Return of the Wapato: The Power of Tribal Voice

Return of the Wapato: The Power of Tribal Voice

How do Native Languages include a database of knowledge in one word?

The oral history and legends are powerful records to learn and share. The easiest example is to think of a name. This name connects to what you know about the person, but it certainly builds over time. In the process of speaking and teaching Native languages, it is important to pause and acknowledge the database that exists within one word.  

For the people who grew up hearing and speaking the language, this is inherent knowledge.

For people speaking or teaching one or two words at a time, on the pathway to increasing language, this is the exciting part. The highways of knowledge contained within native languages are fascinating. Through this process of teaching or learning, we can breeze past one word and mark complete on your ever growing checklist. It's very easy to think you know a word.

You think, Got it! Whew, that was easy! 

That is until...

You forget a word

Even long-time speakers of a language occasionally struggle to recall a word sometimes. It happens in any language. So, what do you do when you forget the word? You start describing it as You know, the thing that...  Or you use multiple words in its place. Temporarily at a loss for the one word that could have summarized it all beautifully.  

Guess what? It's fine if that happens. 

Or you use multiple words in its place. Temporarily at a loss for the one word that could have summarized it all beautifully. 

While it's okay to feel bummed, please know that it's normal. Do not pause all language learning or carry a dictionary around with you. Just try your best. 

There is one way to try to avoid this and that is to try to use one word in multiple ways. For native language speakers and learners, this is a hard to get creative with. We hear and see other languages around us a lot. For adults, maybe we just take it as a given that we will have to handwrite our notecards or create a majority of our language learning materials. We just access the resources available. In kids, their response to language is more pronounced. Meaning they can have a complete meltdown in public over forgetting a word. Not being able to express themselves the way they want.  

One of my daughters forgot an Ichiskiin word. She was in the middle of singing a song and stopped mid-way through. She looked at me and said, "I forgot." She slouched against a wall and put her head on her knees. My heart hurt for her. I wished that she could hear the language more and wished that she had opportunities to speak with kids more.   

At that moment, I grasped for a response. I could have just told her the answer, but she was upset at the fact that she forgot at all. I need to remind her that I am here with her. I went over to the wall slouched down and sat with her. We were silent for a bit. I reminded her that she could try again later and that I would help her. I reminded her that she knows a lot of our language. She seemed happy with that.   

The next day we were in the car and she held up a little toy microphone and said, "Mommy, I want you to record our language for me." So dear friend, this is part of the reason I am here with you. My little girl asked for space where our native languages can live. This is the power of tribal voice. Even little kids have powerful voices and so do our resources.  

Wapato: our friend

Allow me to introduce a friend, wapato (wetland potato). This is an Ichiskiin (Yakama) word. Another way of spelling it is waptu. This tuber is historically located throughout the Pacific Northwest. Wapato was a staple of Native American diets and is still gathered.

Did you know? The flower in the Native Friends logo is similar to a wapato flower. This represents that our resources are both our friends and at the center of our ideas. Got it. Native Friends are people and resources. Cool huh? You found a little piece of information and connected it. 

The most common feedback   

Wapato is also the name of a town located on the Yakama Reservation. There is also Wapato Valley in the lower Columbia Basin. The most common feedback I first hear when talking about wapato is: I did not know what wapato meant. Not knowing the meaning of words, happens a lot with Native Language, especially when our native language is used for the location names such as cities or rivers. So, if you did not know the name's meaning, that's okay. I have had people that work in wetlands and grew up in Wapato that make this remark without embarrassment. I know because they asked me to present to them and a whole bunch of other scientists. They admit it, then ask me to share more.

The reaction from Natives is varied. Some like the video I made or the co-authored case study. Others like the health aspects of wapato. My favorite is when I cooked it for an elder (now passed so I won't share their name). When I first cooked I peeled it, but now I don't peel them because when I served to elders that way, they had more memories come back to them. As you may know, when Natives eat, we share a lot. She said, "The last time I had this was with my grandma, I was about 4. Thank you."

So, this feedback is a two-fold of 1) cool I did not know what wapato meant and 2) the story of wapato restoration is inspiring.

Return of the Wapato: 

Tucked in the 440 acre land along the Toppenish Creek is a restored wetland. Historically a wetland, it shifted ownership during federal land policy called The Dawes Act. The wetland was filled and changed into an agricultural wheatfield (owned by non-Natives). After decades as a wheatfield, the non-Native Farmer wanted to sell ownership back to the tribe. The tribe bought back the land in the 1970s and worked to return the land to historical use. 

