The Kalispel Tribe of Indians, in partnership with Washington State University (WSU) archaeologists, has embarked on a groundbreaking archaeological project that sheds light on their rich cultural heritage. The excavation of ancient Tribal earth ovens, predating the Egyptian pyramids, offers a unique opportunity to explore the culinary practices and lifestyles of the Kalispel people who have inhabited the Inland Northwest for the past 5,000 years.

Preserving Heritage and Sharing Knowledge

Kalispel Tribal elder Shirley Blackbear emphasized the significance of sharing this historical excavation experience with the public, as it grants non-Natives a chance to learn and understand more about the Tribe’s history and traditions. Passed down through generations, the Tribe’s cooking techniques hold immense cultural value.

Discovering Ancient Earth Ovens

The discovery of earth ovens occurred when the Kalispel Tribe acquired land near Newport to address housing needs. The ongoing excavation has revealed several well-preserved ovens, with radiocarbon dating suggesting one of them dates back 5,000 years. Collaborating with WSU, a team of professional archaeologists and fourth-year students from the university’s archaeological field school are meticulously analyzing the ovens and collecting soil samples to uncover charred seeds, nuts, and protein residues, which offer insights into the ancient diet and food processing techniques.

The Quest for Camas and More

One of the primary objectives of the excavation is to learn more about camas, a significant food source for the Kalispel people. Understanding the oven technology used before 3,000 years ago could help reveal how camas was prepared in ancient times. Additionally, the team hopes to identify protein residues from animals like bighorn sheep, which might have been present or traded for during that era.

Building Bridges and Preserving Legacy

The collaboration between the Kalispel Tribe and WSU is a testament to the Tribe’s commitment to preserving its history and legacy. While Tribes historically faced challenges in participating in archaeological digs, the Kalispel Tribe has taken strides to proactively engage with experts and professionals to answer questions about their past.

A Tradition of Collaboration

The partnership with WSU is not a new one; it stretches back nearly a century when WSU’s Allan H. Smith documented the Kalispel people in the 1930s. Today, the collaboration continues through the archeological field school led by WSU’s Shannon Tushingham, providing aspiring archaeologists with hands-on experience and promoting cultural resource management.


The Kalispel Tribe’s collaboration with WSU is a remarkable effort to preserve and understand their cultural heritage through the excavation of ancient earth ovens. This project not only enriches the Tribe’s knowledge of their past but also creates meaningful learning experiences for students pursuing careers in archaeology. Through such endeavors, the Tribe continues to foster a deeper appreciation for its traditions and history within the broader community.

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