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Indians of the Yosemite Valley and vicinity : thier [sic] history, customs and traditions online

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dians. They are very palatable and nutri-
tious, and are also greatly relished by white
people whenever they can be obtained. The
seeds of the Digger or nut pine (Pinus
Sabiniana) were the ones most used on the


western side of the Sierras, although the
seeds of the sugar pine (P. Lambertiana)
were also sometimes eaten. On account of
their soft shell, nuts from the pinon
pine (P. monophylla), which grows princi-
pally on the eastern side of the mountains,
were considered superior to either of the
other kinds, and were an important article
of barter with the tribes of that region.
All of these trees are very prolific, and their
crop of nuts in fruitful years has been
estimated to be even greater than the enor-
mous wheat crop of California, although of
course but a very small portion of it is ever
gathered. Many other kinds of nuts and
seeds were also eaten.

The principal berries used by the Indians
of Yosemite and tribes lower down in the
foothills were those of the manzanita ( Arc-
to staphylos glauca). They are about the
size of huckleberries, of a light brown color,
and when ripe have the flavor of dried
apples. They are used for eating, and also
to make a kind of cider for drinking, and
for mixing with some food preparations.
Manzanita is the Spanish for " little ap-
ple,' 7 and this shrub, with its rich red


bark and pale green foliage, is perhaps the
most beautiful and most widely distributed
in California. Strawberries, black rasp-
berries, elderberries, wild cherries and the
fruit of the Sierra plum (Prunus sub cor-
data] are also used by the Indians, but wild
edible berries are not as plentiful in Cali-
fornia as they are in the Atlantic States.


In addition to the staple articles of food
already mentioned, many other things were
eaten when they could be obtained. These
included grasshoppers, certain kinds of
large tree worms, the white fungi which
grows upon the oak, mushrooms, and the
larvae and pupae of ants and other insects.
The pupae of a certain kind of fly which
breeds extensively on the shores of Mono
Lake, about forty miles from Yosemite, was
an important article of commerce across
the mountains, and was made into a kind of
paste called ka-cha'-vee, which is still much
relished by the Indians, and is a prominent
dish at their feasts.

The manner of catching grasshoppers was
to dig a large hole, somewhat in the shape

Photograph by Fiske.


As in all Indian tribes, the women do most of
the work.


of a fly trap, with the bottom larger than
the opening at the top, so that the insects
oould not readily get out of it. This hole
was dug in the center of a meadow, which
was then surrounded by Indians armed
with small boughs, who beat the grasshop-
pers towards a common center and drove
them into the trap. A fire was then kindled
on top of them, and after they had been
well roasted they were gathered up and
stored for future use.

Other articles of food were various kinds
of roots, grasses and herbage, some of
which were cooked, while others were eaten
in their natural condition. The lupine
\Lupinus bicolor and other species), whose
brilliant flowers are such a beautiful feature
of all the mountain meadows in the spring
and summer, was a favorite plant for mak-
ing what white people would call " greens, "
and when eaten was frequently moistened
with some of the manzanita cider already
referred to. Among the roots used for food
were those of the wild caraway (Carum),
wild hyacinth (Brodioea), sorrel (Oxalis},
and camass (Camassia esculenta).


The Indians of this region, in common
with most, if not all, of the North American
aborigines, were of a highly religious tem-
perament, most devout in their beliefs and
observances, and easily wrought upon by
the priests or medicine men of their tribes.
Elaborate ceremonies were carried out, in
which all of the details were highly symbol-
ical, and some of their curious and pictur-
esque superstitions were responsible for
acts of cruelty and vengeance, which in
many cases were foreign to their natural


Dancing was an important part of all
religious observances, and was practiced
purely as a ceremonial, and never for pleas-
ure or recreation. Both men and women
took part, the men executing a peculiar
shuffling step which involved a great deal
of stamping upon the ground with their


bare feet, and the women performing a cur-
ious sideways, swaying motion. Some of
tne dancers carried wands or arrows, and
indulged in wild gesticulations. They usu-
ally circled slowly around a fire, and danced
to the point of exhaustion, when others
would immediately take their places. The
ceremony was accompanied by the beating
of rude drums, and by a monotonous chant,
which was joined in by all the dancers.

