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    Native American Food Gathering

Food Gathering Cycle by Native Americans in the Oasis Valley

Report for the Beatty Museum by Dr. John Thompson in August of 2007.
Shoshone, Kawaiisu, and Southern Paiute Food Gathering Cycle in
Death Valley, CA & Armagosa Valley, NV

Based on Gregorian Solar Calendar Months

  • Women harvest shoots of cattail from the marshes and carved-seed flat plants (kammisiki) from adjacent sand hills. Women and children scratch for roots that are boiled and eaten and the first leaves of squaw cabbage (princes plume, Stanleya pinnata) are boiled twice to remove bitterness and toxic selenium. Mesquite trees monitored for new leaf growth.

  • Where spring water is plentiful for irrigation, women plant corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and sunflowers. Women gather Mesquite pods or beans from Mesquite trees (ovi) which grow along borders of salt flats and in dunes wherever water is close to the surface. Young beans are eaten whole and mature beans ground into flour or dried for storage (1 gal of pods produces 1 lb ground flour). Screwbean Mesquite, Prosopis pubescens, was harvested at Ash Meadows and Honey Mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa, was harvested at Mesquite Wells. Harvesters remove dead branches from each Mesquite tree.

  • Women gather seeds of sand bunchgrass, wild rye, and devil’s pin cushion, California buckwheat; wild grapes, Hupi berries, mariposa lily bulbs, wild hyacinth bulbs, Joshua tree buds. Men hunt rabbits, squirrels, pack rats, quail, ducks, and chuckwalla lizards. Summer shelter was a shade or windbreak structure constructed from willows, juniper, and/or brush that were either flat or dome shaped.

  • Women harvest Indian rice grass (wai) by cutting armloads of grass and threshing on pads of sun-baked earth, then singe off the little black seeds to winnow the seeds from the ash and then husk them on a flat stone to make meal for gruel. Women harvest baskets of cattail pollen spikes from the marshes to bake ‘bread’ wrapped in green cattail leaves. Men hunt rabbits, squirrels, pack rats, quail, ducks, and chuckwalla lizards.

  • Pine nut caches buried in the mountains are opened. Women harvest buckberries (Gray desert snowberry, Symphoricarpos longiflorus) from groves of trees on foothills and mountains. Berries are pressed into a sugarless sauce that is tart and full of seeds, or sun dried for winter. In buckberry groves the men hunt cottontail rabbits, and robins and catch magpies for their iridescent feathers to make dance skirts and bonnets. Men hunt bobcats (hunting the birds in the groves) to make bobcat skin quivers. Scouts sent to find the most promising pine-nut groves indicated by immature pine cones. Tribe hikes to the most promising grove with water jugs and cattail seeds for nourishment to harvest immature pine cones which they open by baking in hot coals for 1-2 hours. Later in the season the cones open without baking. The tribe returns to camp with enough nuts for everyone for an all-night pine nut prayer dance.

  • Most corn harvested after kernels ripen and dry, then removed from cob. Beans and slices of squash are dried. Everyone starts the harvest of pine nuts (tuba) from Pinion trees that grow above 7000 feet in the Panamints, Grapevines, and adjacent ranges on north and east aspects. Each adult harvests about 200 lbs. Pine nut soup is a winter food staple. Bighorn sheep hunts are rarely successful. Deer and antelope hunts result in dried meat. Cool mountain springs provide relief from warm, bitter water of the Amargosa River which is naturally rich in Epsom and Glauber salts.

  • Pine nut harvest continues. ‘Big Talker’ (pakwinavi) organizes communal rabbit drive. Men of each family bring a net of yucca fiber or wild hemp that is hundred(s) feet long. Men armed with sticks and bows/arrows form a moving fence to drive the rabbits into the nets. Older men hiding near the nets club the jackrabbits and reset the nets. Rabbit harvest required for weaving blankets and dried meat for winter survival. Men hunt woodrats, mice, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds, lizards, snakes, chuckwallas, and tortoise. Women collect Indian spinach, agave, various seeds, Indian tea, sunflowers, and prickly pear cactus for winter storage.

  • Pine nut harvest continues. Everyone attends Fall Festival organized by ‘Big Talker’ (pakwinavi).

  • Snow halts pine nut harvest. Tribes winter at abundant springs in bottomlands or sheltered canyons. Caves used as winter dwellings, but if not available, a dirt covered shelter is constructed .

  • Men hunt jackrabbits as mountain snow conceals pine nut caches, ice seals cattail roots in marshes, and rodents hibernate. Season of storytelling, songs, basket making, and tanning hides begins.

  • Ground squirrels come out of hibernation to be hunted by men closing all burrow entrances except one to shoot blunt tipped greasewood or rosewood shafts with their sinew-backed juniper bow.

  • Men hunt migrating ducks at nearby springs.

  • Death Valley & The Amargosa: A Land of Illusion, By Richard E. Lingenfelter, 1986, ISBN: 0-520-06356-2
    Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes, by Margaret M. Wheat, 1967, ISBN: 0-87417-048-6
    Flowers and Shrubs of the Mojave Desert, by Janice Emily Bowers, 1999, ISBN: 1-877856-79-7
    Panamint Shoshone Basketry, by Eva Slater, 2000, ISBN:0-930704-31-2