Apr. 16—COYOTE GRADE — Bessie Walker hovered over a young girl named Lyla and helped her work a digging stick into the rocky earth off of Coyote Grade.
Together, they maneuvered the tool, called a túuk'es in the Nez Perce language, beneath the base of a kouse plant.
"Push down really hard," Walker said. "Now push up."
The tool, sort of like a beefed-up dandelion puller, exposed the bulbous root of the plant.
"Look at you, sister," Walker said, encouraging the youngster.
Kouse have showy yellow flowers and pretty green petals. But the real prize is the bulb. It's a traditional food source of the Nimiipuu and one of the first to emerge each spring.
On Thursday, Walker and her nonprofit group, Hipéexnu', led students from Little Roots Learning Center of Lapwai on a root-digging outing. Walker's group is dedicated to teaching Nez Perce culture and language to young tribal members.
"We are trying to invest in the youth so they are familiar with it," she said.
Similar encounters between the preschool-age children and mentors was repeated several times over the course of about an hour.
Cassie Turnbull, a teacher at Little Roots, helped Ben Encheta, of Lapwai, expose one of the bigger roots of the day.
"What is that?" Encheta asked.
"That's a root, that's what you are digging for," Turnbull said. "That's kouse."
"It looks like a gross human," he said of the root. "Can we dig another one?"
The idea of the outing was to give the kids early exposure to root gathering, to ensure the tradition of gathering is passed on. Carla Timentwa, a Nez Perce woman who now lives in Nespelem, Wash., described it as planting a seed in the youngsters.
"These children represent our future, the continuation of our culture," she said. "They are the ones who are going to carry it forward into the next generation — so when they are big and they have children or grandchildren, they will know where to go and what to look for. They will know what times to go out, they will know to pray and to sing and to share the knowledge that was given to them, just like someone gave that knowledge to me a long time ago."
Kouse is one of the sacred foods that is often served in longhouse ceremonies, Timentwa said. It is sometimes called biscuit root.
"It has more of a biscuit flavor, kind of dry flavor," she said. "You can grind it and make little patties — little cakes. Or you can dry it or freeze it."
Timentwa said gatherers target other roots, such as camas, berries and moss. They start at low elevations this time of year, follow the various plants as they ripen.
"It's like a whole season of gathering starting in the spring and goes into the fall," she said. "It kind of goes by elevation. It starts here and goes up the mountain."
Walker described the outing as a lesson just as important and rewarding as traditional subjects taught in schools.
"This is what the kids need, to be outside," she said. "The classroom is good but (it's also good) to bring them outside. I always get good energy from being out here and I just want to give that to everybody."
Lindsey Penney, who owns and operates Little Roots with her husband, James, said the children appeared to soak up a good dose of that energy.
"They were so proud of what they had done and they had such an amazing time," she said. "It was a very big blessing to see the smiles on their faces today."
Barker may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.