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Chapter Four


The food supply of the Sierra Indians was extensive and abundant, consisting of the flesh of deer, antelope, elk and mustang horses, together with fish, water-fowls, birds, acorns, berries, pine nuts, esculent, herbage and the tuberous roots of certain plants, all of which were easily obtained, even with their simple and limited means of securing them. Mushrooms, fungi, grasshoppers, worms and the larvæ of ants and other insects, were also eaten, and some of these articles were considered great delicacies.


Their main effective weapons for hunting large game were their bows and obsidian-pointed arrows. Their manner of hunting was either by the stealthy still hunt, or a general turn-out, surrounding a large area of favorable country and driving to a common center, where at close range the


A YOSEMITE HUNTER.  He wears a false deer’s head, to deceive the game.
He wears a false deer’s head, to deceive the game.

Drawing by Jorgensen.


hunters could sometimes make an extensive slaughter.

When on the still hunt for deer in the brushy, sparsely timbered foothills of the Sierra Range of mountains, or higher up in the extensive forests, some of the hunters wore for a headgear a false deer’s head, by which deceptive device they were enabled to get to a closer and more effective range with their bows and arrows. This head-dress was made of the whole skin of a doe’s head, with a part of the neck, the head part stuffed with light material, the eyeholes filled in with the green feathered scalp of a duck’s head, and the top furnished with light wooden horns, the branching stems of the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) being generally used for this purpose. The neck part was made to fit on the hunter’s head and fasten with strings tied under the chin. This unique style of headgear was used by some Indian hunters for many years after they had guns to hunt with.

The high ranges of the mountains as already stated, were considered common hunting ground by the different tribes. The deer, many of them, were in some degree


INDIAN SWEAT LODE. Used by the Yosemite hunters before starting after game.
Used by the Yosemite hunters before starting after game.

Drawing by Jorgensen.


migratory in their habits, being driven from the higher ranges to the foothills by the deep winter snows, and in the spring following close to the melting, receding snow, back again to their favorite summer haunts.

Late in the summer, or early in the fall, just before holding some of their grand social or sacred festivals, the Indian hunters would make preparation for a big hunt in the mountains, to get a good supply of venison for the feast. One of the first absolute prerequisites was to go through a thorough course of sweating and personal cleansing. This was done by resorting to their sweat houses, which were similar in construction to the o´-chums, except that the top was rounded and the whole structure was covered thickly with mud and earth to exclude the air. These houses were heated with hot stones and coals of fire, and the hunters would then crawl into them and remain until in a profuse perspiration, when they would come out and plunge into cold water for a wash-off. This was repeated until they thought themselves sufficiently free from all bodily odor so that the deer could not detect their approach by scent, and flee for safety.

After this purification they kept themselves strictly as celibates until the hunt was over, though their women went along to help carry the outfit, keep camp, cook, search for berries and pine nuts, and assist in bringing to camp and taking care of the deer as killed, and in “packing” the meat out to the place of rendezvous appointed for the grand ceremonies and feast.

Their usual manner of cooking fresh meat was by broiling on hot coals, or roasting before the fire or in the embers. Sometimes, however, they made a cavity in the ground, in which they built a fire, which was afterwards cleared away and the cavity lined with very hot stones, on which they placed the meat wrapped in green herbage, and covered it with other hot rocks and earth, to remain until suitably cooked.

When they had a surplus of fresh meat they cut it in strips and hung it in the sunshine to dry. The dried meat was generally cooked by roasting in hot embers, and then beaten to soften it before being eaten.

A young hunter never ate any of the first deer he killed, as he believed that if he did so he would never succeed in killing another.


They had various methods of catching fish—with hook and line, with a spear, by weir-traps in the stream, and by saturating the water with the juice of the soap-root plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Before they could obtain fishhooks of modern make, they made them of bone. Their lines were made of the tough, fibrous, silken bark of the variety of milkweed or silkweed, already mentioned. Their spears were small poles pointed with a single tine of bone, which was so arranged that it became detached by the struggles of the fish, and was then held by a string fastened near its center, which turned it crosswise of the wound and make it act as an effective barb.

