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


Fishing was very important among the Plains Miwok and those of the lower hills along the courses of the large rivers. Four types of nets were used. A dip net with circular opening and a very long pole was used in the deep holes in the rivers. The seine (yo'ho, P, N) was from six to eight feet wide, was as much as forty feet long, and was usually placed across a river or lagoon where conditions were favorable. Several men drove the fish into the net, where they were either caught by the gills or impounded as the net was drawn ashore. This net was employed for all kinds of fish, including the salmon. In the slack water of the delta region, and especially along rush-bordered rivers and marshes, it was used with the tule balsa, its lower edge weighted with balls of mud wrapped in leaves. No balsa was employed in the swifter waters upstream, and here the seine was rarely used, but was replaced by the set net (y'g, P. N; lū'sume, C; la'ssa, C). It was like the seine, but smaller. Its lower edge was fastened securely

Fig. 27.--Set net for catching fish.
[click to enlarge]
Fig. 27.—Set net for catching fish.
to a wooden bow which in turn was weighted with stones. It was set in a riffle or other advantageous spot and formed a rather deep pocket, across the opening of which several vertical trigger strings were stretched. As the fish passed these strings the signal was conveyed to a watcher on shore by means of a long string, attached to either a cocoon rattle or to the watcher, often about his neck. Upon receiving the signal the watcher pulled up the net, removed the fish, and reset the net. The features of this net are shown in text-figure 27. Sometimes men dove upstream from the net to frighten the fish down to it. A fourth type of net was the casting net (mōla'nna, P). This net had a large circular opening, which automatically spread wide as the net was thrown into the water. It was attached to a long rope and closed itself as it was drawn ashore.

In taking the larger fish, especially the salmon (kosimo, C) and the white salmon (toinoyo, C), the two-pronged harpoon (sīla'nna, P; sī'laa, N; gula'a, C; tco’llo, C) was much used. Its detachable points (sa'tnīpa, C) were made from deer leg bone, and it was of the type common in California. The two detachable points were each secured to the pole by a short, very strong leader of native string, so as to make toggles of them when they come off the prongs, upon being thrust into the fish. The pole was from ten to fifteen feet in length and was made of ash (pa'asu, C), Fraxinus oregona, or of mountain mahogany (bakilo, C), Cercocarpis parvifolius. A three-pronged harpoon was said also to have been used by the Central Miwok.

The sturgeon, found only in Plains Miwok territory, was caught with the hook and line. The “hook” (ya,'lūtc, P) was a straight piece of deer bone with both ends sharpened and attached at its middle to the line.62 A large sucker was used as bait and it was necessary to fish from a balsa. A large sturgeon was able to tow a balsa for a considerable time. It was, therefore, necessary to have a line a quarter of an inch or more in diameter. When the sturgeon ceased towing, it was played until near enough to strike on the head with a special sturgeon club, about eighteen inches in length.

We have no account of fish hooks among the Miwok, yet the Field Museum has a fish worm carrier (70190) from the Southern Miwok of Yosemite valley, perhaps a modern type. This consists of a bottle shaped bundle of sedge (Cyperus virens) leaves, within which the worms were confined. It is not a woven container.

Hotca (C) was a spear with obsidian point and mountain mahogany shaft, used solely to spear whitefish in the higher mountains. These were speared in shallow water.

Small fish, such as rainbow trout (Salmo iridens), were sometimes caught by hand in the holes along the banks of creeks and rivers.

Informants said that formerly basket traps were used for salmon and other fish, but they had never seen them and could not describe them.

On the Stanislaus river, salmon (kosimo, C) went up as far as Baker’s bridge, where there is a waterfall. On the Tuolumne river they went at least as high as La Grange, as did also the white salmon (toinoyo, C). Salmon were caught in the late spring. They worked the sand out of the way with their tails when spawning in shallow water. In such positions they were speared. They were caught with nets also in the same season in the Stanislaus river. Most people used the net, as but few understood the spear. A fire built beside the river served as a lure to make spearing easy at night.

The eggs (pu'le, S) of the salmon were used as food. They were dried and preserved for winter use. When needed the dried eggs were soaked in water over night and then boiled for an hour. They might be simply washed and cooked immediately if haste required. When boiled they were eaten with a little salt. The fresh roe was prepared by boiling in a basket.

Lamprey eels were taken in the ordinary fish net, but there was no particular effort made to secure them and there was no special eel net or trap. They were eaten.

An unidentified fish called sununu (C) was described as six to eight inches long and big-headed like a catfish. It was eaten. It could not be caught in a net, and was the only fish shot with bow and arrow by the Central Miwok. Its capture by this method was indulged in only by boys. The arrows employed were wooden pointed. Before shooting the boys called, “Yenene, yenene.” The fish was said to make the same sound, though softly, after being removed from the water.

Mashed buckeye nuts (AEsculus californica) and soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) were used as fish poisons (huyapna, C), being put in small creeks or pools. The fish, including eels, gradually came to the surface and floated belly up. There was no special method of preparing fish thus killed.

62Cf. Barrett, 1910, pl. 22, fig. 3.

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