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Traditional and Modern Methods of Acorn Preparation

Bay Nature article by Emily Moskal about how the Indians used acorns and bay nuts for food, and how you can use analogous methods today with modern kitchenware! Acorns were probably the most important single food source for all American Indians, constituting up to over half their diet! Oaks are almost everywhere in the US, and all of them have edible acorns.

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Native American Dogs

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Belgian Shepherd looking glorious climbing a California bay laurel tree in Wildcat Canyon of the East Bay Hills.

Dog – Canis lupus familiaris

The oldest known records of dogs in the Americas are from over 13,000 years ago in Hell Gap, Colorado, and Agate Basin, Wyoming (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Dogs were used by American Indians for pulling sleds, pulling travois, carrying packs, assisting in hunting, for eating, ritual sacrifice, and for weaving their fur into high-quality blankets (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Dogs were also appreciated by the Indians as companions and sentries. Many dogs have been found buried at archeological sites just as dead humans were buried, sometimes even with offerings (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

American Indians had large, strong, wolf-like dogs, who howled rather than barked (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Genetic analyses suggest there were multiple independent origins of dogs from wolves, and it is likely that back-crossing with wolves, coyotes, and even foxes occurred (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Whether this genetic introgression occurred via intentional breeding, by “accident,” or feralization is unknown (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

Some of the earliest archeological evidence of domesticated dogs being used for a particular purpose is pulling sleds over ice and snow in Siberia and Alaska (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In, fact, dogs probably pulled the sleds that carried the very first humans to populate the Americas! Good doggies! Ten to twenty thousand of their descendents were mercilessly slaughtered as policy by the Canadian police in the mid-1900’s (http://fortheloveofthedogblog.com/news-updates/the-inuit-sled-dog-killings).

An Inuit seal hunter, wife, and dog team cross sea ice in Nanavut, Canada.

Dogs were used to carry packs extensively in the Western Arctic, and were a important fixture of the bison hunting Plains Indians societies, where they pulled travois, especially when moving camps (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Such dogs could pack loads of 40 to 45 pounds and pull loads up to 75 to 100 pounds (Snyder and Leonard 2011). They often carried firewood, meat, tents, and other supplies (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

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Belgian Malinois magnanimously carrying backpack full of quartz crystals near Inyo National Forest, CA.

Not all dogs would suffer a load, being too defiant, young, or small, and these “freeloaders” would often gleefully harass the burdened dogs en route (Catlin 1973:43-44). A village of 500 teepees might have several thousand dogs carrying loads, in addition to over a thousand horses (Catlin 1973:43-44). Their travois (simple drag-sleds) were made from two poles about 15 feet long with the thinner ends secured to the dogs’ shoulders and the butts of the poles dragging on the ground (Catlin 1973:43-44). A short bracing pole was tied to both long poles just behind the dog, and a bundle or wallet was secured to these poles behind the dog (Catlin 1973:43-44).

These poles were almost certainly from the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) that grew in the nearby Rocky Mountains. Such pines supplied the poles for the lodges and teepees of many Plains and Rocky Mountain Indians. Poles were cut from trunks in the winter or early spring while the sap was down, their bark removed, and left to weather until fall, when they were collected for use (Peattie 1950). Such poles were preferred since they were very light, of nearly uniform diameter throughout their length, and extremely hard, stiff, and nearly impossible to split (Peattie 1950). Plains Indians would not use cottonwood or willow, instead they traveled all the way to the Rockies or bartered with Rockies tribes for these poles (Peattie 1950).

Painting of Sioux Indians moving camp, drawn first-hand by George Catlin in the 1830’s (Catlin 1973:Plate 21).

The accounts of Plains Indians’ relationships with dogs came after the introduction of the horse plus the fur and hide trade. Dogs may have been much more important before horses were available. In the later years of the Plains Indians, dogs were reduced to being an emergency food source, no longer being esteemed highly enough to feed and maintain (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Among the Plains indians, women were the chief companions of dogs, using them to gather firewood and other materials, and leading the burdened dogs when moving camp (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

On our recent backpacking adventure at Cache Creek BLM wilderness in CA, Emily’s dog Neptune cheerfully bore our heaviest load: water. That pack must’ve weighed over 40 lbs… what a hoss!

