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Yosemite Indians; Yesterday and Today (1941) by Elizabeth H. Godfrey


FOOD

Although the Yosemite Indians had neither knowledge of cultivation nor a market place to buy provisions,

Shelling acorns in advance of preparing an meal
Shelling acorns in advance of preparing an meal
[Editor’s note: Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard)—dea.]
the food supply furnished by native plants, animals, birds and insects afforded them a varied diet. For meat they killed the deer, small mammals, birds, and caught fish. In addition, there were acorns, berries, pine nuts, edible plants, bulbs, mushrooms, fungi, larvae of ants and other insects in their season. The acorns of the Black Oak, rich in nutritious vitamins, constituted the “staff of life.”

Gathering the acorns, storing them in the chuck-ah granary, along with the complicated preparation of acorn mush and bread constituted a laborious and lengthy task that the Indian woman accepted as a matter of routine.

The chuck-ahs in the Museum Garden “Indian Village” constructed by Maggie (Ta-bu-ce) are typical of the granaries employed for storing the acorns. At first glance these huge, cylindrical, basket-like affairs remind one of big, clumsy nests built by some giant bird. Four slender poles of Incense Cedar about eight feet high arranged in a square, and a center log or rock two feet high for the bottom of the chuck-ah, constitute the frame support. The basket-like interior is of interwoven branches of deer brush (Ceanothus) tied at the ends with willow stems and fastened together with wild grapevine. This is lined with dry pine needles and wormwood. The latter supposedly discourages the invasion of insects and rodents, and grows abundantly in the museum region. After the chuck-ah has been filled with acorns gathered in the

Chuck-ah, used for acorn storage. Photo by C. A. Harwell
Chuck-ah, used for acorn storage
Photo by C. A. Harwell

[Editor’s note: Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard)—dea.]
fall, it is topped with pine needles, wormwood, and sections of Incense Cedar bark that are bound down firmly with wild grapevines to withstand windstorms. The final touch is thatching the exterior with short boughs of White Fir or Incense Cedar, with needles pointing downward to shed snow and rain, and fastening them securely with bands of wild grapevine.

Method of Preparing Acorn Mush, Bread and Patties

After cracking and shelling the acorns, the spoiled meats were removed, and the kernels pounded into fine yellow meal. Mortar holes in granite are found at every village site. In order to remove the bitter tasting tannin from the meal, leaching was required. In this process the acorn meal was first placed in a previously prepared shallow, hard-packed sand basin. At short intervals water was poured over the mixture, and allowed to seep through the sand. About seven applications of water were necessary to remove the tannin—the last three being increasingly warm.

Three products were obtained from the leaching according to the fineness of the meal: the fine meal served for gruel or thin soup; the middle product for mush, and from the coarser material small patties were formed, and baked on hot, flat rocks.

The mush was cooked in a large cooking basket, using the proportion of two quarts of newly leached acorn meal to six or seven quarts of boiling water. Heat was provided for both boiling the water and cooking the mush by gently lowering hot stones into a large cooking basket by means of wooden tongs. When the mush was done, the stones were removed with the tongs and dropped into cold water, so that the mush adhering to them might congeal and when cool be peeled off and eaten.

Insects

One of the most important articles of trade between the Monos and the Yosemites was the insect delicacy Ka-cha'-vee, which came from the saline waters of Mono Lake in the form of a peculiar insect pupae, breeding there in countless numbers. The waves cast on the shore great windrows, composed of millions of bodies of these undeveloped species of fly. The squaws scooped up the pupae into large baskets, and when the smelly mass was thoroughly dry, they were rubbed to remove skins. After further drying, they were packed for winter use. The final product had a flavor similar to shrimp, but was not nearly so strong.

Ka-cha-vee, an insect food (x7). (a) Pupa, used by the Indians. (b) The Adult Fly (Ephydra hians).
Ka-cha-vee, an insect food (x7)
(a) Pupa, used by the Indians
(b) The Adult Fly (Ephydra hians)

Another prized commercial food product which the Monos traded with the Yosemites were the caterpillars of the Pandora moth, better known in the Indian tongue as Peaggi. These were collected in the Jeffrey Pine forests just east of Yosemite National Park. At a certain time known to the Monos, the caterpillars left the trees to enter the ground to form pupal cases, and were trapped in shallow trenches dug in loose soil around the trees. The squaws visited these trenches at intervals and collected the caterpillars that had accumulated there. They were then dried and stored away for cooking into stew. Grasshoppers and larvae of yellow jackets were also used as food, and were roasted in an earthen oven.