The great occasions for dancing were
before going to war, and when cremating
the bodies of their dead. The war dance
was probably the most elaborate in costume
and other details, and of recent years the
Indians have sometimes given public ex-
hibitions of what purported to be war
dances, but these performances, like every-
thing else which they do from purely mer-
cenary motives, are very poor imitations of
the originals, and it is doubtful if they have
ever allowed a genuine war dance to be wit-
nessed by white men.


The various tribes in the vicinity of
Yosemite Valley are accustomed to hold a


great meeting or festiyal once a year, each
tribe taking its turn as hosts, and the others
sometimes coming from considerable dis-
tances. At these meetings there are dances
and other ceremonials, and also a grand
feast, for which extensive preparations are
made. Another feature of the occasion is
the presentation of gifts to the visit-
ing tribes, consisting of money, blankets,
clothing, baskets, bead-work, or other val-
uable articles. These presents, or their
equivalent, no matter how small they may
be, are always returned to the givers at the
next annual festival, together with addi-
tional gifts, which, in turn, must be given
back the following year, and so on.

At these gatherings an Indian is ap-
pointed to secure and keep on hand a good
supply of wood for the camp fires, and
every day he spreads a blanket on the
ground and sits on it, and the other Indians
throw money, clothing, or other contribu-
tions, into the blanket, to pay him and his
assistants for their services. At other times
this man acts as a messenger or news car-
rier first spreading his blanket to collect


his fees, and then starting off on his


Many of the Indians in Mariposa and
adjoining counties were polygamists, hav-
ing two or three, and sometimes more,
wives. Some of the chiefs and head men
would have wives from several of the adja-
cent tribes, which had a tendency to estab-
lish permanent friendly relations among

Every man who took a young woman for
his wife had to buy her. Young women
were considered by their parents as per-
sonal chattels, subject to sale to the highest
suitable bidder, and the payment of the
price constituted the main part of the mar-
riage ceremony. The wife was then the
personal property of the husband, which
he might sell or gamble away, if he wished ;
but such instances were said to be very
rare. In case negotiations for a marriage
fell through, the preliminary payments
were scrupulously returned to the rejected
suitor by the parents.

Even a widow, independent of control in
the matter of marriage, if she consented to

ruitJi \>>i .Dare.


The babies are tied to their baskets to make
them straight, and keep them out of mischief.


become a man's wife, received some
compensation herself from her intended

It is said that in their marital relations
they were as a rule strictly faithful to each
other. If the woman was found to be guilty
of unfaithfulness to her husband, the pen-
alty was death. Such a thing as a man
whipping or beating his wife was never
known. Whipping under any circumstances
was considered a more humiliating and dis-
graceful punis'hment than death.

Even in the management of children,
whipping was never resorted to as punish-
ment for disobedience. In fact, children
were always treated in such a kind, patient,
loving manner, that disobedience was a
fault rarely known. The pre-natal maternal
influence, and subsequent treatement after
birth, were such that they were naturally
patient and readily submissive to kind
parental control.

In recent years, under the influence and
examples often seen in what is called civil-
ized life, Indian husbands have been known
to beat their wives, and mothers to whip
their children.


Photograph l)\j Boy sen.


The canopy of the baby basket is called Cho-
ko'-ni, and the Royal Arches, from their re-
semblance to it, have also received this name
from the Indians.



At the time of the settlement of Califor-
nia by the whites, every Indian tribe had
its professional doctors or medicine men,
who also acted as religious leaders. They
were the confidential counselors of the
chiefs and head-men of the tribes, and had
great influence and control over the people.
They claimed to be spiritual mediums, and
to have communication with the departed
spirits of some of their old and most rever-
ed chieftains and dear friends, now in a
much more happy condition than when here
in earthly life. They were thought to be
endowed with supernatural powers, not on-
ly in curing all diseases (except those due
to old age), but also in making a well per-
sx)n sick at their pleasure, even at a dis-
tance; but when their sorcery failed to
work on their white enemies and extermin-
ate them, they lost the confidence of their
followers to a large extent.