Dogs were used in hunting throughout the Americas, especially in forested areas (Snyder and Leonard 2011). They were not used much for hunting in the Plains (Snyder and Leonard 2011), but they may have been used more there before the introduction of the horse. Eskimos trained their dogs to find seal breathing holes (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Subarctic Indians had dogs assist in hunting bears, beavers, and even musk-ox and polar bears (Snyder and Leonard 2011). The latter two were highly dangerous, and dogs chased and brought them to bay for the Indians to kill (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In heavily wooded areas, dogs were used routinely to hunt turkey, deer, and squirrels (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

Neptorian digging for ground squirrels.

In some areas, dogs (such as the Mexican Hairless) were raised specifically for eating, while in other areas dogs were only eaten as part of certain ritual feasts (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In some areas of the American northwest, dogs were bred for long thick coats that Indians sheared, spun into yarn, and wove into blankets of high status and value (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

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The fur of my dog Kitsune would make for a good blanket. But she’s a terrible pack dog now that she’s learned how to throw her backpack off by running, then suddenly stopping with her head ducked and front legs out front, like the “down dog” stretch pose… that cunning, load-shirking bitch.

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Kitsu in Yosemite after swimming in the chilly waters

No other species has lived alongside humans for as long as the dog, since cats were first domesticated (or more accurately, domesticated themselves) at most ten thousand years ago, when people began to store large amounts of grains that attracted abundant rodent prey of cats. It’s no wonder so many people instinctively feel a kinship and understanding of dogs. Their social structure and hunting methods are very close to humans, making them perfectly suited for companions and assistants. Dogs are the only other species (I know of) besides humans that exhibit cursorial hunting; running after prey for as long as it takes, and finally catching their exhausted quarry since we both have such incredible long distance endurance. The !Kung bushmen in Africa still run down gazelles in this manner that is also displayed in many nature documentaries showing wolves hunt.

So If you’ve got a dog, please use any knowledge I may have given here to reinvigorate the human-dog bond; go running for hours, get it a backpack and have it haul water. Try to understand what makes your dog happy, and it just might infect you!

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Kitsu chasing mirages in Death Valley, CA.

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Kitsu confused by mirages again in the Great Salt Lake, UT.

References:

Catlin, G. 1973. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

Peattie, D. C. 1950. A natural history of western trees. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA.

Snyder, L. M., and J. A. Leonard. The diversity and origin of American dogs. Ch. 21 In B. D. Smith (Ed.). 2011. The subsistence economies of indigenous North American societies: a handbook. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.

Grisly Grizzly Hunting

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) used to be in every state in the USA (except Hawai’i) until European settlers began systematically extirpating them. Grizzlies had been respectfully lived with in (relative) peace by the American Indians for ten thousand years, but they were seen as a threat to settler’s livestock and feared as vicious killers. Quickly, the new “shoot on sight” approach to bear management killed off their populations everyone except the remote mountains.

Nowadays, only the most distant fastnesses of mountain wilderness in Montana, Idaho and Washington, or throughout Alaska are the only places in the US these awesome, hulking beasts are still found. If we respect them and allow them space, maybe one day they will return to the wild undeveloped Rockies and Sierras, as the black bear has been making such a comeback after being similarly viciously oppressed (very recently, the black bear has returned to the Chisos mtns. of Big Bend, TX, and are thriving in CA so that here a week-long, archery-only hunting season is allowed).

Grizzly bears are light brown to dark brown and have a more predatorial look than the smaller, pudgier black bears (which actually range from light brown to black). Grizzlies are distinguished by their powerful jaws, strong arms, muscle-bunched shoulders, and a trim body. They are more likely than black bears to attack, kill, and eat people with no (apparent) provocation. Oh and if you’re lucky enough see a polar bear, it is surely lusting after your blood. Without a powerful gun, fast vehicle or sturdy building, it’s probably going to hunt you down and eat you.

BEAR ATTACKS

A grizzly being aggressive is most likely a sow with cubs nearby that to her you are seemingly threatening. Otherwise, it may be defending a carcass cached nearby, or it’s a worked-up, frustrated boar in mating (=fighting) season, or maybe it’s a mean one and it just doesn’t like your stupid fucking face. Usually, slowly backing away while facing the bear, but not looking directly in its eyes (them’s fightin’-eyes in bearspeak), or going far to one side and around the bear to continue on your way will make the bear calm down and not kill you. Or the bear will step up the aggression.