Greens

Miner’s Lettuce was eaten raw. Sometimes red ants were allowed to run over the leaves to flavor them with formic acid, which gave an

Miner’s Lettuce
Miner’s Lettuce
added sour taste. This was a substitute for the modern use of vinegar. Fern shoots of the Brake Fern, which commonly grows in moist, shaded regions over the valley floor and side canyon walls, were cut when in the uncurling stage, and after removing the hairs by scraping, were eaten raw or cooked. Clover was eaten raw when the plants were young and tender prior to the flowering stage. To prevent indigestion California Bay nut was munched with clover. Lupinus bi-color, as well as other species of lupines made good greens, especially when moistened with manzanita cider.

Bulbs

Bulbs were so important a part of the diet of the Yosemite Indians that they were one of a group of tribes described as “Digger” Indians by early California settlers.

Bulbs that made good eating were: Squaw Root, the various brodiaeas, especially bulbs of the Harvest Brodiaea, and Camass. Bulbs were baked in an earthen oven in the ground. First a small pit was dug. A layer of hot stones were placed in the bottom of it, and covered with leaves. A layer of bulbs came next, then alternate layers of leaves, stones, leaves and bulbs until the pit was filled. Over the top, a layer of earth sealed the oven, and a fire was built over it.. The bulbs were allowed to bake all night, or for a period of about twelve hours.

Fish and Game

Fresh meat was usually cooked by broiling on hot coals, roasted before the fire, or in the earthen oven. For winter use meat was dried in long, thin strips by either hanging it on trees or bushes to expose to the air and sunlight, or by curing on a rack about eighteen inches above a small fire. Squirrels, rabbits and fish were roasted directly on coals, or in hot ashes, either whole or drawn. In the latter case, animal, bird or fish were stuffed with hot coals to make cooking more rapid.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms were in season during April or May. Shredded and dried they were boiled and eaten with mineral salt, or ground in a mortar and cooked as soup.

Berries

Manzanita berries, which are smooth-skinned and of an agreeable acid flavor, were eaten raw, or made into cider for drinking and mixing with other food preparations. In making cider, the berries were crushed with a rock in a basket into a coarse pulp through which a small quantity of water was allowed to seep and drip into a watertight basket beneath. As the water seeped through the pulp, it extracted some of the berry flavor.

Other common berries used as food were wild raspberries, thimble berries, wild strawberries, currants, gooseberries, squaw berries, and wild cherries.

EATING

At meal time the family gathered around the basket of acorn mush or other viands, and using the two front fingers for a spoon, all dipped into the same basket. Sometimes a single finger was twisted around and around in the mush, in the same manner that Pacific Islanders eat poi, and piloted to the mouth.

Manzanita cider, which served as an appetizer, was enjoyed by dipping into the beverage a small stick with several short feathers fastened to one end, and then sucking the drink off the feathers. A small, tightly-woven basket, known as a “dipper,” was also used for drinking water or manzanita cider. Game was torn limb from limb from the roasted animal, and divided among members of the family.

BASKETRY

Willow, squaw bush, red-bud, tule-root, red strips of bark from Creek Dogwood, maiden-hair fern, brake fern, wire bunch grass, and other native plants served the Indian woman as material for the many baskets needed to properly perform her domestic tasks. She knew the names of all the basket material plants, their locations, and the proper time for gathering them as well as any botanist.

After gathering the materials, a further knowledge of how to prepare them for weaving was necessary. They had to be peeled, trimmed to correct width, fineness and length, soaked in cold water, boiled or buried in mud, according to her knowledge of the treatment required.

In size, shape, and weave each basket was designed to serve a special purpose. A large conical shaped basket was required for carrying heavy burdens, such as acorns, and was known as the burden basket. Such baskets were supported on the back from a strap passing over the wearer’s forehead. There was a large, deep family mushbowl basket around which the family gathered to dip in the acorn mush; a small, closely-woven basket for use in serving food; a tightly woven disc-shaped basket for winnowing wild oats and other seed plants; a seed beater for use in beating seeds into a carrying basket; a dipper basket, which was small and tightly woven for drinking water or manzanita cider; a cradle or openwork basketry — sometimes covered with deer skin for carrying the papoose; special baskets for use in wedding and dance ceremonies, and basket weirs for catching fish.