With the invasion of the white settlers
came forced changes in their old customs
and manner of living, and a new variety of
epidemic and other diseases. When a doc-
tor failed to cure these diseases, and several


deaths occurred in quick succession in a
camp, they believed the doctor was under
the control of some evil spirit, and killed

After the Indians were given their free-
dom from the reservations in 1855, the old
ones, subdued and broken-hearted, sickened
and died very fast, and most of the men
doctors were killed off in a few years.
There are none known who now attempt to
act in that capacity.

There are still some women doctors who
continue to practice the magic art, but as
there are now but very few Indians, there
is not so much sickness, and very few
deaths in a year, so that the doctors very
rarely forfeit their lives by many of their
patients dying in quick succession.

Their most common mode of treatment in
cases of sickness was to scarify the painful
locality with the sharp edge of a piece of
obsidian, and suck out the blood with the
mouth. In cases of headache, the forehead
was operated on ; in a case of colic the ab-
domen was treated in the same way, as
were also all painful swellings on any part
of the body.


The grand object of the doctor was to
make the patient and family firmly believe
that his course of treatment was removing
the cause of the sickness. To aid in
strengthening this belief, after diagnosing
tne case, and before commencing opera-
tions, he would quietly retire for a short
time, ostensibly to get under the influence
of the divine healing spirit, but in reality to
fill his mouth with several small articles,
such as bits of wood or stone ; he was then
ready to commence treatment. After suck-
ing and spitting pure blood a few times, he
began to spit out with the blood, one after
another, the things he had in his mouth, at
the sight of which all the attendants would
join in a chorus of grunts of astonishment,
and the doctor would pretend to be very
much nauseated. In most ordinary cases
two or three treatments effected a cure.

The doctors also made use of certain rare
medicinal plants in treating some diseases.
The Indian women have great faith in
charms made of the pungent roots of some
rare plants from the high mountain ranges,
which they wear on strings around their


necks, or on a string of beads, to protect
them from sickness.

In cases of malignant sores or ulcers on
any part of the body, the doctors treated
them by applying dirt or earth, and in
warm weather would excavate a place in
tue ground and put the patient in it, either
in a sitting or recumbent position, as the
nature of the case required, and cover the
affected part with earth for several hours
daily. Sometimes, by this mode of treat-
ment, wonderful cures were made.

In all cases, if a doctor failed to cure a
disease, and the patient died, he was obliged
to refund to the relatives any fee which he
had received for his services.


In the early days of the settlement of Cal-
ifornia, it seemed to be the universal custom
of the Indians along the foothills of the
Sierra Nevada range of mountains to burn
the bodies of their dead.

A suitable pile of readily combustible
wood was prepared. The body was taken
charge of by persons chosen to perform the
last sacred rites, and firmly bound in skins


or blankets, and then placed upon the
funeral pyre, with all the personal effects
of the deceased, together with numerous
votive offerings from friends and relatives.
The chief mourners of the occasion seemed
to take but little active part in the cere-
monies. When all was ready, one of the
assistants would light the fire, and the terri-
ble, wailing, mournful cry would commence,
and the professional chanters, with peculiar
sidling movements and frantic gestures,
would circle round and round about the
burning pile. Occasionally, on arriving at
the northwest corner of the pile, they would
stop, and, pointing to the West, would end
a crying refrain by exclaiming " Him-i-
la'-ha!" When these became exhausted,
others would step in and take their places,
and thus keep up the mournful ceremony
until the whole pile was consumed.

