Children Among the Indian Nations of the Great Basin

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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Marriage Among the Indian Nations of the Great Basin

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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Indian Tribes of the Great Basin Culture Area

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

With regard to Great Basin ecology, Christopher Chase-Dunn and Helly Mann, in their book The Wintu and Their Neighbors: A Very Small World-System in Northern California, report:

“It is an ecologically sparse environment punctuated by small areas where water, game, and plant life are abundant.”

In her book Indians of the Plateau and Great Basin, Victoria Sherrow reports:

“Summers in a Basin desert can be fiercely hot, the winters bitterly cold. The land is unfavorable for farming and contains little game for food.”

This is an area which seems inhospitable to human habitation, yet Indian people have lived here for thousands of years. This was the last part of the United States to be explored and settled by the European-Americans. In writing about the early Indian settlement of the Great Basin, archaeologist Jesse Jennings, in his book Prehistory of Utah and the Eastern Great Basin, notes:

“Effective human exploitation of the American Desert West requires rather intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory of several hundred square miles, a territory probably encompassing the full range of desert biomes or ecologic communities.”

Language

Linguistically all of the Indian people of the Great Basin, with the exception of the Washo, spoke languages which belong to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Numic languages appear to have divided into three sub-branches—Western, Central, and Southern—about 2,000 years ago. About a thousand years ago, the Numic-speaking people expanded northward and eastward.

Tribes

The basic tribes of the Great Basin Culture Area include Bannock, Gosiute, Mono, Northern Paiute, Panamint, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Washo, and Ute.

The Ute were never a single unified tribe. There are several bands of the Ute:

(1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River,

(2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre),

(3) the Grand River band,

(4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado,

(5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin,

(6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos,

(7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande,

(8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab,

(9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah,

(10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake,

(11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, and

(12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

The Shoshone are often divided into four general groups: (1) the Western Shoshone who lived in central Nevada, northeastern Nevada, and Utah, (2) Northern Shoshone who lived in southern Idaho and adopted the horse culture after 1800, (3) Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming who adopted many of the traits of Plains Indian culture, and (4) Southern Shoshone who live in the Death Valley area on the extreme southern edge of the Great Basin.

The Northern Shoshone groups include the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone. The Lemhi Shoshone hunted buffalo in western Montana, but depended primarily upon salmon for their subsistence. The Bruneau Shoshone were not a horse people and depended largely on salmon and camas. The Boise Shoshone also used salmon and camas as primary foods and also hunted buffalo in Wyoming and Montana.

Shoshone bands, like other groups in the Great Basin and Plateau Culture Areas, were often named after their dominant food source. Thus mountain-dwelling Shoshone were known as Tukudika (“eaters of bighorn sheep” or sheep eaters). Other Shoshone groups include the Agaidika (salmon eaters), Padehiyadeka (elk eaters), Yahandeka (groundhog eaters), Pengwideka (fish eaters), Kamuduka (rabbit eaters), Tubaduka (pine-nut eaters), and Hukandeka (seed eaters), and the Kukundika (also spelled Kutsundeka; buffalo eaters).

The Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) take their name from the Shoshone word sosoni’ which refers to a type of high-growing grass. Some of the Plains tribes referred to the Shoshone as “Grass House People” which referred to the conically shaped houses made from the native grasses. Some Plains groups also referred to them as the “Snakes” or “Snake People”. This term comes from the sign which the people used for themselves in hand sign languages. Drusilla Gould and Christopher Loether, in their book An Introduction to the Shoshoni Language: Dammen Daigwape, write:

“The hand motion made for the sign represents a snake to most signers, but among the Shoshoni it referred to the salmon, an unknown fish on the Great Plains.”

The Shoshone often refer to themselves as newe.

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes.

At one time, the Bannock lived in the desert areas of southeastern Oregon. They later migrated into the Snake and Lemhi River valleys where they came in contact with the Shoshone. The two groups shared many cultural elements and their languages are related. In his book The Shoshone-Bannocks: Culture and Commerce at Fort Hall, 1870-1940, Historian John Heaton writes:

“Shoshones spoke Central Numic, whereas Bannocks, who began to intermarry with Shoshones in Idaho in the early eighteenth century, spoke Western Numic.”

With intermarriage, many became bilingual. Today the term Sho-Ban is used to refer to the two tribes.

Bannock culture tended to emphasize war more than Shoshone culture. With regard to the merger of the Shoshone and Bannock, historian John Heaton writes:

“Bannock warriors generally emerged as the most influential leaders of the equestrian Shoshone-Bannock bands.”

The traditional homeland of the Gosiute was south and west of Great Salt Lake. They lived in the Tooele, Rush, and Skull valleys. In his book Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups, Julian Steward feels that the Gosiute are linguistically and culturally Shoshone.

There are fifteen Southern Paiute bands: Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, Moapa, Paranigat, Panaca, Shivwits, St. George, Gunlock, Cedar, Beaver, Panguitch, Uinkaret, Kaibab, Kaiparowits, and San Juan.

In the northern part of the Great Basin, the bands tended to call themselves after a particular food source: “salmon eaters,” “mountain sheep eaters,” and so on. In the south, the band names tended to be geographical.

Migrations

The linguistic and archaeological data seem to suggest that the Numic-speaking people spread into the Great Basin from southeastern California.

The homeland of the Numic-speaking groups in the Great Basin is generally seen as the Death Valley area. Linguistic data seems to suggest that these groups began their migrations from this area into other parts of the Great Basin about 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. In an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Catherine and Don Fowler report:

“Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Numic-speaking peoples spread across the Great Basin sometime after A.D. 1000, displacing or replacing the earlier carriers of the Fremont and Virgin Branch Anasazi cultures in Utah, eastern Nevada, and Northern Arizona.”

In an article in American Antiquity, Angus Quinlan and Alanah Woody report:

“Indications of a late Numic spread into the western Basin can be found in some Numic oral traditions, though other oral histories insist that Numic groups have occupied the Great Basin from the beginning of time.”

One Northern Paiute oral history tells of driving off an earlier group in western Nevada. A Southern Paiute oral tradition tells of an earlier group identified as the “Mukwic” who were responsible for the pictographs in the area.

The Great Basin Tribes

The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes all of the present-day states of Nevada and Utah, and portions of Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The summers in this desert area can be hot, while the winters can be bitterly cold. While it is a physical region that does not seem hospitable to human habitation, Indian people have lived in the Great Basin for thousands of years.