The twining and coiling methods were used chiefly by Yosemite Indian women in weaving baskets. In the twined basket, the heavy foundation is vertical from the center to the rim, and the woof is of lighter material. In the coiled basket, the heavy foundation is laid in horizontal coils around the basket with the filling running spirally around heavy twigs. Throughout the whole Miwok tribes, practically the only twined baskets made were the burden basket, the triangular scoop-shaped basket for winnowing, the elliptical seed beater, and the baby carrier (hickey). An application of soaproot, which hardens in a thin, brittle sheet, was used to make the burden baskets seed-tight. A scrubbing brush for cleaning the cooking basket was also made of fibers from the dry, outer layers of the soaproot. In weaving the coiled basket, an awl, made chiefly from the bone of a deer, was employed.

Roots of the brake fern were boiled in order to obtain the black material used in designs; red-bud was employed for the red color.

Considering that the Indian woman worked entirely without written rules, the design, color, and the mathematical accuracy of her baskets in entirety represent a work of art. Before commencing a basket she had to know exactly where to

Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard) and baskets. Boysen photo
Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard) and baskets. Boysen photo
Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard) gathering acorns during Autumn
Ta-bu-ce (Maggie Howard) gathering acorns during Autumn
place the first stitch of each figure of the design, and as the bowl of the basket continued to flare, the size of each figure had to be correspondingly increased.

WEAPONS

The bow and arrow was the principal weapon for both hunting and warfare. The weapon in the hand of a good marksman was dangerous at two hundred yards and fatal at fifty yards.

In constructing his bow and arrow, the Indian brave displayed as great skill as did the Indian woman in the weaving of her baskets. Incense Cedar and California Nutmeg furnished the wood for the bow. If the former was used, it was necessary to treat it several days with deer marrow to prevent brittleness when dry. The bow was three or four feet long, sinew backed, and had recurved ends. Glue used for applying the sinew to the back of the bow was made by boiling deer and horse bones and combining the product with pitch.

Arrows for large game were in two parts. The detachable foreshaft remained in the wound-preventing it from closing and thus hastening the animal’s death from loss of blood. Arrow shafts were made of syringa or wild rose bush by removing the bark, stripping and trimming the pieces to an even thickness, and then straightening them with stone tools. Finally, the shafts were polished with scouring rush. Feathers and obsidian arrows were then attached to the shaft, each feather being split down the middle, and four half feathers attached to each shaft with wrapping. Obsidian arrow heads were fitted into a slot in the end of the shaft, and held in place by sinew wrapping and pitch.

Arrow points were fashioned from obsidian (volcanic glass) by first striking large piece with hammerstone (left) to obtain section of suitable size. This was then shaped with a tool made from a deer antler
Arrow points were fashioned from obsidian (volcanic glass) by first striking large piece with
hammerstone (left) to obtain section of suitable size. This was then shaped with a tool made from a deer antler
(right).
Arrow point was attached to shaft by use of sinew
Arrow point was attached to shaft by use
of sinew

The plain bow without sinew backing sufficed for hunting small game at relatively close range. The best bow strings were made of twisted sinew.

Obsidian (volcanic glass) for the arrow heads was obtained from quarries in the Mono or Owens Valley region. It was a valuable trade article of the Mono Piutes, who periodically visited the Yosemite Valley. The Yosemites themselves occasionally made journeys across the Sierra for obsidian. Pieces of obsidian suitable for working into tools were picked up or broken from large masses of obsidian with crude stone hammers. These pieces were then carried over the mountains to Yosemite in deer skin sacks.

Small pieces suitable for working into arrow points were broken from a large rock of obsidian by striking it sharply and adroitly with a hammerstone. The obsidian block was held in the left hand, and the hammerstone in the right hand.

The small pieces were roughly shaped with an antler tool and finished with a small antler implement. With the obsidian grasped in the palm of the left hand, which was protected by a buckskin pad, pressure was exerted on it with the sharp end of the antler tool.