Now black bears will bluff charge, meaning they’ll rush you head-on, but stop just short if you don’t flinch (good luck). But grizzlies aren’t known to bluff charge, and they can easily out-sprint Usain Bolt (and running from a predator tells them you’re prey), so you have several options if an attack is imminent:

1) Kill the bear. Only a high powered rifle (.357 cal +) shot in the head or chest is a reliable bear-stopper. Any lower caliber not perfectly placed in the heart (it’ll still have a good few minutes of steam then) will just infuriate the bear more.

2) Bear spray. These formulations of aerosol pepper-spray may burn and temporarily blind the bear and cause its retreat, but it could still catch and kill you.

3) Climb a tree. Bad move if the bear can knock the tree down or climb it up to you, so choose a sturdy tree and climb high, fast.

4) Play dead. Curl in a ball, protecting the back of your neck with your hands, and hope it gets bored of batting you around. This will take balls and luck. A large backpack may help protect you so if you have one, keep it on.

5) Be a complete and utter badass and use a wooden club to break all of its legs (one per charge), then smash its massive skull when it’s disabled (see story below).

Really there is no fail-safe method of avoiding or mitigating a bear attack. The best response is to gauge the bear’s behavior and try to prevent it stepping up the aggression. It’s recommended to speak loudly regularly or wear a bell or something in grizzly country because bears have poor vision and hearing compared to us and are often incited to anger when spooked by people unexpectedly coming too close for their comfort. Bears, grizzlies or blacks, are not inherently malicious (ok the polar bear is pretty bloodthirsty), and if they have a choice to avoid confrontation, they will.

I got a lot of this info from “Longbows in the Far North” by E. Donnell Thomas Jr, a guy who’s hunted and killed both black and grizzly bears with his longbow.

DIET

After hibernation, grizzlies scavenge carcasses killed by severe winter weather or kill and eat animals weakened by the winter (Frison 2004). As plants become available, grizzlies eat more as the spring progresses (Frison 2004). They eat rodents, newborns, and very young of many animals, especially elk (Frison 2004). Spawning salmonids are a classic grizzly food (Frison 2004). Pine nuts, and army cutworm moths (Euxoa auxilaris) are important late summer foods (Frison 2004: 187-188). Grizzlies are known to love lots of berries, honey, and lily roots, but are highly omnivorous and can learn to exploit many new food sources, including from humans.

GRIZZLY ROPIN’

Grizzlies were hunted by 18th century Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) in California, who threw rawhide reatas (lariats / lassos) from horseback around the bear’s neck (Frison 2004). To bait the grizzlies, the hunters would kill a mare and open its intestines in a spot that bears would find and have little cover or escape holes nearby (Storer and Tevis 1983). Covering the carcass with brush prevented vultures from stealing the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The first night, the bait was left alone so the bears would be less wary and more bears may come (Storer and Tevis 1983). The second night, 2-5 hunters with horses would wait quietly downwind of the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The most experienced bear-hunting horse would notify the hunters when the bear arrived (Storer and Tevis 1983). Then the hunters would ride down and lasso the grizzly around the neck, body, or legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). The rope must be kept taut or the bear can easily remove the lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983). Larger grizzlies required multiple lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983).

Despite extreme danger to horse and man, the horses displayed “remarkable …sagacity and skill” in the hunt, and “delight in mastery of the bear” (Storer and Tevis 1983). Experienced bear hunting horses exhibited great agility dodging the lasso ropes being violently pulled about that could otherwise disastrously entangle their legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). Such horses would not run away from or to the side of attacking bears, instead knowing it is easier to wait until the last moment while directly facing the grizzly, then leap over it completely, and turn around to face the grizzly before it did (Storer and Tevis 1983). Grizzly hunting horses would tremble with loud heartbeats from as soon as a bear is seen til the moment it was taut on the lasso, when it would then be in the highest glee (Storer and Tevis 1983). Damn, horsey! I guess that’s why horses (especially stallions) were so useful for mounted warfare. I think it was Cormac McCarthy who wrote something like “a man doesn’t know the true spirit of horses until he has been into battle with one.”

