by Terry Spurgeon
The purpose of this description is to provide the reader with a variety of information about wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) and its occurrence and use in Katzie traditional territory. It is not considered an exhaustive source of information about wapato, nor is the reference list, which is only a small portion of the extant literature, anything more than a source of further reading for those interested in pursuing the subject further. The information presented should be useful for all levels of readers, regardless of their previous knowledge.

Wapato has played an important role in Katzie traditional lifeways. Also known as arrowhead, arrowleaf, Indian potato, swamp potato and duck-potato, wapato produces starchy tubers which were an ethnographically known food source for native groups throughout much of North America. Wapato, once an important food plant for the Katzie, has frequently been mentioned in ethnographic and archaeological literature but is not as well known or understood as these sources seem to imply. In Katzie traditional territory wapato has never been identified in archaeological contexts, nor have the ethnographic and historic information sources been critically reviewed to place the information pertaining to wapato into a more contextually accurate framework. That its importance in Katzie traditional territory has not been studied in detail ethnographically or archaeologically is fact. Indeed, it is curious that a plant of wapato's purported importance as a dietary and trade item has not received more attention.

Katzie traditional territory includes the Pitt Meadows, Pitt Polder, Pitt River and Pitt Lake lowland areas where wapato once grew in abundance. Wapato provided the Katzie with a predictable carbohydrate balance to a largely protein diet which was based on a salmon, both these food items being predictable resources. The Katzie and their neighbors maintained relationships associated with the growing and trade of wapato which is harvested in the fall/winter months, a time of year when air and water temperatures are cold. Katzie wapato harvesting and the associated pre-clearing and tending of wapato patches raises the issue of proto-horticultural behavior as it applies to the study of complex hunter/gatherer societies. Another factor complicating our knowledge of wapato is the rapid influx of the common potato (Solanum tuberosum) after first contact with Europeans (Suttles 1987). This rapid influx may in part have contributed to the rapid decline of wapato consumption. S. tuberosum is essentially a dietary equivalent of S. latifolia, but the growing, harvesting and processing of the former is quite different. There are other factors affecting Katzie use of traditional areas and the modern occurrence of wapato and these are detailed in Table I. A more detailed description of Katzie territory and traditional land-use practices can be found in Driver and Spurgeon (1998).

Wapato is variously described as a marsh, semi-aquatic or aquatic herbaceous perennial with its above water foliage having leaves having a characteristic arrowhead shape (Borman et al 1997; Brayshaw 1985; Pojar and MacKinnon 1996). It is a member of the Alismataceae or Water Plantain family. The plant produces walnut to golfball size tubers in the substrate of shallow waters. The starchy tubers are storage organs produced from the plants' horizontally creeping underground stems or rhizomes. S. latifolia reproduces both vegetatively and sexually from seeds. The fruits are flattened, beaked achenes. The production of tubers and achenes varies considerably with the growing conditions (Marburger 1993). Widely used today for wetland enhancement, restoration and creation, this C3 species tolerates and assimilates high levels of nutrients and heavy metals, and is subject to herbivory by insects, waterfowl and other animals (ibid). A more detailed morphological description and classification of roots and tubers which reproduce vegetatively can be found in Hather (1994). Hather's classification of roots and tubers includes Sagittaria sagittifolia the European and Asian species of arrowhead.

Wapato is the Chinook Jargon trade language word for potato. This Pidgin language was used along the coast from the California/Oregon border to the Alaskan Panhandle at least since contact with Europeans. Chinook Jargon, which has vocabulary accretions from indigenous native languages of the area, as well as French and English, should not be confused with native American Chinookan languages (Thompson and Kinkade 1990:41). Wapato as a jargon word for potato has a similarity with the Spanish words batata or sweet potato and patata or potato. It is not always clear from the literature whether wapato refers specifically to Sagittaria latifolia or Solanum tuberosum - the domesticated table potato. Today it is generally conceded to refer to both, the latter having more or less replaced the former after its early introduction to the region (Suttles 1987). Suttles (ibid) suggests several possible early sources for Solanum tuberosum on the Northwest Coast, all attributable to the presence of Russian, English and Spanish maritime explorers prior the close of the 18th century and to fur-traders early in the 19th century.

Wapato is frequently mentioned in The Fort Langley Journals (Maclachlan 1998). Suttles (1998a, 1998b) discusses the ethnographic significance of this historic record and of Halkomelem dialect differences in presenting the English speaking recorder's of The Fort Langley Journals with difficulties in recording native group names. The same might be argued for other aspects of daily life being recorded by persons not familiar with Halkomelem. Thus, linguistic information should be carefully scrutinized in keeping with the contextual argument presented here that care must be taken to avoid confusion when using ethnographic and historic accounts of native people using wapato and potatoes. The potential for confusion in early records is obvious and in the instance of information gathered five or more generations after first contacts with Europeans all the factors in Table I must also be taken into account. This seems very much the case with wapato.

During 1998 I recorded wapato patches on the banks of the Fraser and Pitt Rivers, the lower reaches of Blaney Creek, the North and South Alouette and the Alouette River main channel below the forks. Wapato is also present on the Pitt River fronting IR4, in Widgeon Creek and slough and on Siwash Island. In all instances to-date the patches have been located in water bodies where there is daily flow, albeit subject to short term water fluctuations (i.e., tides, flood stages), and with bottom sediments comprised of silty/clayey muds. As yet, no wapato has been observed growing in non-flowing waters or those subject to long term fluctuations in water level or where the bottom sediments are largely organic, conditions typical of those behind the area's extensive dyke system. This initial association of wapato with flowing, muddy-bottomed waters subject to short term level fluctuations, in contrast to its apparent absence in non-flowing waters with organic bottoms and longer term water level fluctuations, leads to the conclusion that modern dyking, which has interrupted the water flow in the extensively channeled pre-dyked lowland, has resulted in conditions where wapato no longer thrives. Also contributing to the negative impact of dyking on wapato and archaeological site preservation is the regular maintenance of the dyke system and the frequent dredging of channels, ditches and slough systems in the dyke enclosed areas.