FISHING AND HUNTING

Deer were stalked by hunters disguised in deer skins. By mimicing the actions of the deer, a hunter could approach near enough to make a successful shot. When many deer were desired, they were driven past ambushed Indians, or into traps or nets.

Fish spear
Fish spear

Fish were speared with a wooden shaft fitted with a bone point. One end of a small cord was attached to the point and the other held in the fisherman’s hand. The struggles of the impaled fish freed the point from the shaft, and the fish was landed by pulling the cord.

Fish were also caught with weir traps made of long willow sprouts woven together and closed at the pointed lower end. These were ingeniously placed in an especially constructed dam, and elevated above the surface of the water below the dam, so that in going down stream the fish ran into this trap and found themselves at the lower end of it, and out of the water.

When the water was low in summer, the Indians stupified the fish with pulverized soap-root, mixed with soil and water. This was rubbed on rocks out in the stream which roiled the water, and made it foamy. The effect on the fish was a form of strangulation, which caused them to rise to the surface where they could be easily captured by the Indians in their scoop baskets.

BONE AND ANTLER IMPLEMENTS

Bones and antlers were used by the Indians in making various tools and implements. From certain bones cf the deer, the awl was made for weaving of coiled basketry; limb bones of the Jackrabbit and Sierra Grouse served for fashioning whistles for the ceremonial dances; points of antler were used for the shaping of flint and obsidian points and blades; an antler implement was used for extracting acorns stored by woodpeckers; split deer leg bone afforded scrapers for use in working down a bow, or in removing hair from deer hide, etc.

CLOTHING

Skin from wild animals furnished he only available means of clothing. In summer the Indian man wore nothing but a loin cloth of buckskin; the Indian woman a buckskin skirt, reaching from waist to knees. Children went unclothed in warm weather until about ten years old.

Typical summer clothing (photo from models in Yosemite museum)
Typical summer clothing
(photo from models in Yosemite museum)
Blankets made from dressed skins of deer, bear, mountain lion, coyote, and other skins were wrapped about the body in cold weather by both sexes. The most popular blanket was made by weaving narrow strips of rabbit skins into a loose, but very warm covering, using plain cord as the woof. The same blankets worn as clothing were used as bedclothes.

The moccasin, of course, was the only style of footwear, and this was only worn in cold weather, or for rough-country trips. Made of buckskin, it was fashioned in one piece, and lined with shredded cedar bark. It was seamed up the heel and the front, using milkweed fiber thread. Over-lapping pieces were bound around the ankles.

At the mourning and dance ceremonials, the Indian man wore a head-dress made of magpie feathers and bound with sinews; with this was worn a head-band made of tail feathers from the red-shafted flicker.

Typical dwelling or u-ma-cha. Mrs. Lucy Telles with large storage basket in foreground
Typical dwelling or u-ma-cha. Mrs. Lucy Telles with large storage basket in foreground
[Editor’s note: Lucy Telles, aka Pa-ma-has—DEA]
Straps of eagle down draped obliquely over one shoulder and the chest, and tied around the waist, along with a wild-cat skin kilt, completed the costume.

HAIR

Adults wore the hair long, often to the waist, either flowing loosely, or caught at the back of the neck with a feather rope or boa. Hair was only cut as a symbol of mourning and this was accomplished by whacking it off with an obsidian knife. In the care of the hair, the soaproot was used for a shampoo, and was supposed to promote luxuriant growth. The fibers of this same plant sufficed for a hair brush. In the absence of the modern barber and safety razor, the Indian man permitted his heavy beard to grow to a fair size, or plucked it. Flowers and feathers were worn in the hair as ornaments.

SHELTER

The typical Yosemite dwelling was the conical u-ma-cha. This was constructed by placing a few poles ten or twelve feet long in the ground around an area twelve feet in diameter with the tops of the poles inclined together. Over this framework slabs of Incense Cedar bark were piled. The u-ma-cha was easily built, fairly waterproof, and readily kept warm. The entrance on the south could be easily closed with a portable door. There was also an opening at the top to allow smoke to escape from a fire kindled in the middle of the dwelling. A single one of these could house a family of six, with all their worldly possessions, including the dog.

In the summer season the Indians lived outside in brush arbors, and the u-ma-cha was then used as a storehouse. Other Yosemite structures were large, earth-covered round houses for ceremonies, and some small, earth-covered sweat houses for cleanliness and curative uses.


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