The Great Basin was the last part of the United States to be explored and settled by the European-Americans. When the European-American invasion began in the nineteenth century, the invaders found that it was occupied by several different tribes, including the Bannock, Goshute, Mono, Northern Paiute, Panamint, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Washo, and Ute.

Linguistically all of the Indian people of the Great Basin, with the exception of the Hokan-speaking Washo, spoke languages which belong to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The linguistic and archaeological data seem to suggest that the Numic-speaking people spread into the Great Basin from southeastern California. The homeland of the Numic-speaking groups in the Great Basin is generally seen as the Death Valley area.

The Numic languages appear to have divided into three sub-branches—Western, Central, and Southern—about 2,000 years ago. About a thousand years ago, the Numic-speaking people expanded northward and eastward.

The Ute:

 The Ute tribal territory included much of present-day Colorado and Utah. Much of this territory lies within the Colorado Plateau, a geological anomaly characterized by sedimentary rocks that have been lifted to an elevation of more than 6,000 feet. This is a semi-arid region.

 While the groups which are considered Ute shared a common language as well as other cultural features, they were never a single politically unified tribe. There was never a single tribal council or anything close to a supreme chief. Each of the groups, generally called “bands,” was politically autonomous. Membership in the bands was fluid and there was high mobility between the bands. The Ute bands include:

(1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River.

(2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre).

(3) the Grand River band.

(4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado.

(5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin.

(6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos, New Mexico.

(7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande.

(8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab, Utah.

(9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah.

(10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake.

(11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, Utah.

(12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

After marriage, the couple would usually live with the wife’s band (matrilocal residence in anthropological terminology). This means that the bands were usually composed of several nuclear families which were related to each other through the female line.

The area occupied by the Ute was buffalo country and so buffalo, as well as mountain sheep, mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, antelope, moose, and rabbits, were utilized for their subsistence. The people also gathered a wide variety of different wild plants.

In hunting herd animals, the Ute often used drives in which the animals were driven into narrow areas where they could be more easily harvested. The Weminuche band hunted deer with poison arrows.

Shoshone:

The Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) take their name from the Shoshone word sosoni’ which refers to a type of high-growing grass. Some of the Plains tribes referred to the Shoshone as “Grass House People” which referred to the conically-shaped houses made from the native grasses. They were also referred to as the “Snakes” or “Snake People” by some Plains groups. This term comes from the sign which the people used for themselves in hand sign languages. The sign actually represents the salmon to the Shoshone, but among the Great Plains tribes, who were unfamiliar with the salmon, it was misinterpreted as meaning “snake.”

The Shoshone are often divided into four general groups:

(1) the Western Shoshone who lived in central Nevada, northeastern Nevada, and Utah. Some anthropologists have listed 43 different Western Shoshone groups.

(2) Northern Shoshone who lived in southern Idaho and adopted the horse culture after 1800.

(3) Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming who adopted many of the traits of Plains Indian culture.

(4) Southern Shoshone who live in the Death Valley area on the extreme southern edge of the Great Basin.

The Northern Shoshone groups include the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone. The Lemhi Shoshone hunted buffalo in western Montana, but depended primarily upon salmon for their subsistence. The Bruneau Shoshone were not a horse people and depended largely on salmon and camas. The Boise Shoshone also used salmon and camas as primary foods and also hunted buffalo in Wyoming and Montana.

Shoshone bands, like other groups in the Great Basin and Plateau Culture Areas, were often named after their dominant food source. Thus mountain-dwelling Shoshone were known as Tukudika (“eaters of bighorn sheep” or sheep eaters). Other Shoshone groups include the Agaidika (salmon eaters), Padehiyadeka (elk eaters), Yahandeka (groundhog eaters), Pengwideka (fish eaters), Kamuduka (rabbit eaters), Tubaduka (pine-nut eaters), and Hukandeka (seed eaters), and the Kukundika (also spelled Kutsundeka; buffalo eaters).

Among the Western Shoshone, the most important game animals were antelope and bighorn. In hunting antelope, the animals would be driven along a V-shaped runway into a corral which had been constructed of brush, stones, and poles. A medicine person who had the power to capture antelopes’ souls through dreams, songs, and rituals, would aid the hunt by drawing the animals’ souls, and thus the animals themselves, into the corral.

Bannock:

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes. The Shoshone referred to them with the term “pannaitti.” Brigham Madsen, in his book The Bannock of Idaho, reports that the Bannock

“migrated from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon to the more propitious and well-watered region found at the confluence of the Portneuf and Blackfoot streams with the Snake River.”

In the Snake and Lemhi River valleys and in the Bridger Basin, the Bannock came into close contact with the Shoshone and the two groups often intermarried. Today, the term “Sho-Ban” is often used to refer to the two tribes. Culturally, the two groups shared a common heritage and a similar worldview. They also spoke closely related languages. With intermarriage, many became bilingual.

Goshute (Gosiute):

The traditional homeland of the Goshute was south and west of Great Salt Lake. They lived in the Toole, Rush, and Skull valleys. There are many who feel that the Goshute are linguistically and culturally Shoshone. The Goshute bands include Cedar Valley, Deep Creek, Rush Valley, Skull Valley, Toole Valley, and Trout Creek.

Historically these people have been designated as Go-Sha-Utes, Goshee Utes, Goshoots, Go-shutes, Gosh Yuta, Go-ship Utes, and Goships. The term “Goshute” seems to come from the Shoshone term “kusippih” which has a meaning of “dry earth,” probably in reference to the marginal land which they inhabited.

Paiute:

There are fifteen Southern Paiute bands: Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, Moapa, Paranigat, Panaca, Shivwits, St. George, Gunlock, Cedar, Beaver, Panguitch, Uinkaret, Kaibab, Kaiparowits, and San Juan. In the northern part of the Great Basin, the bands tended to call themselves after a particular food source: “salmon eaters,” “mountain sheep eaters,” and so on. In the south, the band names tended to be geographical.

 

California and Great Basin Art (Photo Diary)

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California and the Great Basin is an area of great cultural diversity. With regard to art, this is an area well-known for its basketry. Among some of the tribes, such as the Hupa and Maidu, woven baskets were used for cooking. The weaving on the baskets is so tight that they can hold water. When they were filled with water, hot rocks were used to bring the water to a boil. Shown below are some of the items from the California and Great Basin First Nations which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.  

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Sacred Places in the Great Basin

The Great Basin is an area which includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. As with Indian people in other culture areas, there are many places in the Great Basin-water sources, hot springs, isolated rock formations, rock art sites, mountain peaks, and caves-which the Indian nations of this area consider to be sacred.