Their weir-traps were put in the rapids, and constructed by building wing dams diagonally down to the middle of the stream until the two ends came near together, and in this narrow outlet was placed a sort of wicker basket trap, made of long willow sprouts loosely woven together and closed at the pointed lower end, which was elevated above the surface of the water below the dam. The fish, in going down stream, ran into this trap, and soon found themselves at the lower end and out of the water.

The soap-root was used at a low stage of water, late in summer. They dug several bushels of the bulbous roots and went to a suitable place on the bank, where the roots were pounded into a pulp, and mixed with soil and water. This mixture, by the handful, was then rubbed on rocks out in the stream, which roiled the water and also made it somewhat foamy. The fish were soon affected by it, became stupid with a sort of strangulation, and rose to the surface, where they were easily captured by the Indians with their scoop baskets. In a stream the size of the South Fork of the Merced River at Wawona, by this one operation every fish in it for a distance of three miles would be taken in a few hours.

The fish were generally cooked by roasting on hot coals from burned oak wood or bark.


Acorns were their main staple article of breadstuff, and they are still used by the


CHUCK´-AH.  Storehouse for nuts and acorns, thatched with pine branches, points downward, to keep out mice and squirrels.
Storehouse for nuts and acorns, thatched with pine branches, points downward, to keep out mice and squirrels.

Drawing by Mrs. Jorgensen.


present generation whenever they can be obtained.

They are gathered in the fall when ripe, and are preserved for future use in the old style Indian cache or storehouse. This consists of a structure which they call a chuck´-ah, which is a large basket-shaped receptacle made of long willow sprouts closely woven together. It is usually about six feet high and three feet in diameter. It is set upon stout posts about three feet high, and supported in position by four longer posts on the outside, reaching to the top, and there bound firmly to keep them from spreading. The outside of the basket is thatched with small pine branches, points downward, to shed the rain and snow, and to protect the contents from the depredations of squirrels and woodpeckers. When filled, the top also is securely covered with bark, as a protection from the winter storms. When the acorns are wanted for use, a small hole is made at the bottom of the chuck´-ah, and they are taken out from time to time, as required.

The acorns from the black or Kellogg’s oak (Quercus Californica) are considered

much the best and most nutritious by the Indians. This is the oak which is so beautiful and abundant in the Yosemite Valley.

These acorns are quite bitter, and are not eaten in their natural condition, as most fruit and nuts are eaten, but have to be quite elaborately prepared and cooked to make them palatable. First, the hull is cracked and removed, and the kernel pounded or ground into a fine meal. In the Yosemite Valley and at other Indian camps in the mountains, this is done by grinding with their stone pestles or metats (may-tat’s) in the ho´yas or mortars, worn by long usage in large flat-top granite rocks, one of which is near every Indian camp. Lower down in the foothills, where there are no suitable large rocks for these permanent mortars, the Indians used single portable stone mortars for this purpose.

After the acorns are ground to a fine meal, the next process is to take out the bitter tannin principle. This is done in the following manner: They make large shallow basins in clean washed sand, in the center of which are laid a few flat, fan-like ends of fir branches. A fire is then made near by,


HO´-YAS AND ME-TATS´.  Rude mortars and pestles for grinding acorn meal. The holes have been worn in the granite by constant use.
Rude mortars and pestles for grinding acorn meal. The holes have been worn in the granite by constant use.

Photograph by Fiske.

and small stones of four or five pounds in weight are heated, with which they warm water in some of their large cooking baskets, and mix the acorn meal with it to the consistency of thin gruel. This mixture is poured into the sand basins, and as the water leaches out into the sand it takes with it the bitter quality—the warm water being renewed until all the bitter taste is washed out from the meal sediment, or dough.

