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


Formerly, Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) were abundant in the hills and mountains of Miwok territory. Dwarf Elk (Cervus nannodes) were found in the foothills and in the delta. On the plains were Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana). The Central Miwok, at least, formerly journeyed to the plains country, in Yokuts territory, to hunt the antelope.

Hunters sweated and bathed to eliminate the human odor before hunting deer. Perhaps, too, it had the magical significance of creating ceremonial purity. The body was rubbed with the root of Angelica breweri to give a “pleasing odor” and to counteract the human odor, which might be detected by the quarry. Also it was supposed to confer good luck on the hunter. If a hunter did not get deer, he steamed and bathed himself with a decoction of wild sunflower root (Balsamorrhiza sagittata), pulverized in a mortar. The boiling was done in a basket with a red-hot quartz stone, as big as one’s fist. The man knelt beside the basket. Over him and the basket were placed the necessary deer hides to confine the steam. He held his head over the basket until the liquid cooled somewhat. Then he washed all over with the decoction. This treatment was taken in the dwelling house.

Deer. The deer, w'ya (P, N), uwū'ya (C, S), was the most important food mammal. It was taken in several ways. Special nets, about forty feet in length, were made for catching deer. One of these was stretched across each of the several runways in any given vicinity. One end was fastened securely to a tree, the opposite end being kept taut by means of a rope held by a man on watch, who was carefully concealed on the leeward side of the runway, so that the approaching animal could not get his scent. Men beat the bush and drove the deer toward the nets. As a deer ran into the almost invisible net the watcher slackened his rope enough for the animal to become thoroughly entangled, when he dispatched it with a club. Sometimes a snare was set between two posts on a deer trail, so that the first deer passing was ensared, either by the foot or the antlers.

The deer migrated by well-known trails from higher to lower altitudes in September and October, returning again in April and May. At these times they were caught by means of a long brush fence, usually V-shaped, built where the lay of the land permitted, with a small opening at some advantageous point, as at the angle of the V. Within easy arrow range a pit was dug and roofed over with brush and earth, to protect and conceal the hunter. Here a small fire of mountain live oak (saka'sa, C), was built and the coals covered to preserve the heat, especially during the night. It served as a deodorizer. It provided warmth for the hunter to heat his hands and keep them nimble and ready to shoot accurately. Just at the opening through the fence was placed a young oak bough with mistletoe (ti'tīla, C), of which the deer are very fond. This food arrested the attention of the animal long enough to allow a good heart shot.

A Southern Miwok form of deer trap consisted of a V-shaped brush fence with a small corral at the angle of the V. There were three or four small openings in the corral, in which strong snares were set, each attached to a tree or to a fairly heavy log. The rope was long enough for a captive deer to move about somewhat and, when a drag was used, the deer could run some distance. Near the entrance to the corral were small pits in which men were concealed, so that, as the deer neared the corral, the men cut off their retreat. The deer bolting for the openings in the corral, were ensnared, and easily dispatched with arrows or clubs.

Another method of taking deer was by driving them over a precipice. Still another method was for the hunter to conceal himself under boughs in a pit beside a deer trail. As the deer passed at night to their drinking place he shot them. Sometimes deer were driven by ten or twelve men toward an archer stationed on a little hill or rock near the deer trail.

Communal daylight hunts were undertaken by members of a single hamlet (nena, C). Small fires, built by several men, were set in the hills around a meadow, into which deer went. These men kept building new fires. The hunters were concealed behind trees and brush. As the deer descended to the meadow they approached the fires from curiosity. Then the concealed hunters shot them with the bow and arrows. As there was no noise the deer took no alarm. They were also shot from ambush, as they endeavored to escape along the trails from small fires set for the purpose of driving then) out. Deer were particularly sought where the Deer Brush (Ceanothus integerrimus), ūsū'nni (C, S), grew, and upon which they fed.

Several devices were employed in stalking deer. A tight-fitting cap (ko’llī, P. N) of grass disguised the hunter as he crawled toward his prey. A deer mask (sūki'ppū, P, N) was also used. It consisted of the entire skin of the deer, worn by the hunter so that the eyeholes permitted him to see easily. The hunter imitated the movements of a deer and approached against the wind. He followed closely the actions of the herd, even simulating fright when the herd was startled. Sometimes he even attracted the jealous attention of a buck. He was thus able to follow the herd and kill one deer after another with his noiseless arrows. To aid, a hunter often carried a small branch in front of him, as he crept stealthily upon the game. Often, to reduce the weight of the mask, the antlers were replaced by forked oak sticks, darkened by charring. Magic properties were believed to attach to this mask. It was used secretly and kept from supposed pollution by contact with women and children.

Sometimes a cluster of pine stems, suggesting antlers, was placed on the disguised hunter’s head. Such clusters were found growing at squirrel nests in pine trees. The hunter used this disguise in the fall, when the bucks would approach to attack him and thus offer easy marks for his arrows. The hunter, on all fours, twisted his head sidewise like a buck to enrage the buck. If the animal came close enough, the hunter stabbed it with a pointed staff of mountain mahogany. Otherwise he shot it with an arrow. Mountain Lions (Felis oregonensis) did not bother the disguised deer hunter, but bears did. One hunter in disguise killed four hears in two days. Two were young, hut the other two were old and tried to kill and eat him. Still another stalking disguise was a complete covering of the body with the vine of the “wild cucumber” called ta'wkna (S). This was employed in stalking antelope also.