Great Basin Map

Water sources are traditionally seen as spiritual places and are often approached with requests for the spirits associated with them. In making these requests, Indian people traditionally leave offerings as a way of showing respect for the spiritual nature of these places.

Rock art sites-places which may include pictographs and/or petroglyphs-are often of great antiquity and are seen as places of great spiritual power. For the Northern and Eastern Shoshone, rock art was used to mark places of special spiritual power. Some of these were places where vision quests were commonly conducted.

At Big Spring in the Big Lost River Range of Idaho, the Shoshone have several pictographic panels which designate this as a sacred site. The area includes a water fall and the pictographs are selectively placed to focus on the sacred geography of the place. Some of the pictographic figures seem to indicate contact with the southwest, perhaps with the Hopi.  

Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is a sacred ceremonial area for the Shoshone. This is an area in which the Shoshone had traditionally held a Sun Dance. In 2000, acknowledging that a Sun Dance had not been held in this sacred location for 132 years, the Shoshone of the Wind River Reservation asked the National Park Service for permission to hold a Sun Dance on this sacred ground. The National Park Service, however, turned down the request, claiming that the ceremony would cause environmental action and that the Park did not have adequate resources for it.

At Dinwoody Canyon on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming there are hundreds of pictographs which have been drawn over a long period of time. There are several large panels which have representations of the Water Ghost Beings and the Rock Ghost Beings. Some of the figures are obviously female, showing breasts and pubic fringe. The figures show that the spirit world includes female figures.

At Medicine Butte and Cedar Butte in Wyoming there are pictographs which are sacred to the Shoshone.

For the Eastern Shoshone in Wyoming, Bull Lake is also a sacred place for it is the home of monsters and it is the place where ghost people play the hand game. The lake, according to Shoshone tradition, houses a remarkable water buffalo. These are supernatural spirits which look like buffalo, but live in the lake. Seeing a water buffalo is considered to be a bad sign.  

Mount Newberry in Nevada is called Avi Kwa Me or Spirit Mountain by the Mohave. This sacred mountain is the residence of Mutavilya and Mastahmo, the spirit teachers who instructed the Mohave people to be the caretakers of the river and the land.

Crowheart Butte in Wyoming is a spiritual place for the Shoshone. There are lots of good guardian spirits here. In 1866, the Shoshone and the Bannock fought a battle against the Crow here.

The Great Basin is a tectonically active region and has a number of hot springs. Hot springs are traditionally seen as a source of healing water and mud which can be used to relieve pain. For traditional Native Americans it is important to leave offerings at these healing waters and not to use them for recreation.

Pagosa Hot Springs in Colorado is sacred to the Ute for its ability to heal the sick. Smoking the sacred pipe at the springs is especially powerful.

Hot Springs in Wyoming is sacred to the Shoshone. According to some oral traditions, the Shoshone were warned to stay away from the springs by the Nimimbe (a race of dwarfish mountain people). The spring, according to the Nimimbe, is home to monstrous serpents.

South Fork Canyon of the Little Wind River contains a deep cave where the Shoshone traditionally buried their dead.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada is sacred to the Shoshone. In 2002, it was designated as the site of a storage facility for dangerous nuclear waste. In making the decision to use this site the tribe was not consulted by the U.S. government. The plan for the nuclear waste repository was scrapped in 2010. Under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Shoshone still claim ownership of this sacred site.

Parowan Gap in southern Utah is sacred to the Paiute. The gap was used as a solar calendar to mark the beginnings of the seasons. Petroglyphs etched into the rocks around the gap convey the spiritual significance of the area.

Old Man Mountain is an isolated rock formation in Colorado. This is a vision quest site that has been used for more than 3,000 years.

Cave Rock near Lake Tahoe in Nevada is sacred to the Washo. In 2000, the Forest Service began to allow rock climbing on this sacred formation.

In spite of a century of propaganda to the contrary, there are many sacred places in present-day Yellowstone National Park. The Shoshone, for example, would seek spiritual help from the geysers. Bathing in the waters of the geysers was a way of enhancing one’s spiritual power.  

One of the continuing problems facing sacred sites in the Great Basin is vandalism and looting by non-Indians. In 2010, the Shoshone-Paiute tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation began flying helicopters to keep watch on important culture sites and to prevent vandalism and looting. The sites include vision quest sites as well as ancient fishing sites, burial grounds, and other sacred areas.

The Ute often used stone circles as a part of their ceremonies. The Ute traditionally used these stone circles as individual ritual sites and they are still considered sacred today. There was not a standardized way of using these stone circles. Each of the spiritual leaders had their own ceremonies and their own way of using the circles.

Among the Southern Ute, there are supernatural powers associated with the land. Spiritual leaders for each band would go to specific “power points” to leave offerings and to ask for help on behalf of the band. Tribal members feel that the location of these power sites should not be general knowledge. The locations of these sites and the powers which they contain should be discussed only with those who have a need to know. Knowledge of these sites is to be passed on through oral traditions and should not be transmitted through writing.

Due to the spiritual nature of these sites and in respect to the tribal elders, no photographs of them have been used in this essay.

The Great Basin Tribes

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

Great Basin Map

The Great Basin is an ecologically sparse environment punctuated by small areas where water, game, and plant life are abundant. Summers can be fiercely hot and the winters bitterly cold. The land is unfavorable for farming and contains little game for food. This is an area which seems inhospitable to human habitation, yet Indian people have lived here for thousands of years. This was the last part of the United States to be explored and settled by the European-Americans.

Aboriginal life in the Great Basin required a rather intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory-often several hundred square miles-which encompassed the full range of desert biomes or ecologic communities. In other words, the Indian tribes which called the Great Basin home had to have a great deal of environmental knowledge in order to survive.

Linguistically all of the Indian people of the Great Basin, with the exception of the Washo, spoke languages which belong to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Numic languages appear to have divided into three sub-branches-Western, Central, and Southern-about 2,000 years ago. About a thousand years ago, the Numic-speaking people expanded northward and eastward. The linguistic and archaeological data seem to suggest that the Numic-speaking people spread into the Great Basin from southeastern California.

Great Basin families were primarily nuclear families: that is, they were composed of a man and a woman and their children. At times, there might be other people who were also a part of the household, such as a younger brother, a grandfather, a widowed aunt. Beyond the nuclear family, people were linked by blood relationships, marriage relationships, adoptions, and friendships. These various and extensive linkages gave the nuclear family access to many different resource areas, something that was very important during times of food resource shortage in the home area.

