

TRISH MCMICHAEL: So if we're all ready, we all need to line up.

KING: As they line up oldest to youngest, some faces are missing - mostly the elders who used to lead this gathering of wild celery. COVID hit the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation pretty hard. Now it's middle-aged women like Trish McMichael towards the front of the line.

MCMICHAEL: Are you guys all ready?

KING: They scramble up steep cliffs, sometimes using their hands as well as their feet.

TRINETTE MINTHORN: Woo, woo, woo. Turned it. Did you get one?

KING: Celery grows when there's still snow on the ground, the tops poking through between the rocks. It looks like small, curly parsley with a white stalk.

MINTHORN: Oh, you want to dig that up?

KING: The group digs them up with metal rods called kapins, gently moving the rocks back and forth to get at the plant.

They're everywhere as I look down.

MINTHORN: They are, aren't they? We are very blessed this year. Very blessed.

KING: Trinette Minthorn has been coming to collect the celery since she was 6 years old.

MINTHORN: My dad's mother - she dug for a very long time until, you know, she couldn't, you know, get up the hills, and - but she would come. She would sit in the car and vehicle and watch us. And, you know, she was our cheerleader and our greatest supporter.

KING: Even though Minthorn is just 48 now, she took on much more responsibility after her grandmother's death.

MINTHORN: When she left us, it was hard, but, you know, we had to continue with the work, you know, because that's what, you know, she taught us.

KING: These women describe each plant as a family. The grandparents are the old dead stalks from years past. The parents are tall and green - the children? - tiny nubs.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAPIN DIGGING)

KING: With climate change, the celery harvest is getting harder to predict, says Althea Wolf. She's here digging with her daughter.

ALTHEA WOLF: We used to eat the celery until about June, and it doesn't last that long anymore 'cause it's so dry. So when you have bits of snowpack around, that's really good for the celery because it helps it just continue to grow and grow. You don't get that anymore.

KING: The women don't taste the celery right away. They bite into it after a big ceremony back at the longhouse, when, they say, their ancestors and recent dead return through the plant to nourish them. Three-year-old Piips is here for her first ceremonial dig of Latit Latit - the wild celery - accompanied by her mother, Michelle Tias.

MICHELLE TIAS: Say, we're happy to feed the people.

PIIPS SEQUOIA TIAS: We're happy to feed the people.

TIAS: Latit Latit.

PIIPS: Latit Latit.

KING: This joy makes her elders smile. Soon, Piips will be called to move up in the line. For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Mission, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna King
Anna King, KPLU’s and N3’s Richland-based reporter, has been covering the Mid-Columbia since the spring of 2007. Before that she was a print reporter for the Tri-City Herald where she covered the environment, Native Americans, agriculture and Northwest wine. A Washington native, she's also a regular contributor to the magazine Wine Press Northwest and was a contributing author to the guide book Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest. Anna's memorable moment in public radio: "Being dusted from head-to-toe by a potato digger during harvest. Every square inch of me was covered in fine sand. Public radio is a dirty job!"

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