Deer were also run down. A large buck was followed all day. Then the hunter slept for the night. Starting at dawn the next day, he would be likely to overtake his quarry in the afternoon. A fast runner could tire a deer in a day. Dogs were not usually employed in this connection, because they made the deer wild. Sometimes very fat deer and wounded deer were run down by dogs.

There was no special treatment of dead deer. Dogs might eat deer meat without causing the hunter ill luck. The Miwok lacked the observances and restrictions that prevailed in these matters in northwestern California.

Deer were skinned on the ground, not suspended. A sharp-edged piece of tibia was used as a skinning tool. Usually deer were skinned after being brought home. The viscera, however, were removed where the animal was killed. The stomach was given to a companion of the hunter, especially an older man. It was cooked at once, being covered with damp earth, ashes, coals, and on top of all a slow fire. It was cooked for two hours. In it were placed the cleaned entrails, windpipe, lights, and longitudinal pieces of flesh from near the kidneys. Blood also was added. After cooking, the stomach was tied in a bundle with willow or chaparral twigs and fastened to a stick, so that it might be carried over the shoulder.

The liver was given to some old woman, such a one as had always given the hunter acorn mush when she made it. The liver was considered a delicacy. It was boiled in a basket. The hunter’s mother-in-law and wife reserved the sirloin, which was cooked on the coals for them by the hunter, his mother, or his grandmother. It was not proper for his mother-in-law or wife to cook it. The cooking was done within the dwelling. If there were more people to eat the meat than there was room for, some were fed outdoors.

The forelegs and hind legs were given by the hunter to relatives and neighbors. The body was given to his wife’s relatives (brother, father, etc.), also to son-in-law and daughter-in-law. The hunter ate but little himself. Being a good hunter, all brought him seed meal (tuyu) and he was plentifully supplied with that. Of course, a hunter had relatives by marriage and neighbors who reciprocated, so that he was usually amply supplied with venison. If a hunter kept what he killed he was looked down upon.

When all men of the hamlet hunted, the kill was divided among them, regardless of whether some got deer or not. Meanwhile the women prepared acorns and other vegetable foods, and regaled the hunters with all sorts of delicacies.

The earth oven was sometimes used for cooking deer meat.

Elk (haka'ia, P, N, C) and antelope (ha'lū, P; ha'lūsū, N; halus, C) were stalked with the deer mask. No special elk or antelope mask was made, and these animals were not snared as were deer. The Central Miwok hunted elk in the lower foothills, the mountaineers descending to hunt without interference. Elk were also hunted by the Plains Miwok in the delta region.

Antelope. In hunting antelope ten or fifteen men went together. Some of the party deployed to right and left of the antelope, so as to bring them into range for the rest of the party. Often three or four antelope were cut out in this fashion.

Bear. Both the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) and the Grizzly Bear (Ursus henshawi) were eaten by the mountaineers, but not by the Plains Miwok. There appears to have been no special device for hunting the bear. A party of at least a dozen hunters systematically pursued a bear and killed him with their bows and arrows.

Rabbits. Next perhaps in importance to the deer as food animals were the rabbits. Both the Jackrabbit (epa'lī, P; epllī, N, C, S), Lepus californicus, and the Cottontails (hī'ga, P; hīka'k, N; to'ssebe, C), Sylvilagus auduboni, S. nuttallii, S. bachmani, were caught, chiefly by means of the rabbit net, especially in the summer. The net was set either in a straight line or in V-shape, being held in place by forked greasewood sticks. Sometimes it was stretched around the base of a hill. It was three or four feet high and three hundred to four hundred yards in length. The rabbits were driven into this net, often by the whole populace of the village. Men were stationed at convenient intervals along the net, to club the rabbits as they became entangled. Among the Northern Miwok these men hid behind trees thirty or forty yards from the net, then ran forward to seize the entangled rabbits and break their necks.

In the higher mountains, where the snow was deep, rabbits were taken in the winter by pursuing them on snowshoes and killing them with clubs. In the mountain region also rabbits were decoyed by placing the fingers on the lips and imitating the cry of distress of a young rabbit. This brought the older rabbits within easy range of the bow and arrow.

Beaver. The Golden Beaver (he'nnit, P. N), Castor canadensis, was taken by first burning off the tule around its pond. This exposed the entrances to the beaver houses and left a clear field in which to dig out the animal. It was usually dispatched with a club, but if it tried to escape, the cleared pond made it an easy mark for the bow and arrow.

Squirrels. California Gray Squirrels (Sciurus griseus) were shot with the bow and arrow. A snare was of little avail, because they would gnaw it. California Ground Squirrels (Citellus beecheyi) were not eaten so much as gray squirrels. They, too, were shot with the bow. Also they were captured by dogs. Their flesh was not preserved.

Rats were killed by means of an acorn fixed under a stone, so that when gnawed the stone fell on the rat.

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