One of the characteristics of the Great Basin cultures is sexual egalitarianism. Both boys and girls were free to engage in sexual exploration that could lead to a trial marriage. There was instruction in abortion methods as well as contraception. Divorce was simply a matter of either partner returning to their parental camp.

Among some of the Indian tribes of the Great Basin, such as the Northern Paiute and the Shoshone, a woman would sometimes marry a set of brothers – a practice called fraternal polyandry by anthropologists. This appears to be a response to sparse, scattered populations and the difficulty in finding eligible mates. There were also some instances of polyandry involving two cousins as well as unrelated males. While polyandry usually involved two males, there were a few instances of polyandry with three males.

With the harsh nature of the environment, Indian bands tended to be small – rarely larger than 30 people in the desert areas and up to 100 in other areas – and they usually used places near water sources for their residential sites. Band membership tended to be fluid. While many of the band members were related to each other by blood or by marriage, people were free to leave one band and join another. Band leadership was not autocratic and members were free to pursue an independent course when they so desired.

The tribes of the Great Basin Culture Area include Shoshone, Bannock, Gosiute, Paiute, and Ute.

Shoshone:

The Shoshone are often divided into four general groups: (1) the Western Shoshone who lived in central Nevada, northeastern Nevada, and Utah, (2) Northern Shoshone who lived in southern Idaho and adopted the horse culture after 1800, (3) Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming who adopted many of the traits of Plains Indian culture, and (4) Southern Shoshone who live in the Death Valley area on the extreme southern edge of the Great Basin.

The Northern Shoshone groups include the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone. The Lemhi Shoshone hunted buffalo in western Montana, but depended primarily upon salmon for their subsistence. The Bruneau Shoshone were not a horse people and depended largely on salmon and camas. The Boise Shoshone also used salmon and camas as primary foods and also hunted buffalo in Wyoming and Montana.

Shoshone bands, like other groups in the Great Basin and Plateau Culture Areas, were often named after their dominant food source. Thus mountain-dwelling Shoshone were known as Tukudika (“eaters of bighorn sheep” or sheep eaters). Other Shoshone groups include the Agaidika (salmon eaters), Padehiyadeka (elk eaters), Yahandeka (groundhog eaters), Pengwideka (fish eaters), Kamuduka (rabbit eaters), Tubaduka (pine-nut eaters), and Hukandeka (seed eaters), and the Kukundika (also spelled Kutsundeka: buffalo eaters).

The Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) take their name from the Shoshone word sosoni’ which refers to a type of high-growing grass. Some of the Plains tribes referred to the Shoshone as “Grass House People” referring to the conically-shaped houses made from the native grasses. They also were referred to as the “Snakes” or “Snake People” by some Plains groups. This term comes from the sign which the people used for themselves in hand sign languages. While the hand motion made to represent “Shoshone” seemed  to represent a snake to some signers, among the Shoshoni it referred to the salmon. Among the Plains Indians who often referred to the Shoshone as Snakes, the salmon was an unknown fish. The Shoshone often refer to themselves as newe.

Shoshone Camp

A nineteenth century Shoshone camp is shown above.

The Sheepeater Shoshone were known for making compound bows from the horns of mountain sheep, buffalo, and elk. In making a bow from the horns of a mountain sheep, the horns would first be heated to make them pliable and then straightened. The horn would be heated and shaped until there was a tapered piece from each of the ram’s two horns about 18 to 24 inches in length. The butt ends of the horns would then be carefully beveled and joined by laying a separate piece of horn over the joint. This joint would then be tightly wrapped with wet rawhide. To further strengthen the bow, strips of animal sinew would be glued to the back. In the Yellowstone National Park area, the bow makers would throw the horns into a hot spring and leave them there until they became pliable.

A carefully made horn bow would take about two months to complete. Such a bow could send an arrow completely through a bison. The Sheepeater Shoshone horn bows were prized by other tribes and in trading they were valued as being worth a horse and a gun. A typical Sheepeater bow had a pull strength of sixty-five pounds. This meant that the archers had to have considerable upper body strength.

Shoshone Mocassins

Reservation-era Shoshone moccasins are shown above.

The leader of a Shoshone band-often dubbed “chief” by non-Indians-was often given the title of “talker” (daigwahni’ in Shoshone). The primary duty of the talker was to keep informed about the ripening of plant foods in different localities and to impart his information to other band members. The person designated as talker was usually a gifted speaker who used only the power of persuasion during group decisions.

Bannock:

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes. According to Brigham Madsen, the Bannock “migrated from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon to the more propitious and well-watered region found at the confluence of the Portneuf and Blackfoot streams with the Snake River. When the Bannock moved into the Snake and Lemhi River valleys and the Bridger Basin, they came into close contact with the Shoshone. This association was reinforced by intermarriage between the two groups and is indicated today by the term “Sho-Ban” to refer to the two tribes. Culturally, the two groups shared a common heritage and a similar worldview. They spoke closely related languages: Shoshone is Central Numic, whereas Bannock is Western Numic. With intermarriage between the Shoshone and Bannock, many people were bilingual.

Bannock culture tended to emphasize war more than Shoshone culture. With regard to the merger of the Shoshone and Bannock, it was the Bannock warriors who generally emerged as the most influential leaders of the equestrian Shoshone-Bannock bands.

Bannock by Remington

An illustration by Frederick Remington showing a Bannock hunting party during the Bannock Indian War.

Bannock

A Bannock group is shown above.

Gosiute:

The traditional homeland of the Gosiute was south and west of Great Salt Lake. They lived in the Tooele, Rush, and Skull valleys. A number of scholars feel that the Gosiute are linguistically and culturally Shoshone.

Wild plants were an important part of Gosiute subsistence. They used at least 81 different plants, including 47 plants which were used for their seeds, 12 for berries, 8 for roots, and 12 for greens.

Paiute:

The Paiute tribes are traditionally classified as Northern, Owens Valley, and Southern Paiute. The Northern Paiute traditionally lived in eastern California, western Nevada, and southeast Oregon. For the Northern Paiute tribes, piñon nuts would be gathered in the fall to provide food for winter. The Northern Paiute tribes include Burns Paiute, Upper Sprague River, Salmon Eaters, Root Eaters, Yellow-Bellied Marmot Eaters, Fort McDermitt, Wild Onion Eaters, Mountain Dwellers (also known as the Winnemucca tribe), Rabbit Eaters (Yerrington Paiute Tribe), Pyramid Lake Paiute, Ground Squirrel Eaters (Lovelock Paiute Tribe), Tule Eaters, Trout Eaters (Walker River Paiute), and Pinenut Eaters.

