Wapato (x̌ʷəq̓ʷə́wl̕s) (Sagittaria latifolia) is an aquatic plant that grows along muddy shorelines. It produces starchy potato-like tubers at the ends of its roots, which are a favorite food of muskrats and diving ducks. Wapato was harvested by indigenous peoples all over North America, and was traded among communities as an important source of starch. Along Coastal BC, wapato tubers were available for harvesting from October to early spring, and thus were an important source of fresh food during the winter, and a life-saving food during times of famine.
Wapato plant with flowers
Prior to the arrival of Europeans to coastal British Columbia about 200 years ago, Katzie women spent the month of October harvesting wapato tubers from the wetlands in what is now called the Pitt Polder in Pitt Meadows. Women would ‘dance’ in the muddy water to uproot tubers with digging sticks and their feet. Dislodged tubers would float to the surface, and women would then collect the floating tubers in baskets.
Wapato tuber floating on surface of the water
Katzie are renowned amongst other Halkomelem-speaking peoples as the managers and purveyors of wapato. Wapato grew in so much abundance under Katzie stewardship that hundreds of neighbouring First Nations peoples would travel each year to Katzie territory to harvest and trade the surplus. Wapato was so important that individual patches were well known and named.
In 2008, Katzie archaeologists excavated a large ancient village site (Archaeology Site DhRp-52) prior to construction of a major roadway. In addition to unearthing several house structures and almost 200,000 artifacts, we also unearthed 3,500 year-old wapato tubers and evidence that these early peoples did not just harvest wapato, but may have farmed it! The tubers were found along with broken digging sticks on top of an area that was paved with small cobble stones. The rock pavement was likely constructed to make it easier to harvest the tubers. Our modern-day attempts at harvesting wapato tubers have revealed that dislodging tubers from a complex of root wads makes harvesting difficult, time-consuming, and very cold! A wapato patch grown on ‘pavement’ would likely have made it much easier for the tubers to dislodge from the plant roots.
Ancient wapato tubers recovered during exploratory excavations of DhRp-52 water-saturated deposits
Wapato is a cultural keystone species for the Katzie First Nation, because it was once so vital to the survival of Katzie people, and because it continues to be important to Katzie cultural identity.
Wapato no longer grows where it once did, in part because over 80% of wetlands in Katzie traditional territory have been lost or degraded over the past 200 years. We are working to restore wetlands, and toward the eco-cultural restoration of wapatoas a sacred traditional food and cultural keystone of the Katzie First Nation.