Based on my observations it is not a given that wapato remains hidden below ground if not extensively cultivated. Nor is it difficult to find once the many factors that affect its occurrence are understood. These include water levels, wildlife predation and a narrow period when the plant is most visible. The distinctive arrowhead shaped foliage is best sought after in the months of July, August and September. At other times the underground roots and tubers remain hidden below ground level raising the need for planning to effect the fall/winter tuber harvest, a season when foliage is no longer visible. I have dug wapato tubers locally from October to February, consistent with the harvest information contained in ethnographic sources. It is likely that the tubers can be acquired well into the spring months. This raises the issue of storage of excavated tubers, whereby simply leaving them in the ground and only digging them from nearby patches when needed precludes the need for prolonged specialized storage.

Daily tidal fluctuations may also obscure the emergent foliage early in the growing season making searching during low tides a good practise. During the 1999 season when the Fraser River experienced an extended period of higher than normal flood water, emergent wapato plants remained submerged for an extended period and weren't visible until well into the month of August. It is suspected that the period has also affected the shape of the leaves, which while still arrowhead shaped are more long and slender in comparison to the leaves of the previous year which were quite broad. High tides and flooding also seem to protect young plants from predation but during a protracted period of low tides - common in the summer, the plants are available for predation. While in the field I observed numerous instances of Canada geese feeding on the foliage whereby a patch visible one day would be undetectable the next. Patches in the vicinity of frequent human activity i.e. boat launching ramps and hiking paths, were less impacted by animal predation and seemingly ignored by people.

Terry Spurgeon
November 1999 TABLE I
Factors affecting wapato use in Katzie traditional territory:

Major Influence

* Urbanization and development

* Hydroelectric development

* Forestry

* Agriculture

* Dyking

* Land alienation/Indian Reserves

* Colony status granted

* Language change

* Fur Trade/Fort Langley

* Simon Fraser - explorer

* Potato (Solanum tuberosum) introduced

* First contacts/ Disease

Associated Impact(s)

Since 1860 - ever increasing access restrictions to traditional use areas.
Since dam construction in 1925 - reduced water flow in Alouette River, changes to Alouette Lake(s).
Since late 19th century, ending by 1930. Mainly second growth left, large forest fires burned remainder ending logging.
Mainly since dyking - reduced access, increased biotic disruptions.
Started in 1892 - diversions, ditches, dredging, continuing maintenance, major biotic disruptions.
Since 1860 - reduced or prohibited access to traditional use areas, ghetto like treatment of native population; land surveying started.
1858 - new government, spurs settlement, irrevocably sustains new economy.
Constant erosion/change to native languages.

1827 - a new economy introduced - furs, money, jobs, trade goods, demand for consumer items such as food products.
Spring 1808 - Fraser river in freshet, notes expanses of water in Fraser Valley area, natives with firearms at mouth.
May signal end of large wapato harvest.

Pre- AD 1800 - native population reduction begins, trade goods introduced.


Borman, Susan, Robert Korth and Jo Temte

1997 Through the Looking Glass: A Field Guide to Aquatic Plants. The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, University of Wisconsin -Extension, Wisconsin Dep't. Of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Assoc. of Lakes. Reindl Printing Inc., Merrill, Wisconsin.

Brayshaw, Christopher T.

1985 Pondweeds and Bur-reeds, and Their Relatives, of British Columbia. British Columbia Provincial Museum No. 26 Occasional Papers, Victoria.

Driver, Jon and Terry Spurgeon

1998 The Alouette River and The Katzie First Nation. Simon Fraser University Department of Archaeology and BC Hydro.

Hather, J.G.

1994 A Morphological Classification of Roots and Tubers and its bearing on the Origins of Agriculture in Southwest Asia and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 21, pp. 719-724.

Maclachlan, Morag

1998 The Fort Langley Journals 1827-30. Edited by Morag Maclachlan, UBC Press, Vancouver.

Marburger, Joy E.

1993 Biology and Management of Sagittaria latifolia Willd. (Broad-leaf Arrow-head) for Wetland Restoration and Creation. Restoration Ecology, December 1993.

Pojar, Jim and Andy Mackinnon

1994 Plants of Coastal British Columbia including Washington, Oregon and Alaska. B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lonepine Publishing, Vancouver.

Suttles, Wayne

1987 The Early Diffusion of the Potato among the Coast Salish. Coast Salish Essays. Talonbooks, Vancouver, pp. 137-51.

1990 Central Coast Salish. In Handbook of North American Indians - Northwest Coast, Volume 7, edited by Wayne Suttles, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

1988a The Ethnographic Significance of the Fort Langley Journals. The Fort Langley Journals 1827-30, edited by Morag Maclachlan, UBC Press, Vancouver.

1998b Names in the Fort Langley Journals. The Fort Langley Journals 1827-30, edited by Morag Maclachlan, UBC Press, Vancouver.

Thompson, Laurence C. and M. Dale Kinkade

1990 Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians - Northwest Coast, Volume 7, edited by Wayne Suttles, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

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