The Owens Valley Paiute are in California and include Big Pine Band, Valley Paiute, Bridgeport Paiute, Lone Pine Paiute, Bishop Paiute, and Utu Utu Gwaitu Paiute.

There 15 to 31 Southern Paiute subgroups, including Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, Moapa, Paranigat, Panaca, Shivwits, St. George, Gunlock, Cedar, Beaver, Panguitch, Uinkaret, Kaibab, Kaiparowits, and San Juan.

As with other tribal groups in the Great Basin, wild plants were an important food and fiber source for these groups. Among the Southern Paiute, for example, seeds were gathered from at least 44 different species of grass. Among the Owens Valley Paiute, seed areas were owned by the band. Women would gather the seeds using a small, paddle-shaped basket which they would use to knock the seeds into a conical container. The seeds would then be winnowed, parched with hot coals, and ground on a flat stone. The seed flour could then be prepared as mush or used for making bread.

Among the Owens Valley Paiute ditch irrigation of wild plants was used to increase the yields. Brush dams were used to divert the water into ditches which ran for miles and which watered multi-acre plots.

Some of the Southern Paiute groups (Shivwit, Chemehuevi, Kaibab, San Juan, and Moapa) were engaged in agriculture.. The Paiute in northern Arizona and southern Utah raised corn, beans, melon, pumpkin, sunflowers, and amaranth. The Southern Paiute people probably learned to raise corn and certain other products from the Pueblo Indians.

The traditional Paiute leader was called niave. This leader led by example and by helping the band to reach consensus. This leader was not a decision-maker, but rather he would offer advice and suggestions at council meetings.

Ute:

The traditional homelands of the Ute peoples included present-day Utah (the name of this state was derived from the name Ute), Colorado, and portions of northern New Mexico. The name “Ute” means “high land.” The Ute tribes included both those who lived in the mountains and those who lived in the desert.

The Ute were never a single unified tribe. There are several bands of the Ute: (1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River, (2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre), (3) the Grand River band, (4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado, (5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin, (6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos, (7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande, (8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab, (9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah, (10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake, (11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, and (12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

The Ute would often trade deer and buffalo hides and meat with the nearby Pueblos for corn and other agricultural products. After the Europeans entered the area, they would also trade hides with the Spanish and other Europeans for horses, knives, and manufactured articles.

Ute bands generally had two chiefs: a chief spokesman and a civil chief. During times of war there might also be a war chief. Each band had a well-defined territory, but their territorial claims were not exclusive. Among the Ute, land was viewed as a gift of creation, to be shared in common. Land was not an object of private possession.

Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part III

( – promoted by navajo)

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American-Indian-Heritage-Month

photo credit: Aaron Huey

The Battle of Lost River

In Part II, I had concluded with the Third Generation’s great crisis. The Modoc were destroyed as an independent people, and forced into being part of the Klamath Tribes on Klamath Indian land, to the north, in Oregon. Keintpoos with Cho’ocks and Scarfaced Charley and their families had left the reservation to go back to lost river. The Battle of Lost River, which broke out when the army and a Linkville militia attempted to force the return of the people, and their disarmament, ended with deaths and injuries on both sides. The Modoc all retreated near Tule Lake to Lava Beds. Hooker Jim’s band massacred settlers in the area around the lake, right at the heart of the Applegate Trail in Modoc country.

It was the last day of November, 1872.

FIGURES

  MODOC

  • Old Schonchin

  • Schonchin John, his brother

  • Keintpoos, or Captain Jack

  • Winema, known as Toby Riddle, interpreter

  • Cho’ocks, or Curley-Headed Doctor, spiritual leader

  • Hooker Jim

  • Scarfaced Charley

  • Boston Charley
  • Slolux
  • Brancho
  • Black Jim
  • Shacknasty Jim
  • Bogus Charley
  • Steamboat Frank

  • Ellen’s Man

  • Mary, Keintpoos’ sister

  • Lizzie, Keintpoos’ wife
  • Old Wife (of Keintpoos)

  • Rose, Keintpoos’ daughter.
  • Stimitchuas, or Jennie Clinton
  • Elvira Blow

    YANKEES

  • Ulysses S. Grant, US president

  • General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman

  • E.S. Canby, Brigadier General, peace commissioner

  • Alfred B. Meacham, Oregon Indian Agent, peace commissioner

  • Rev. Thomas Eleazer, peace commissioner
  • Elijah Steele, Indian Agent for Northern California
  • Lindsay Applegate, founder of the Applegate trail, Oregon Indian Subagent

  • Frank Riddle, peace commissioner, settler, husband to Winema/Toby

  • L.S. Dyar, peace commissioner

  • Eadweard Muybridge, photographer

  • End Game

    Lava Beds proved a brilliant strategic move by the Modoc. Lava Beds is a naturally complex series of trenches, caves, and volcanic features. One species of fern present in one cave is not found except for hundreds of miles to the west, in far more moderate lands. Perhaps this is an appropriate symbol of the Modoc’s refuge. Only a few dozen Modoc warriors were able to elude and frustrate the US Army, modernized though the Army was, and well equipped after the Civil War and Indian wars, in the dead of winter.

    Already they wanted Keintpoos for murder; in keeping with tradition, he had slain a healer who had failed to cure his sick child. His family, including his wife Lizzie and young daughter Rose, dwelled in their own cave.  The cave is exposed to the sky, but they all remained alive and hidden during the ordeal.

    Stimitchuas and other Modoc children were sent to retrieve the cartridges from fallen soldiers.

    Ojibwa has already delivered an overview of the Modoc War of 1872-1873, so I will try to emphasize other aspects to the story while explaining the basics. From Ojibwa:

    The spiritual leader of the group was Curley Headed Doctor [Cho’ocks]. In the lava beds, he had a rope of tule reeds woven, dyed red, and stretched around the campsite. He claimed that no American soldier could cross this rope. Since no soldiers cross this rope during the conflict, the Modoc assumed that it worked.

    …In one encounter, the 400 soldiers who were sent in to subdue the Modoc encountered a thick fog and soon retreated in panic and disarray. From the Modoc perspective, Curley Headed Doctor’s medicine had worked. He had brought a fog to confuse the enemy, and then he turned the soldiers’  bullets so that no Modoc was hurt.