After the pile had cooled, the charred
bones and ashes were gathered up, a few
pieces of bone selected, and the remainder
buried. Of the pieces retained, some would
be sent to distant relatives, and the others
pounded to a fine powder, then mixed with
pine pitch and plastered on the faces of the


nearest female relatives as a badge of
mourning, to be kept there until it naturally
wore off. Every Indian camp used to have
some of these hideous looking old women in
it in the ' ' early days. ' '

One principal reason for burning the
bodies of the dead was the belief that there
is an evil spirit, waiting and watching for
the animating spirit or soul to leave the
body, that he may get it to take to his own
world of darkness and misery. By burning
the perishable body they thought that the
immortal soul would be more quickly re-
leased and set free to speed to the happy
spirit world in the El-o'-win, or far distant
West, while with their loud, wailing cries
the evil spirit was kept away.

The young women take great care of their
long, shiny, black hair, of which they all
feel very proud, as adding much to their
personal beauty, and they seldom have it cut
before marriage. But upon the death of a
husband the wife has her hair all cut off and
burned with his body, so that he may still
have it in his future spirit home, to love and
caress as a memento of his living earth-wife.




M >>


These Indians believe that everything on
earth, both natural and artificial, is endow-
ed with an immortal spirit, which is inde-
structible, and that whatever personal prop-
erty or precious gifts are burned, either
with the body or in later years for the de-
parted friend's benefit, will be received and
made use of in the spirit world. In recent
\ears the Yosemites and other remnants of
tribes closely associated with them, have
adopted the custom of the white people, and
bury their dead. The fine, expensive
blankets, and most beautifully worked
baskets, which have been kept sacredly in
hiding for many years, to be buried with
the owner, are now cut into small frag-
ments before being deposited in the ground,
for fear some white person will desecrate
the grave by digging them up and carrying
them away.

There are no people in the world who
show more reverence for their dead, or hold
their memory more sacred, than these so-
called ' ' Digger ' ' Indians. After being re-
leased from the reservations they kept
themselves in abject poverty for many
years by sacrificing their best blankets,


baskets and clothing in the devouring
flames of a fire kindled for that purpose,
when holding their annual mourning festi-
vals in memory of their dead friends.


The old Indians are all very reticent
regarding their religious belief s. They hold
them too sacred to be exposed to possible
ridicule, and it is therefore very diffi-
cult to get information from them by direct

They seem, however, to have a vague, in-
distinct belief or tradition that their orig-
inal ancestors, in the long forgotten past,
dwelt in a better and much more desirable
country than this, in the El-o'-win, or dis-
tant West, and that by some misfortune or
great calamity they were separated from
that happy land, and became wanderers in
this part of the world. They also believe
that the spirits of all good Indians will be
permitted, after death, to go back to that
happy country of their ancestors' origin;
but that the spirits of bad Indians have to
serve another earth life in the form of a
grizzly bear, as a punishment for their


former crimes. Hence, no Indians ever eat
bear meat if they know it.

All the old Indians are spiritualists, and
very superstitious in their religious beliefs.
One special tenet is that if one of their rela-
tives or friends has been murdered, he will
not receive them on terms of friendship in
the spirit world unless they revenge his
death, either by killing the murderer or
some one of the same blood. This belief
sometimes results in an entirely innocent
person being put to death.

They all have a great fear of evil spirits,
which they believe have the power to do
them much harm and defeat their undertak-
ings. They also have a fairly distinct idea
of a Diety or Great Spirit, who never does
them any harm, and whose home is in the
liappy land of their ancestors in the West.


The Yosemites and other kindred or ad-
jacent tribes have been branded as "Dig-
gers," and are generally thought to be the
lowest class of Indians in America, but in
some lines of artistic work they excelled all
other tribes. For example, their basketry
work, for domestic and sacred purposes,
and their bows and arrows, were of very
superior workmanship and fine finish.