The tribe approached this with numerous voices, including scientists, Cultural Resource Specialists, and elders.  

What happens when the tribe's historic story of the land is included?  

Growing up, our families would talk about how the beavers used to run Toppenish Creek. As a tribal member taking the required science courses in school, this belief can get tested or asked to take a back seat with myths. Some hold it secret, some shun western teaching methods trying to assimilate our knowledge of the land. Some get sad sometimes, like my daughter clutching their knees with their head down wondering how to balance what we are taught about the land from our elders compared to what our science teachers tell us.

But in this story, the scientists asked the elders and tribal members about how the creeks were. Then they used science to recreate the structures beavers would make to lift the water table. With the water table rose, the water to the resources was restored. Then nature took its course and the resources returned. Thus, we restored a wetland.

To the surprise of everyone, after a 70-year absence, the wapato emerged. This happened without seeds and without planting. It had been dormant for decades, like that long lost friend waiting for your next visit. When we include tribal members voice and oral history in restoration it can have a magnificent result. 

What does the power of tribal voice & wapato mean?

In the hundreds of the tours, case studies, videos, and trainings given, this one-word, wapato has restored the database connected with it. It has increased meaning for the graduate students taking an economics class about the benefits of a wetland. It is thought about during the wetland mitigation process and when they make another wetland how can they include traditional plants...not just a pond with no cover for birds. 

For the Native sitting in a science class, it represents hope that if you hold onto the thousands of years of knowledge your tribal people share with you, it will be worth it.  

You learn one word

Dear friend, there is a lot of power of learning, teaching or speaking just one word in the Native language. It might seem small. It might seem like you want to crush through the word counts and phrases. But, it is important to learn what is connected with the word. Then seek to connect that word in as many possible ways. Okay, some of you will ignore this. That is okay. Rock your language learning you all-star. Maybe you learn 50+ words a week, you can always go back and try to add depth. Above all else, think of the words and resources like friends we always can learn more about.   

Sharing this story of working together

Nationally: We have tribes from the nation looking at this model, including one of the lead biologists that now works in the Midwest. With thousands of more acres, the Yakama Nation leads one of the largest tribal wetland and riparian restoration projects in the nation. 

Locally: We have local landowners ask how they can work to restore their land to historic use. Also, I was giving a tour once and a Caucasian teacher remarked how he had learned about wapato in college. He was a teacher at one of the schools on the Yakama Reservation. I thought of how he valued the voice and work of tribal people and how much it probably meant for the Native students in his class to have a tour by a Yakama tribal member. 

With you: I hope this story has inspired you to hold the database of knowledge even with just one word. This holds true if you are learning or teaching. Many times, by teaching others, you will find a depth of learning for yourself. This happens to me all the time when I teach my kids. I find these little connections. Knowledge is like water and it can flow at different times. This can lead to cool "ah-ha" moments with language. Savor these. Be patient with yourself and know that one word can speak volumes. 

Let's connect

Have you had any cool "ah-ha" knowledge moments lately?  Share them in the comments or send me a note.

Let me know if you have any questions or requests.  



There are additional resources on the Return of the Wapato. When I first wrote about it in 2010, I was a tired mom finishing my Master of Public Administration. The paper and video on wapato were my last assignment, called a Capstone. I actually finished the video with my 9-month old baby on my lap. I really thought only my classmates and a few family would see the writing and video. Then I got asked to submit it for publication. To know that I am able to share the story is truly an honor.   

Case Study

My co-authored case study: Natural Restoration and Cultural Knowledge of the Yakama Nation includes teaching notes. This can be a self-guided case, class, or training. A few weeks ago, I gave a training to a federal agency about this case.  

Video: Return of the Wapato (4 min)

I will be adding more videos to YouTube, so subscribe to the YouTube channel for updates. 

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1 comment

  • I love your blog and the teachings you’re sharing, thank you for what you’re doing and offering.

    I shared the video you posted in this blog in a high school summer class I co-taught in 2011. The class was Eco-systems in Native America focused mostly focused in southern Colorado where I was then located. I was brand new (I’m still new) to the foods of our Yakama people. We were covering wetlands and riparian areas and I came across your video and shared it with our small class of mostly Chicano students who identified as Indigenous. And for all of us, it was new knowledge. I hope to try wapato one day and encourage it’s survival.

    Mariana Harvey

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