    In another instance, a large patrol blundered into a carefully planned ambush. The army and the press labeled this a massacre. The soldiers had left on the maneuver as though they were going to a picnic rather than a battle. One of the Modoc leaders, Scarface Charley, had called down to some of the survivors: “We don’t want to kill you all in one day” and through this generosity several soldiers escaped.

    In one incident, the army soldiers found an old woman-described as being 80 or 90 years old-in the rocks near the stronghold. The lieutenant asked: “is there anyone here who will put that old hag out of the way?” A soldier then placed his carbine to her head and shot her.

    Embedded Journalism

    Toby Riddle, 4 Modoc women and 2 settlers

    Originating in the Crimean War twenty years prior, modern war photography and journalism had become something refined by the time of the Lava Beds War. Eadweard Muybridge (born Muggeridge in England) was one of the most influential photographers in the early statehood period of California. One generation later, his interest in capturing motion on film would prove deeply influential to the rising motion picture industry. A true archetype of the Old West, Muybridge was a constant self-reinventer. Also a fabulous deceiver and liar, he later murdered his wife’s lover and got away with the crime. During the beginning of the lava beds campaign, Muybridge captured some fascinating images to be sold to magazines and newspapers. For instance, take this photo of Toby Riddle between two California militia men, with 4 old Modoc women. However, some were fabricated: Muybridge had a non-Modoc man pose at some rocks as though he were shooting at Army soldiers. “On the start for a Reconnaissance of the Lava Beds “ reads the title for one photograph.

    Journalists followed the Army around and reported on events as people around the world followed their stories with relish. Interestingly, reporters even went into Lava Beds to document and interview Modoc people.

    Divides, Assassination

    Winema, called Toby Riddle, was one of the Modoc on the other side of the conflict. Similar to the contemporaneous Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Toby Riddle was a US Army interpreter, and her husband Frank was a settler. During the war she mostly acted as a messenger. Although she had already borne a son she ran across the lavascape. Because she was a cousin to Keinpoos, Winema remained safe venturing into Lava Beds.

    Brigadier General E.S. Canby was in charge of the Lava Beds campaign. Meacham, described in Part II, again appears as a participant.

    The war was divisive for Modoc people. Most remained under the authority of Old Schonchin up north during the war, in turn outnumbered by the Klamath in the “democratic” government. Schonchin John had joined the Modoc encampment. Within the Lava Beds community there were strong divisions. Keintpoos wanted the war brought to a carefully-arranged end that would secure peace and the right to live in the area of Lost River with his family.  Others wanted to drive out the European-Americans.

    Months of peace negotiations unfolded. Canby grew annoyed by the interference from the Oregon governor, who was eager to hang multiple Modoc at the moment of surrender.

    In the meantime, Canby’s men seized Modoc horses while the negotiations played out. To the Modoc this was unacceptable. At a gathering, the Modoc warriors proposed assassinating Canby at the peace commission. In the northwest and basin, killing an enemy’s leader typically ended conflict. Furthermore, the Third Generation did not forget the Ben Wright Massacre and its false flag of peace in the dead of night. Keintpoos differed from those proposing the killing. Some of the group, possibly Hooker Jim among them, considered Keintpoos cowardly and unfit to be their leader. They tossed a female woven hat at the leader as shaming. By now, the warriors were mostly in favor of assassination. It would be a dangerous move.

    Winema learned of the assassination plot and warned Canby and others.  She went unheeded. Elijah Steele warned Canby by letter, too, but in response Canby wrote that his duty overrode concerns for safety.

    At their peace negotiation on Good Friday, 1873, Canby left many soldiers waiting just off from the peace tent, which was situated halfway between the Modoc and Army encampments. The mere presence of so many troops would deter any threats, was his thought. Also there were the Riddles, the Methodist minister Eleazer Thomas, and agent Alfred Meacham, L.S. Dyar, and two soldiers carrying concealed weapons. Keintpoos tried one last time to make progress. Schonchin John wanted a reservation for his band at Hot Creek.  However, the commissioners were single-minded and resolved to accept nothing less than total surrender.

    Keintpoos revealed his revolver and shot Canby dead. Slolux and Brancho pulled forth rifles and fired. Reverend Thomas also died from gunfire, and Meacham was wounded. Frank Riddle and Commissioner Dyar fled; Winema remained behind. Someone began scalping Meacham but Winema intervened and saved him by warning of the coming soldiers. Keintpoos, Black Jim, Boston Charley, and the rest escaped.

    Punishment

    Replacement General Jefferson C. Davis swelled the ranks to 1,000 troops. William Tecumseh Sherman, General of the Army, urged Davis to kill every Modoc man, woman and child in retaliation. Sherman instructed a colonel, “[y]ou will be fully justified in their utter extermination.”

    The first Modoc defeat happened at the Battle of Dry Lake on May 10. Despite the routing, only several Modoc died including the band leader Ellen’s Man. Recognizing that a precise time had come, Hooker Jim and his band left Lava Beds and changed allegiance.  Hooker Jim, Bogus Charley, Shacknasty Jim and Steamboat Frank and others helped end the war earlier by enabling US Army to track down Keintpoos. They and their families were allowed to return to Klamath reservation unguarded. In exchange for Captain Jack, these Modoc received amnesty for the Tule Lake killings.

    Keintpoos surrendered at the beginning of June, 1873.

    Military tribunal. Winema interpreted. Keintpoos, Schonchin John, Boston Charley, Black Jim, Slolux and Brancho were sentenced to death. In yet another ironic turn, they were convicted of war crimes, the only time American Indians would be. None had legal counsel.

    Ulysses S. Grant would later commute the sentences of Slolux and Brancho, giving them life imprisonment at Alcatraz Island, far to the southwest. The rest were hanged. Their heads were severed and shipped to Washington, D.C. Over a century later, Keintpoos’ relatives would finally retrieve custody of his head from the Smithsonian.

    Keintpoos’ wife Lizzie, his Old Wife, his daughter Rose and sister Mary were, with all the remaining Modoc from Lava Beds, boarded on cattle cars and shipped to Oklahoma on a non-stop journey. It is said that they became so starved that upon being released on a field in Oklahoma, the captives found a cow in the field, killed and ate it there on the ground. Rose died in Oklahoma, Keintpoos’ only child.

