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Indians Turn Klamath Lake Lilies into Diet Staple

Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon’s largest fresh-water lake, enriched the diet of Klamath and Modoc Indians for centuries.  The lake provided fish, ducks and duck eggs, and western yellow-lily seeds, called Wokas, an important source of dietary starch.

The honorary curator of plants at the U.S. National Herbarium, Frederick Vernon Colville, visited the Klamath Reservation in 1896 and 1901.  He reported that nearly all the old women gathered Woka seed pods in July and August and extracted, dried and stored the seeds for use during the year.

Colville said the traditional method of preparing the seeds was to roast them in an open basket with live coals. 

Colville said, “The seeds swell and crack their coats much after the manner of parched corn. The roasted seeds are commonly eaten dry without further preparation, tasting very much like popcorn.”  They were also ground into meal for making porridge and bread.

Dr. Frank Lang, biology professor emeritus of Southern Oregon University, wrote that a student once offered him traditionally prepared Woka meal. “Much to my amazement, it was delicious.  Better than any breakfast food I’ve ever tasted,” Lang said.

Colville, Frederick V. Notes on the Plants Used by the Klamath Indians of Oregon. Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897. 98. 2 vols. Web. 11 Dec. 2014;  Lang, Dr. Frank. "Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang - Wokas." Crater Lake Institute.. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. .

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.