- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

HEYBURN STATE PARK, Idaho (AP) - After 91-year-old Felix Aripa made his way down a steep slope here to revel at students carrying on the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s tradition of digging up water potatoes from a wetland, the tribal elder made a declaration.

“This is the real Idaho spud,” said Aripa, pointing to the harvest activities.

The Tribe in the last week has been educating students in the region, from elementary schools to colleges, about the traditional fall gathering of water potato harvest, preservation of meat and other survival methods for the winter ahead.

“This brings the Tribe back to its roots,” said Taylor Abrahamson, a North Idaho College student and tribal member. “We need to keep it going.”

Rebecca Nakanjako, an NIC student from Uganda, was thrilled to take a bag of the golf ball-sized potatoes with her after digging in the wetland.

“It felt like I was praying hard to get small things,” she said with a chuckle, referring to being bent over to search for the potatoes in mud.

While most of the harvesters used shovels to search for the spuds, some tried their feet in the traditional way tribal women did it. Women used their bare feet - often in icy water - to feel the spuds with their toes.

“In the old days, the water would be 2 or 3 feet deep,” said Mark Stanger, of the Tribe’s fisheries department. “This was the last harvest of the year.”

Stanger said the harvest helped the Tribe prepare for winter, but it was also an opportunity to spend time with families and other tribes. Some of the potatoes are given to seniors who can no longer make it to the harvest. They are used in foods at memorials and other community events.

Stanger said some tribal members attend the harvest in their wheelchairs to help keep the tradition alive.

The potatoes can be boiled or baked and eaten with butter, in soup or dishes just like larger spuds.

Water potatoes are a wetland plant with arrow-shaped leaves which rise above the water. Ducks and waterfowl eat the seeds, while muskrat, porcupine and deer eat the tubers.

At Monday’s harvest, a channel in the wetland had been created by a muskrat.

“My dad said to steal (water potatoes) from the muskrat only when you’re down to skin and bones,” Aripa said.

Up the hill, Glen Lambert and Vincent Peone of the Tribe dried and smoked whitetail deer meat over a fire for attendees to taste.

“It was all about preservation for the winter,” said Peone, adding that the meat used to be dried from sweathouse boughs over a fire. “There were no refrigerators.”

Other stations at the celebration included information on beavers, traditional tribal tools, aquatic invasive species and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe language.

Peone said it’s critical to pass on traditions and educate others.

“By doing this, our ancestors are still alive,” he said. “Without an identity, you are a lost people.”

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Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com

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