Many years ago the chief industry of the
Indian women, aside from their other
domestic duties, was the making of baskets.
They made a great variety of shapes and
sizes for their common use, and also many
of a more artistic design and finer finish for
the sacred purpose of being burned or bur-
ied with their bodies, or that of some rela-
tive or dear friend, after death. The bas-
kets devoted to this special purpose are the
finest made, but are very seldom seen by
any white person, and are not for sale at


any price. This finest style of work seems
to have been made a specialty by certain of
the most artistic workers in each tribe.

At the present time, in their more mod-
ern style of living, they do not require so
many baskets, and the industry of making
them is fast on the decline. Some of the
old women, however, still continue to make
such as are required for their own use, and
a few others for sale.

Most of the ornamental figures and de-
signs worked into the finest basketry are
symbolical in character, and of so ancient
an origin that Indians of the present 'day
do not know what many of them are
intended to represent. They have simply
been copied from time immemorial,with the
idea that they were necessary for the com-
plete finish and beauty of the article made.

In recent years they sometimes make use
of more modern styles of ornamentation,
which they see in print.

Many of the young women are now giv-
ing their attention to making fancy bead
work, in the form of ornamental belts and
hat-bands, but this is an industry of very
modern origin. Some of them are employed



by white people to do laundry and other
work, and any labor of this kind pays them
better than making baskets for sale. Forty
years ago a finely made basket could have
been bought for less than ten dollars. At
present, if the time spent in getting and
preparing the necessary materials, and in
working them into the basket, were paid for
at the same rate per day that a young
woman receives for doing washing in the
hotel laundry, or for private families, it
would amount to over one hundred dollars.
Most of the baskets made for domestic
use are so closely woven that they are prac-
tically water-tight, and are used for cooking
and similar purposes. Over on the eastern
side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near
the dry, desert country, the Indians make
some of their baskets in the form of jugs of
various sizes. These are smeared over with
a pitch composition, which renders them
perfectly water-tight, and they are used for
carrying water when traveling over those
desolate, sandy wastes.


The Indian men showed no less ingenuity
and artistic skill in their special lines of


work than the women, especially in the
manufacture of their bows and arrows, in
the making of fish lines and coarser twine
out of the soft, flexible bark of the milk-
weed (Asclepias speciosa), and in making
other useful implements and utensils with
the very limited means at their disposal.

Their bows were made of a branch of the
incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens), or of
the California nutmeg (Tumion Cali-
fornicum[Torreya] ),made flat on the outer
side, and rounded smooth on the inner or
concave side when the bow is strung for
use. The flat, outer side was covered with
sinew, usually that from the leg of a deer,
steeped in hot water until it became soft
and glutinous, and then laid evenly and
smoothly over the wood, and so shaped at
the ends as to hold the string in place.
When thoroughly dry the sinew contracted
so that the bow when not strung was con-
cave on the outer side.

When not in use the bow was always left
unstrung. To string it for use, it was
necessary in cold weather to warm it, thus
making it more elastic and easily bent. The


She is weaving- a burden basket. The one to the
left is for cooking, and a baby basket stands
against the tent.


best strings were also made of sinew, or of
pax- wax cartilage, for their finest bows.

The arrows were made of reeds and
various kindsof wood, including the syringa
(Philadelphus Leivisii) and a small shrub
or tree which the Indians called Le-ham'-i-
tee, or arrow-wood, and which grew quite
plentifully in what is now known as Indian
Canyon, near the Yosemite Falls.

The finest arrows were furnished with
points made of obsidian, or volcanic glass,
which was obtained in the vicinity of Mono
Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras. It
required great care and delicate skill to
work this brittle material into the fine
sharp points, and the making of them seem-
ed to be a special business or trade with
some of the old men. Arrows furnished
with these points were only used in hunt-
ing large game, or in hostile combat with
enemies ; for common use, in hunting small
game, the hard wooden arrow was merely
sharpened to a point.

The butt, or end used on the string, was
furnished with three or four short strips of
feathers taken from a hawk's wing, and
fastened on lengthwise. These strips of

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Online LibraryGalen ClarkIndians of the Yosemite Valley and vicinity : thier [sic] history, customs and traditions → online text (page 3 of 5)