An account of a bear taken this way describes how it was then brought down to a ranch and secured by its hind feet to a sturdy timber and had its forepaws tied to a strong stake: “The bear lay with his head between his huge paws, covering his eyes, save occasionally, when he would furtively lift his eyes, like a sulky child, to look at his captors; then covering his eyes again, remain a moment, and steal another look. Soon he gave heavy sighs, and some one said, ‘He is dying! … he is not wounded, but his heart breaks—he dies of rage.’ And, in a few moments he had breathed his last…” (Storer and Tevis 1983).

CA GOLDEN BEARS

Depredation of livestock by grizzlies whose former forest had been razed for rangelands incited the killing off of grizzlies from much of their former range in America (Frison 2004: 52, 189). Formerly, grizzly populations were denser in California than anywhere else in the world. The largest individual grizzlies ever recorded were from California. Many grizzlies in California had a golden yellow or light brown coat, and became known as the “golden bear” (CA is the “golden state”). The golden bear was first featured on a flag in California during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, which made California a Republic. The Bear Flag became the state flag of California in 1911 and the last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County, CA in August 1922. Over thirty years later, in 1953, the golden bear became the state animal of California.

INDIANS AND BEARS

The California Indians had a really different relationship with grizzlies. Their similarity to man, both in appearance and diet, made the Indians much more aware of their kinship, calling them brothers. It was said that the first men learn to fish from the heron, to hunt from the coyote, etc. but some foolish hunter killed the bear before they could learn its trick of sleeping all winter, so now they have to tough out the cold and hunger.

Women out gathering were really likely to encounter bears since they were often after the same foods; berries and roots. Especially in manzanita berry season, when bears basically lived in the manzanita groves in which the women would go out to each day to pick. When a grizzly or other bear was encountered, it was addressed in a normal voice something like; hey bear, I’m just out picking berries too, don’t mess with me; go away, leave us alone. Then the bear would go away or the people would. Sometimes though, some ornery old boar or sow with cubs would get aggressive. In such a case, a good tree would be climbed, or a hunter would try to kill the bear.

Here’s one bear fight story: mountain mohogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) wood is extremely hard, and used for making arrow foreshafts, digging sticks, and clubs (Chesnut 1902). One Indian reported how when he was a small child, a grizzly threatened his father and him, whereupon his father placed him into a high fork of a tree for protection, and when the bear charged the man, he waited til the last instant, then leaped aside, simultaneously striking the bear’s leg with his mountain mahogany club (Chesnut 1902). Enraged, the bear continued its charging attacks, and the man repeated clubbing its legs one by one until the bear was crippled, and could no longer walk (Chesnut 1902). At this point, the man walked up to the stricken bear and clove its skull with a mighty blow, instantly killing it (Chesnut 1902).

Now that’s so much more hardcore than lassoing the poor bear with your mounted buddies out on a trip just to torture and kill bears.

Many Indians bore old scars from wounds inflicted in bear fights. The Fresh roots of Oregon ash (Fraxinus oregana) were mashed and used by the Yokia Indians to cure wounds inflicted in fights with bears (Chesnut 1902).

Even polar bears were hunted and killed by the Inuit. They would exploit the bear’s relative inferior mobility while swimming and harpoon the bear from their kayak.

Another effective, but cruel, trick of the Inuit for polar bear hunting was to carve out a thin, wide strip of springy whalebone about a foot or so long, then roll it into a fist-sized ball, keeping it that shape by covering it with fat, then tying a string around it and freezing it. When the fat froze it kept the bone rolled up and the string was untied, and more fat applied and frozen around it. Then they simply left the ball somewhere the bear would find it, whereupon the bear would swallow it whole, thinking it was just a tasty ball of fat treat. But once its body heat and stomach acids melted the fat, the whalebone would spring back out into its long shape, puncturing the bears stomach and intestines, making it die a slow and painful death. Then the Inuit would track it from the spot they left the ball and collect a massive pile of meat and bones, and its huge pelt.

References:

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Frison, G. C. 2004. Survival by hunting: prehistoric human predators and animal prey. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Storer, T. I., and L. P. Tevis, Jr. 1983. California grizzly. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA.

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