Do Grizzly Bears eat camas?

I recently finished retranslating the story “Night Rainbow Old Woman” (told by Jim Buchanan to Leo Frachtenberg and published in Coos Texts).  In the first part of the story, two of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s family sees camas bulbs spread out in a prairie.  They begin picking it up. An angry Grizzly comes charging up to them, announcing that camas is his.  He kills them.  Old Night Rainbow later has her revenge by killing one of the grizzlies, and her grandson eventually kills the rest of that grizzly family.

When I first read the story, I didn’t think much about the part where Grizzly claims the camas as his.  In stories with Animal People they often have both human and animal characteristics.  However, it sounds a lot like a story Frank Drew told about his wife’s grandfather’s brother, in a bad encounter with a Grizzly over camas near Loon Lake:

Dan Johnson…(he was L. Umpqua) had a brother who was very smart, thought he was. The men and women went camas digging out to Loon L[ake] up the Umpqua. It’s a prairie with camas. Grizzlies also dig camas and pile them in a certain place. The folks told the smarty not to bother a camas pile collected by a grizzly – lest you get the grizzly angry and be crippled or killed. But having a gun he scoffed. Arrived there, they saw a grizzly digging camas. As long as he wasn’t bothered he would not bother them. He had several camas heaps. “Don’t bother those piles” they cautioned him. But he scoffed. He said he’d hang his coat on his gun ramrod to the grizzly wouldn’t even see him. He disobeyed all this advice, and maliciously scattered the grizzly’s camas heaps, to see what would happen. The grizzly took after him at once. The old grizzly knocked him down. He hadn’t tried to shoot, because if crippled the bear gets only more dangerous, unless by chance a perfect shot is made. So he tried to play dead, held his breath, the grizzly kept watch, near, after feeling his chest, a few times. At last the grizzly gave him up for dead. The people all kept at a distance, watching. The grizzly went away; he was all torn from being knocked down, was laid up for a year. (Melville Jacobs notebook 92 page 80)

So it sound like grizzly bears really did like camas bulbs, which wouldn’t be surprising since they eat all kinds of roots, greens and berries.  I wasn’t able to find any mention of it though in contemporary literature.  However, in a book from 1915 (Field Book of Western Wildflowers by Margaret Armstrong) states that grizzly bears were ‘fond of the bulbs’.  So, I guess when a Grizzly Bear gathers camas in a story, it’s based off of real observations of grizzly behavior.



About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
This entry was posted in History, Myths and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Do Grizzly Bears eat camas?

  1. Keith says:

    Great story…

  2. curtdeatherage says:

    interesting and very informative, thanks for sharing

  3. Bob Zybach says:

    Patty: This is a great story. I’m interested in learning more about the camas prairie at Loon Lake.

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