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Through the camas plant, archaeologist bridges the past, present, and future

Closeup of Molly Carney
Molly Carney

Molly Carney is both a pioneering scientist and a bridge builder. 

In her current research, the environmental archaeologist and postdoctoral researcher in the WSU Department of Anthropology reconstructs the cultural history and plant food uses by Northwest Native communities. Specifically, her projects focus on use and cultivation strategies of camas (Camassia quamash), a bulb plant. For thousands of years, camas has been a valuable plant food for tribal communities. 

Carney’s discoveries about camas are significant – and contrary to generally accepted assumptions.

“Native people managed and harvested camas bulbs for more than 4,000 years,” said Carney, who earned her PhD in archaeology this spring. “When harvesting, Native Americans selected only mature camas bulbs. and considered the long term for the plant itself. This approach was calculated with enduring sustainability in mind.” 

In her work, Carney partners with industry professionals, academics, and Kalispel Tribe representatives.

“One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is the relationship I’ve established with the Kalispel in northeastern Washington,” she said. “Native voices are often ignored, and I’ve worked in my research and collaborations to ensure their voices are included in interpretations of the past.”

Fundamental to Carney’s relationship with the Kalispel is an understanding of their reverence for the past, which is woven through their lives and culture.

“We held a science day with the Kalispel summer camp and I saw how important it was for tribe members to hold something their ancestors had touched,” Carney noted. “One of the kids said, ‘My ancestor really held this.’”

Respect for this cultural legacy has been frequently disregarded by scientists, Carney noted. Many initiate relationships with Native people to conduct research on their lands. But, once the work is complete, they depart and leave those connections in the dust.

“We have a lot to do in this field to rectify those broken relationships and promises,” Carney said. “I wouldn’t want to work on any type of archaeology, if I didn’t have the full approval and blessing of the communities I collaborate with.”

Carney plans to remain in the Northwest to cultivate and sustain her relationships with Native communities into the future.

Carney’s work has been recognized through funding at WSU and other organizations and she has awarded numerous scholarships and grants.

“Molly will eventually work with other tribes,” said Kevin Lyons, cultural resources program manager, Kalispel Tribe of Indians. “She’s building a reputation for respecting the relationship of Native culture to their ancestors and the environment. Molly has grown to be a true peer and leader in her relationship with the Kalispel and brings ideas to us that will help us grow.”

Through their research, Carney and her team contribute to a vital need among Native communities: food autonomy.

For centuries, traditional food sources of North American tribal people have been disrupted by Euro-American food systems. The loss of food sources, along with the land to cultivate them, has had a negative impact on their food security, overall health, and economic revenue.

Camas is one of the foods at the center of food sovereignty initiatives.

“The goal is to be able to take what we’ve learned about camas production and contribute to food sovereignty by offering Native communities autonomous, healthy food options,” Carney said.

Carney’s work has been recognized through funding at WSU and other organizations and she has awarded numerous scholarships and grants. In July, she began a three-year Washington Research Foundation (WRF) Postdoctoral Fellowship.

WSU is the host institution for Carney’s fellowship, and she says it is an ideal partnership. For example, in 2018, the Provost Office established Memorandums of Understanding with 12 Northwest tribes. These are designed to support positive relationships with Native communities throughout the region. 

The fellowship also dovetails with a WSU food sovereignty project, “First Peoples, First Foods.” Led by associate professor of anthropology, Shannon Tushingham, the project is a collaboration WSU faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and several tribal nations.

November is National Native American Heritage Month. This is a time to celebrate the diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native people, and to acknowledge their remarkable contributions and vast achievements.

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