Chief Bitterroot


Sp’iƛ̓əm – Chief Bitterroot

Chief Bitterroot is “the Chief for things under the ground.”The bitterroot is a beautiful but unusual plant that is almost completely unknown to Western society. The Bitterroot only emerges above ground once a year, and can only be found in certain parts of the Okanagan. Of all the four Chiefs, it is the most unique to this region, and in days gone by it formed a critical part of the food gathering process in the Okanagan’s territory.
The harvesting window of the bitterroot lasts for only two weeks, after which the bitterroot cannot be used and the plant returns to an invisible, unreachable world of underground roots.
Chief Bitterroot represents the land itself. That is where it grows, and it is from the land that it gathers its nutrients, and it is into the land that the bitterroot retreats to wait until the proper time to reappear.First Nations people in general and the Okanagan in particular have always had a complex relationship with the land, and that relationship is not well understood by the settlers who came to the land later from Europe and elsewhere. While Europeans rely on the concept of ownership, Okanagans see their community as being one with the land, and this conflict of values has resulted in centuries of conflict, usually resolved by Western legalities such as treaties, reserves and land settlements.The Okanagans believe that without the land none of the animals or plants that we rely on for food would be able to survive, and nor would humans. Even the mighty spring salmon comes inland from the sea to spawn her eggs. To the First Nation person, the land is precious, the land is sacred and the preservation of land is a communal responsibility, not an individual possession.While the settler community often criticized First Nations people for ‘failing’ to develop their land along Western guidelines, the Okanagan attitude was that preservation and conservation of the land was the most important principle, and that as long as the land was protected, the lives of the people would be secure.

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