“Two men were in charge of a station at Egan Canyon in Nevada. One morning a band of Indians captured them, after a battle. The chief chose to make the prisoners feed his braves before murdering them, and compelled them to cook an immense quantity of bread. The Indians gorged themselves during the day, while the captives toiled and sweated over their cooking, probably no more cheerfully because of a promise that they would be burned at the stake at sundown. A wagon tongue had been driven into the ground to serve as a stake, and preparations for their roasting were in progress, when in true story-book style, a company of cavalry happened along and saved them. This was the narrative given out as absolute truth in after years given by one of the men.”
“The Serranos (Spanish, “mountaineers”), a Shoshonean branch comprising numerous local groups, occupied San Bernardino valley, San Bernardino mountains north of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, a portion of Mojave desert north of that range and east of Mojave river, and Tehachapi mountains. This last group, who lived principally on El Paso and Tejon creeks, were the Kitanemuk. In 1853 most of the resident Indians, including not only various Shoshoneans but many Yokuts, were taken to Tule river reservation. Tejon rancheria remains, however, a settlement of various Shoshoneans, but predominantly Kitanemuk”
~ Edward S. Curtis
The tools of the desert dwellers varied with specific material available and with the individual Takic or Numic bands of Uto-Aztecan speaking Indians: Vanyume, Paiute, Chemehuevi or Kawiisu. Simple wood fire drills enabled Native Americans to make fire. By burning roots of a tree or bush, the Paiute preserved the fire. Use of rolled up juniper bark which when lit held fire for a long time.
They made stone mortars and metates (some portable) for grinding food and paint. A stick served as a stirrer; a tortoise shell, sheep horn or pottery as dippers; a rabbit scapula or carved wood as a spoon; a sheep’s horn, coiled basketry or pottery became dishes. Tortoise carapace had been reported used as diggers, bowls, dishes to hold seeds. In Oro Grande specimens of tortoise shell rattles have been found. Waterproof baskets, animals’ stomachs, and pottery “canteens” served as water carriers. Knives and drills were, of course, made from flaked stones and shaped bone. The yucca spine with fiber attached served as needle and thread. Sinew provided strong twine and backing for bows. Glue came from boiled sheep’s horn. For tanning skins, aborigines used the brain of larger animals. Professional tanners contend that the brain size of each animal is large enough to tan that animal’s skin. Paiute people utilized desert hardwood for their three to four feet long bows, sometimes
backed with sinew. Chemehuevi sinew-backed bows, often recurved, were powerful and accurate. Some Paiutes and Utes made bows from juniper trees by cutting through the bark. When that section died, they took it off the juniper tree and carved it into sturdy bows.
Arrows, made from reeds or arrow weed, were tipped with local quartz, chalcedony, jasper, or traded for obsidian obtained from the Paiute or Shoshone of Owens Valley. Netting and snares added to the survival tool kit.
Dozens of varieties of juncas, reeds and grasses made baskets for cooking, wearing (as hats) and storing. Some baskets with pitch added to them held water.
Their migratory yearly rounds made it necessary to store food to be retrieved during poor winters. They built water resistant caches with rocks, or into caves, or tree trunks. If grasses came late in January, runners went to their caches for food.
These tools allowed desert Indians to survive in a harsh environment for 5,000 years.
Courtesy Mojave River Valley Museum by Cliff Walker
Indians living in harmony with nature is an idealization to say the least. Life was hard and often got harder as evidenced by Olive Oatman’s observations of the Mojave Indians in the 1850s.
“One day I was out gathering. Chottatoe, when I was suddenly surprised and frightened by running upon one of the victims of this stupid, barbarous inhumanity. He was a tall, bony Indian of about thirty years. His eye was rather sunken, his visage marred, as if he had passed through extreme hardships. He was lying upon the ground, moaning and rolling from side to side in agony the most acute and intense. I looked upon him, and my heart was moved with pity. Little Mary said, ‘I will go up and find out what ails him.’ On inquiry we soon found that he had been for some time ill, but not so as to become utterly helpless. And not until one of their number is entirely disabled, do they seem to manifest any feeling or concern for him. The physician was called, and soon decided that he was not in the least diseased. He told Mary that nothing ailed him save the want of food ; said that he had been unable for some time to procure his food ; that his friends devoured any that was brought into camp without dividing it with him ; that he had been gradually running down, and now he wanted to die. O there was such dejection, such a forlorn, despairing look written upon his countenance as made an impression upon my mind which is yet vivid and mournful.”
~ Olive Oatman
Burrowing into the sandhills of Southern Nevada, archeologists have uncovered the homes and utensils of a thriving Indian civilization which existed 300 or 400 years before Columbus discovered America. Now the rising waters of Lake Mead are about to submerge the Lost City and remove it permanently from the field of research. But in the meantime the men of science have uncovered a wealth of interesting facts about these ancient tribesmen. The highlights of their discoveries are presented in this story by Johns Harrington, son of the archeologist in charge of the excavations.
A description of green cone pinon nut harvesting.
Indian use of Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands
Originally titled – Role of Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands in Aboriginal Societies of the Desert West
Joel C. Janetski
Gathering of Pine Nuts
Pine nuts were usually gathered in the early fall at about the time of the first frosts. Two methods were employed: green or brown cone harvesting (see Madsen 1986). The former took place before the cones opened. The green cones were either removed from branches using a hook or sometimes branches containing cones were broken off the tree. Once removed the sticky cones were placed in pits and roasted until the cones began to open. They were then pulled out of the fire with sticks, cooled, and opened, and the nuts were removed and tossed in a heap. A graphic account of pine nut harvesting by the green cone method is supplied by Howard Egan in western Nevada in the late 1800’s.
Jack and I were taking a scouting trip high up in the Schell Creek Range of mountains, when we came across an Indian who, with his [wife) and children were busily engaged gathering pine nuts. The man had a long pole with a strong hook fastened to one end. He would reach up in the tree to the pine cones, hook the crook around the branch on which they hung and pull branch and all down, the woman and children carrying them to a place and piling them up in a heap. When they had collected as many as they wanted that day, the [man) has finished his part of the work and could pass the rest of the time sleeping or hunting squirrels just as he pleased.
The women and children gathered a little dry brush which was thrown loosely over the pile of cones and set fire to. The cones are thickly covered all over with pitch, for this reason they make a hot fire, the [woman) watching and stirring it up as needed to keep the nuts from burning, as she rakes them back from the fire as a man would do when drawing charcoal.
When the pitch was all burned off the burs or cones, the [woman) spreads a blanket down close to the pile, then taking up one cone at a time, would press them end ways between her hands, which opens the leaves, under which there were two nuts to every leaf, Then shaking the cones over the blanket area the nuts would all fall out as clean as you please.
When the nuts had all been cleaned from the cones they were put in a large basket that would hold over two bushels and was nearly; full, the [woman) carrying that on her back to a place where they were placed all through the pine-nut grove to save carrying them too far and save time for the harvest does not last long, for a heavy frost will cause the cones to open and the nuts to fall to the ground (Egan 1917:241).