This is then taken, and, after being cleansed from the adhering sand, is put into cooking baskets, thinned down with hot water to the desired condition, and cooked by means of hot stones which are held in it with two sticks for tongs. The mush, while cooking, is stirred with a peculiar stirring stick, made of a tough oak sprout, doubled so as to form a round, open loop at one end, which is used in lifting out any loose stones. When the dough is well cooked, it is either left en masse in the baskets or scooped out in rolls and put into cold water to cool and harden before being eaten. Sometimes the thick paste is made into cakes and baked on hot rocks. One of these cakes, when rolled in paper, will in a short time saturate it with oil. This acorn food is probably more nutritious than any of the cereals.


The Indian dogs, of which every family had several, are as fond of the acorn food as their owners. These dogs are made useful in treeing wild-cats, California lions and gray squirrels, and are very expert in catching ground squirrels by intercepting them when away from their burrows, and when the Indians drown them out in the early spring by turning water from the flooded streams into their holes.

As far as can be learned, dogs were about the only domestic animals which the Yosemites, and other adjacent tribes of Indians, kept for use before the country was settled by the white people.


Pine nuts were another important article of food, and were much prized by the Indians. They are very palatable and nutritious, and are also greatly relished by white people whenever they can be obtained. The seeds of the Digger or nut pine (Pinus Sabiniana) were the ones most used on the western side of the Sierras, although the seeds of the sugar pine (P. Lambertiana) were also sometimes eaten. On account of their soft shell, nuts from the piñon pine (P. monophylla), which grows principally on the eastern side of the mountains, were considered superior to either of the other kinds, and were an important article of barter with the tribes of that region. All of these trees are very prolific, and their crop of nuts in fruitful years has been estimated to be even greater than the enormous wheat crop of California, although of course but a very small portion of it is ever gathered. Many other kinds of nuts and seeds were also eaten.

The principal berries used by the Indians of Yosemite and tribes lower down in the foothills were those of the manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca). They are about the size of huckleberries, of a light brown color, and when ripe have the flavor of dried apples. They are used for eating, and also to make a kind of, cider for drinking, and for mixing with some food preparations. Manzanita is the Spanish for “little apple,” and this shrub, with its rich red bark and pale green foliage, is perhaps the most beautiful and most widely distributed in California. Strawberries, black raspberries, elderberries, wild cherries and the fruit of the Sierra plum (Prunus subcordata) are also used by the Indians, but wild edible berries are not as plentiful in California as they are in the Atlantic States.


In addition to the staple articles of food already mentioned, many other things were eaten when they could be obtained. These included grasshoppers, certain kinds of large tree worms, the white fungi which grows upon the oak, mushrooms, and the larvæ and pupæ of ants and other insects. The pupæ of a certain kind of fly which breeds extensively on the shores of Mono Lake, about forty miles from Yosemite, was an important article of commerce across the mountains, and was made into a kind of paste called ka-cha´-vee, which is still much relished by the Indians, and is a prominent dish at their feasts.

The manner of catching grasshoppers was to dig a large hole, somewhat in the shape


A WOOD GATHERER.  As in all Indian tribes, the women do most of the work.
As in all Indian tribes, the women do most of the work.

Photograph by Fiske.


of a fly trap, with the bottom larger than the opening at the top, so that the insects could not readily get out of it. This hole was dug in the center of a meadow, which was then surrounded by Indians armed with small boughs, who beat the grasshoppers towards a common center and drove them into the trap. A fire was then kindled on top of them, and after they had been well roasted they were gathered up and stored for future use.

Other articles of food were various kinds of roots, grasses and herbage, some of which were cooked, while others were eaten in their natural condition. The lupine (Lupinus bicolor and other species), whose brilliant flowers are such a beautiful feature of all the mountain meadows in the spring and summer, was a favorite plant for making what white people would call “greens,” and when eaten was frequently moistened with some of the manzanita cider already referred to. Among the roots used for food were those of the wild caraway (Carum), wild hyacinth (Brodiæa), sorrel (Oxalis), and camass (Camassia esculenta).

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management