    Curley-Headed Doctor fell into disfavor. His power had failed the Modoc, so the people believed. The Modoc in Oregon converted to Methodism and those in Oklahoma were converted by the Quaker. As time passed on, Curley-Headed Doctor’s heart grew heavy.  One cold morning, he went outside to behold a gigantic flock of crows.  Their movement signified a great event, and he died soon after. He is still buried in Oklahoma. The Third Generation mostly passed by 1900.

    Note

    Winema lived the rest of her life on the Klamath Reservation with Frank and her son Jeff. Influenza claimed her in 1920.

    The last Modoc War survivor was Stimitchuas, remembered as Jennie Clinton. It’s unknown when she was born, but she was one those shipped to Oklahoma after the war, and returned to Oregon in 1918. In 1922, Jennie Clinton divorced her husband. She spent the rest of her life in a cabin on the Williamson River. She made beadwork but did not weave.

    Elvira Blow was an even older Modoc War survivor (she already had children before the war) who continued traditional basket-making into the 1930s.

    In the 20th century, Oklahoma Modoc were able to return to Oregon. About 50 remained behind at Quapaw. That is why there are two separate Modoc tribes within two different nations today: one in Oregon, one in Oklahoma.

    Jennie Clinton died in 1950, somewhere between the ages of 89 to over 100. She was the last, having survived forced migration, hunger, poverty, and bloodshed. The Fourth Generation was gone and the Fifth was mostly gone. Four years later, an act of congress would terminate the existence of the Klamath Tribes.

    Subsequent generations of Modoc history will be described in upcoming diaries.

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    Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part I

    ( – promoted by navajo)

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    American-Indian-Heritage-Month

    photo credit: Aaron Huey

    Prior to contact, the Modoc people inhabited an area approximately 5,000 square miles in southern Oregon and the northeastern corner of California, where today Modoc County corresponds somewhat to traditional geography. To the southwest (moowat and Tgalam) Mt. Shasta rises up, covered in shining blue ice. Modoc people would make pilgrimages to the sacred mountain every year, but would not live on it.  Sacred journeys were also made to Medicine Lake, a healing volcanic feature now used as a recreation park.  To the east (lobiitdal’) lies Goose Lake, and to the north (yaamat) in Klamath land is Mt. Mazama.  Today, Mazama is known as Crater Lake.

    Thousands of years ago, oral traditional states, the Modoc and the much larger Klamath peoples’ ancestors hid in caves from the catastrophic eruption of Mazama.  Beyond the terrifying images of raining ash and fire imaginable, this event affected world climate.

    In between these boundaries are Klamath Lake, hundreds of marshes, many seasonally dry, pine forests, the lush Cascade mountains, high desert, and alkali flats most desolate in appearance.  The geography dictated the lifestyle: considered harsh by other Indian peoples, Modocs were nonetheless blessed with the bounty of wocas, a pond-lily seed, during the annual harvest season, salmon and suckerfish, as well as plentiful duck, pelican, goose and other waterfowl, many deer, moose, bear, elk, and delicious berries and roots like camas. Traditionally, they are a weaving and hunting people. Tule reed is the principle fabric source.

    This stark land was one of the last places in the 48 where European settlers, desirous for land, timber and gold, would venture. It would become the setting for the most expensive Indian war in US history.

    Contact

    In the 1820s, Peter Skene Ogden, born in Quebec, became the first European trader (working for Hudson’s Bay Company) to venture into the Klamath basin.  Although the Hudson’s Bay Company operated great fur-trading in the Northwest, specifically at Ft. Vancouver, (it lay across the Columbia river from what is now Portland) and Astoria, the Klamath basin promised little. The region’s lack of pelts, and the inhospitable lands to the east, made venturing into the basin unattractive to the first wave of outsiders. In addition to being much drier than the Willamette Valley naturally, the growing season is very short with very snowy winters.

    Lindsay Applegate, a British-American from Kentucky, who had fought in the Black Hawk War of the 1830s, established an alternative trail to Oregon passing through the great basin in 1846.  Previously unknown diseases, including smallpox and tuberculosis, began taking a nearly apocalyptic toll on Oregon and California natives.

    The Modoc people felt both curious and offended at the sudden influx of people and cattle passing through their homeland.  Seeing these large animals on their land, some Modoc people killed cows. The bad blood was nearly instant between Modocs and some settlers.

    The first generation of Modocs to contact the European intruders adopted guns, and western shoes, skirts, trousers and blouses and tools. Their cultural flexibility and openness to change would become a running theme across each generation until the present.  As Modoc people interacted with Europeans, many assumed European names.

    But the offense grew quickly. Within one year of the Applegate Trail’s opening, the presence of so many settlers and cattle passing through their land alarmed and angered the Modoc. By the shores of Tule Lake, now known as Bloody Point, Old Schonchin and some warriors raided an emigrant party. Only three settlers survived the attack; two of them women, who were taken into the tribe; one man ventured the long distances over the Cascade Mountains to Yreka, California.  (Yreka is a town that prospered for three reasons: timber, mining and Indian blood: more on this later.)  Jim Crosby there raised a militia that buried the dead and fought in a skirmish against Modoc people.

    The Ben Wright Massacre and the Death of Hope for Peace

    In 1852, Indian hunter Ben Wright appeared in Northern California. We know that Wright wanted to keep the Emigrant Trail safe for settlers passing into Modoc land, and that secondly, he was anxious to retrieve the two white women still living with the Modoc.  (Fear of the defiling of European-American women at the hands of the Indian is a persistent theme in the American story.)

    Jeff Riddle, the son of Modoc woman Toby Riddle and the settler Frank Riddle, claims that Wright set out to murder as many Modoc as possible. Wright’s inherent animosity is not in dispute.

    By this point, several massacres of Modoc had been already committed.

    Wright and 36 men waited at the Lost River village, one of the more populated areas in Modoc country, for the retrieval of the captive women. With the growing presence of the Modocs encamped there, the militia became gripped by morbid fantasies while waiting for the women to arrive.  Jeff Riddle claimed that Wright planned for the events to follow, telling the volunteers that their lives were in danger from the villagers.

    There is ambiguity over the details of everything that happened, but the Ben Wright Massacre followed.

    During what was supposed to be a meeting to broker peace, which the Modoc were eager to achieve, Wright laced the banquet food with strychnine. However, the intended felt suspicion and refused to eat the food.  Wright’s men began firing pistols at the villagers. The Modoc with their bows retreated into the sage brush.

