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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


To the south the Yokuts seem to have been far more influenced by Great Basin Shoshonean culture than the Miwok. Perhaps this was because the Shoshonean Western Mono lived on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in contact with the Yokuts and thus formed a channel through which Great Basin Shoshonean traits flowed to the Yokuts. The Miwok, on the other hand, had no constant contact with Shoshoneans along their eastern border, being separated from them by the high Sierra, which can be crossed only in summer. This mountain barrier was no doubt an important factor in hindering the Miwok absorption of Great Basin cultural traits. The Ghost Dance cults of 1870 and 1890 are cases in point. The influence of the 1870 form did not reach the Miwok direct from its Paiute originators to the east, but only through the medium of central Californian people to the west.117

In food habits the Miwok seem typical of the central Californian culture area. This is pretty clearly set off from the northwestern Californian area by the abstention in the latter area from the eating of dogs, reptiles, and insects. Southern California, except the Colorado River region, cannot be differentiated upon such a basis, the southerners being as omnivorous as the central peoples. What differences there are between central and southern peoples are largely due to floral and faunal environment. Dog eating has a south central and southern Californian distribution and suggests the possibility of Mexican influence.

Kroeber states118 that seines, gill nets, and dip nets were probably known to all Californians, but that their use or non-use was dependent on local fishing conditions. This is well illustrated by the Miwok use of nets: seines in the still, broad reaches of water, set gill nets in the streams, and dip nets for deep holes. The casting net, suggesting that of the Polynesians, was used by the Plains Miwok and seems to have been reported nowhere else in California.

From the regions of the Northern, Central, and Southern Miwok come scattering archaeological specimens, including the famous “finds” from the auriferous gravels, once regarded as evidence of the existence of man in early Tertiary times. The types of auriferous gravel artifacts have been pictured and described, and their probable Indian origin indicated.119 The portable bowl mortar is conspicuous among them. The Miwok attribute to it a supernatural origin, imputing its invention usually to Coyote. The historic type of mortar for acorn pounding is the bedrock mortar.

What brought about the change from portable bowl to stationary bedrock mortars is not known. The hypothesis suggests itself, however, that the seasonal movements to higher and lower altitudes may have led to the invention of the bedrock mortar as a temporary convenience Transportation of the heavy portable mortars, often weighing a hundred pounds, would have been a difficult and wasteful proceeding, when the available transport was needed for the food products gathered. Thus the bedrock mortar may gradually have come into use. The bedrock mortar is formed by use and does not have to be laboriously pecked out as do the finished portable mortars. This fact may have led to the gradual abandonment of the portable mortar. Moreover the bedrock mortars served a social purpose. Those for a hamlet were often all situated in a single granite outcrop. This meant that the matrons gathered there, instead of each preparing her acorns separately at home in a portable mortar.

In certain respects some Miwok objects display crudeness in comparison with the corresponding objects of their neighbors, as the following examples demonstrate:

(1) Miwok bone sticks for the hand game are crude sections of bone cut squarely off at each end (plate LVII, figs. 9-14). From the Washo the Miwok obtained an elliptical type, finely finished, and with the black central wrapping let into the bone to give added smoothness (plate LXXI, fig. 1).

(2) The best Miwok basketry is not so fine as the best basketry of neighboring tribes, to-wit: Washo, Mono, Yokuts, and Maidu. This applies both to coiling and twining. For example, Maidu, Washo, and Mono burden baskets for seeds are patterned and tightly woven, while the corresponding Miwok receptacle is an openwork one with the interstices closed with a coating of soaproot juice, which hardens to a glue-like consistency. The Miwok twined trays are crude openwork affairs. The Washo and Mono make tightly woven, patterned ones. The absence of feathered basketry in Miwok collections contrasts with its presence in Yokuts collections.

(3) In using the whole olive shell for necklaces instead of cutting it into perforated disks or squares, the Miwok dwelling in the mountains correspond to the primitive Coast Yuki, who, although living on the shores where the shells were found, never developed any form of beads other than the whole shell.120 The Miwok acquired olive-shell disk beads from their neighbors, but never advanced to their manufacture. Similarly, clam-shell beads were not made by the Miwok of the hills and mountains, but perhaps were made by the Plains Miwok in whose territory huge quantities have been unearthed from aboriginal sites.

Whole olive shells were used by the ancient people of Lovelock cave in the same general way as among the mountain Miwok, namely, by making into long ropes of parallel rows of shells. The manner of attachment of the shells was somewhat more intricate than among the Miwok.121

(4) The feather dance skirts of the Miwok resemble those of the Maidu. But in the technique of attaching the feathers the Miwok were less skillful than the Maidu. Both cut the base of the quill to resemble the point of a quill pen. This was folded over the string of the net to which it was to be attached. The Maidu inserted the point of the quill into its shaft.122 The Miwok merely folded it over and lashed it with string.

(5) In northern California a slab of stone is used as a mortar. Upon it was placed a bottomless flaring basket hopper to prevent the fragments of acorn scattering when struck by the pestle. Among the Miwok the basket hopper was unknown, even though it would have been very serviceable with the shallower depressions of the bedrock mortars. The acorn fragments which flew off with each stroke of the pestle were retrieved instead with a soaproot brush.

(6) The manufacture of carved oaken bowls among none of the Miwok, except the Southern, and their manufacture among the Western Mono, are significant.

(7) The wooden tobacco pipes of the three divisions of Sierra Miwok were at best crude affairs. The elderberry pipe was the easiest made and simplest type of tobacco pipe. The superiority of workmanship in the pipes of their neighbors immediately to the south is shown in plate LVI, figs. 5-12.

(8) Crude coiled pottery was made by certain Yokuts and Mono groups. Its manufacture never extended to the Miwok.

(9) Except for rare examples from east of the Sierra Nevada, the metate was not used by the Miwok. The mortar was employed for all sorts of seeds.

In short, although the dwellers of the delta region (among whom some Plains Miwok were doubtless included) had one of the richest cultures of central California, the Sierra Miwok were relatively primitive in culture. This situation conforms to what is generally observable in California; namely, that valley dwellers have a richer culture than mountain dwellers.

117Gifford, 1926, 400.
1181925, 816.
119Holmes, 1901, 419-472.
120Gifford, 1928, 114.
121Loud and Harrington, fig. 17; pl. 53.
122Dixon, 1905, fig. 24.

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