    In Chapter 9 of Reminiscences of a Pioneer, Colonel William Thompson, himself biased against the Indian, describes the massacre:

    It was now no longer a battle. The savages were searched out from among the sage brush and shot like rabbits. Long poles were taken from the wickiups and those taking refuge in the river were poked out and shot as they struggled in the water. To avoid the bullets the Indians would dive and swim beneath the water, but watching the bubbles rise as they swam, the men shot them when they came up for air.

    Wright’s company killed at least 43, possibly up to 80 Modoc people, and cleared the village from the face of the earth.

    One year later, Wright successfully demanded payment from the California legislature for his actions.

    Forever Broken, Omens of Destruction

    How great was this toll on the Modoc people? Riddle claimed that ever-after, the Modoc were forever broken, indicating an event devastating on the small population, and that the later Modoc War of 1872-1873 (Toby and Frank Riddle had a critical role in the events of the final war) was never the original intention of an already butchered and weary people.  In 1928, ethnologist Mooney estimated a pre-contact population 480 people.  Assuming the effect of disease, bloodshed and the very limited potential for population growth in the region kept the population at least flat, (if not much less) about 8-10% of the people died that day; much more if the higher number of casualties is to be believed.  The famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber assumed twice as many living Modoc before contact; if in that somewhat improbable ballpark in 1852, about 5% of the population died in the Ben Wright Massacre. Population would continue to decline from disease, fueled by hunger and exposure but also more bloodshed. The 1910 Census recorded less than 300 Modoc, over 50 of whom lived in Oklahoma on the Quapaw Reservation (more on this later).

    That is a dramatic population decline within one century.

    Considering the specialized economies of American Indian peoples, where individual agents assumed responsibility for memorizing oral history, genealogy, custom, ethnobotany and medicine, language, spirituality, mysticism and religion, agriculture, tracking and food production skills, the sudden loss of so many people in one event undeniably produced a great cultural loss in addition to the deaths themselves.

    That the massacre happened in the context of a supposed peace deal provides an essential understanding of the much more widely known, somewhat fetishized and poorly interpreted assassination of General Canby (of whom Canby, Oregon is named after) during the US Army war against Modoc.  The Modoc War was fought by the children of the 1850s generation.

    The following generations of Modoc history will be described in subsequent diaries — Nulwee.

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    Indians 101: Pine Nuts

    For thousands of years Indian people have lived and prospered in the Great Basin by exploiting the natural resources of the area. For Indian people in the Great Basin-the Shoshone, Paiute, Washo, and Ute-one of the important traditional resources of the region was the piñon pine whose nuts provided them with nutrition.  

    The Great Basin:

    The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

    Great Basin Map

    The Great Basin is an ecologically sparse environment which includes by small areas where water, game, and plant life are abundant. The summers are often hot and the winters cold. This is an area which seems inhospitable to human habitation, yet Indian people have lived here for thousands of years. For Indian people to live in the Great Basin, they had to have a rather intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory of several hundred square miles: a territory would often encompass the full range of desert biomes.

    Traditional Subsistence:

    Much of the subsistence of the Great Basin Indian tribes depended on the gathering of wild plants. It is estimated that 30 to 70% of the Great Basin diet was based on plants. Several major groups of plants were important to the subsistence of the Great Basin peoples. These include piñon nuts, mesquite, acorns, agave, camas, sego lily, tobacco root, yampa, biscuitroot, bitterroot, cattails, and berries (wolfberry, buckberry, chokecherries). In general, the gathering year was divided into four periods:

    Early Spring: at this time the stored foods were running low and the people were facing some hunger. The first edible plants would appear along streams, near lakes, and in the low hills where the snow first disappeared.

    Early Summer: at this time a number of plants would begin to ripen, particularly in the moist hills, but some in the desert valleys. To gather these plants the people would have to leave their winter villages. As the seeds would begin to ripen in the mountains, they would then move into these areas.

    Late Summer: at this time the edible roots would mature. These plants could be dug at leisure.

    Late Fall: at this time the pine nuts would ripen. However, pine nuts tend to be erratic as each tree yields only once in 3-4 years: in some years there are virtually none in some areas while they are abundant in other places. The harvest period for pine nuts can be 2-3 weeks in some areas and only 10 days in others.

    Traditional Use of Piñon Nuts:

    Among the Western Shoshone of Nevada, piñon nuts were the staple winter food. Pine nuts are high in fat and this means that less meat would be required in the diet. Pine nuts have about 3,000 calories per pound, which means that they not for the calorie-conscious. Piñon nuts are also high in carbohydrates and protein.

    The pine nuts are gathered in September and October. The cones require two years to mature, so careful observation of the cones means that the scarcity or abundance of the crop can be predicted a year in advance.

    One of the common ways of collecting the pine nuts was to collect the cones just before they were about to break open. Using poles, the men would beat the trees to get the cones to drop. Then, using a stone hammer or a stick, the cones would be broken open to collect the seeds. Another way of collecting the pine nuts was to pick the seeds from the forest floor after the cones had dried and opened on the tree. This was, however, both labor intensive and time consuming.

    Once the seeds were removed from the cones, the seeds were parched on a basketry tray with coals, winnowed, and then either stored in woven sacks or pits, or ground into a flour from which bread or soup could be made.

    Prior to European contact, a typical Shoshone family could gather about 1,200 pounds of pine nuts in the fall and this would last the family for about four months. Most frequently the pine nuts were ground with a metate and mano. The resulting meal was then mixed with cold water and stirred. Most frequently the mush was eaten cold. Among some of the tribes the pine nut mush was boiled by placing hot stones in a basket container with the mush until it boiled. In the winter, some of the tribes also made a cold treat out of the mush by setting it outside to freeze.

    In some parts of the Great Basin, such as the Steptoe Valley, enough pine nuts to last for two years could be gathered during a good year. In order to preserve the nuts, they were roasted and then buried in a cold place in the mountains.

    Among the Owens Valley Paiute, the pine nut gathering areas were divided into family plots. If a family were to trespass on pine-nut areas claimed by another family, violence would ensue. This was especially true if the families were from different bands.

    Among some groups, such as the Shoshone of the Ione and Reese River Valleys, the pine nut tracts were owned by the villages. The tracts were in the mountains behind the villages and were bounded by natural boundaries known to everyone.

    Piñon Nuts Today:

    The Indian people of the Great Basin still gather piñon nuts. Today the gathering of the piñon nuts is an affirmation of their cultural heritage rather than for their physical survival. The nuts are still used in traditional foods and some are sold to supplement the family income. In Nevada, their right to gather the piñon nuts is protected by both state law and by treaty rights.