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What John Muir Missed: The Uniqueness of California Indians

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A Cahuilla woman harvests fruit from carefully tended palms in 1905. | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir describes a typically verdant California scene: "I came to a patch of elymus, or wild rye, growing in magnificent waving clumps six or eight feet high, bearing heads six to eight inches long." So far, a classic description of California's fecundity, painted in Muir's usual purple prose.

But there are people in the scene, too, and Muir doesn't quite know how to treat them. "The crop was ripe, and Indian women were gathering the grain … A fine squirrelish employment this wild grain gathering seems, and the women were evidently enjoying it, laughing and chattering and looking almost natural, though most Indians I have seen are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites."

What Muir misses in his description of native women gathering "wild" grain is the same thing nearly all of his European predecessors had missed in similar scenes: these women, probably Mono Lake Paiutes, were not passively gathering nature's “wild” bounty. Instead, they were harvesting a carefully tended field. The extent of the patch, the "magnificently waving clumps," the size and sweetness of the grain — none of these might have existed without centuries of human care and interaction, including intentional burning, sowing, and harvesting.

Accustomed to seeing crops planted in straight rows featuring one or a few different varieties, Muir and his European predecessors were not prepared to recognize this subtler form of horticulture. And so they viewed California Indians as lazily gathering the fat of a landscape they had hardly touched.

Muir would become more sympathetic toward native people as he came to know them better, but on these first encounters with California's first inhabitants he was merely putting a twist on a common — and false — stereotype.

Sierra Miwok Ceremonial Roundhouse at Indian Grinding Rock State Park, completed in 2016 using traditional techniques and used for Miwok cultural events. | Photo: © 2016 Sherwood Harrington, used with permission.

According to this false stereotype, the Indians of California were a sorry lot. Unlike previous native peoples encountered by Spanish and American colonialists, they built no pyramids, no cliff dwellings, and no large earthen mounds. Unlike the Plains Indians, they never adopted the horse culture that captivated Francis Parkman. Instead of driving bison off cliffs in spectacular fashion, they hunted rabbits, squirrels, and sometimes antelope. Apart from the tribes living along the Colorado River, they appeared not to practice agriculture.

Lacking these tokens of what the settlers considered advanced culture, California Indians lived what seemed to whites a mean existence, dwelling mostly in brush huts (sometimes partially underground) and gathering much of their food, eating insects and larvae and digging for edible roots. American immigrants labeled California Indians as “Diggers,” an offensive epithet originally applied to the Shoshone of the Great Basin, but which was quickly used by American trappers and settlers to encompass all the diverse peoples of California. The dehumanization embodied in this stereotype of California Indians helped fuel a century of genocide and enslavement, which reduced California’s Indian population from at least 300,000 in 1769 to 17,000 by 1890.

Like so many stereotypes, this one was based on failure to truly understand the people being stereotyped.

A Lake Pomo woman cooks acorns in front of a tule shelter in 1924. | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

In reality, anthropologists believe that the diverse peoples occupying California represented some of the most advanced hunter-gatherer societies anywhere in the world, so advanced that "hunter-gatherer" is really an inaccurate term for their varied ways of life. They created pictographs (rock paintings) that have lasted hundreds if not thousands of years, petroglyphs (rock etchings) requiring untold labor, and, in the desert, intaglios marked on the earth's surface so large that they’re better viewed from the air. Their creation stories are so complex it takes singers a whole day to tell them. These stories remind California Indians how to interact with the landscape, so that their religion and their means of getting a living might merge in a way of life rooted deeply in place.

Europeans viewed California Indians as having no concept of property, but they did recognize ownership based on usufruct of some resources, while setting others aside for communal purposes. Perhaps most important, as ethnobotanists such as Kat Anderson and Native Californians themselves remind us, they shaped the landscapes in which they lived through their extensive environmental knowledge, equivalent to our botany, ecology, ornithology, entomology, and more.

Other native peoples in North America had their own ways of tending the landscape to support themselves, but in California this indigenous resource management was so sophisticated that the region could support one of the highest densities of native people anywhere in the world. Europeans credited this density to California's remarkable natural fecundity, failing to recognize the ways California had been turned into something like a garden through intentionally set fires, pruning, weeding, broadcast sowing, and harvesting. Even digging for roots and bulbs, the practice so derided by Europeans, was done in specific ways that helped bulb plants reproduce and thrive.

Taken together these techniques modified habitats, changing both the distribution of plant species and their genetic adaptations. Several iconic California landscapes, including mountain meadows, oak savannas, and fan palm groves, owe their appearance and even their very existence to this indigenous resource management.

The Native peoples of California | Map by Timara Lotah Link, who adds: "Although many Native people in California lost their lives and cultures during the Mission and Gold Rush eras, they are reviving their languages, continuing their cultural traditions, and teaching us about this place we call home."

If Europeans overlooked the many ways California's native peoples shaped their environment, they also ignored the diversity of the people themselves. Over 100 different languages were spoken within the modern state boundaries, 70 percent of which were as different from each other as English is from Chinese. Unlike the larger and more unified Plains Indians tribes, most California Indians were organized mainly around village communities of a few families, or sometimes just a single family, resulting in hundreds of distinct groupings. Their dwellings ranged from the much-derided brush shelters to huts thatched with palm fronds to redwood plank houses. Their means of subsistence were as diverse as the state's varied habitats: they grew corn and squash along the Colorado River, roasted agave in the desert, gathered acorns and pine nuts in the mountains and valleys, and fished for salmon in coastal rivers. Speaking of "California Indians" as a single group is absurdly simplistic. Likewise, it's wrong to speak of these activities as things of the past, since many are practiced today and remain vital to the survival of these cultures.

Present-day Native Californians blend traditional ecological knowledge and environmental activism. Photo: Patrick McCully, some rights reserved

After his first summer in California John Muir went on to found the American environmental movement, seeking to preserve those "untouched" landscapes that inspired him. As that movement has evolved, biological diversity has become the main focus of preservation, while cultural survival has often been ignored. But environmentalists and land managers are coming to realize that preservation of the environment and preservation of native cultures may go hand in hand — biological diversity may depend on cultural diversity. Given his increasing respect in later years for indigenous people and their ecological knowledge, I’d like to think John Muir would agree with that.

Banner photo: Sardine Lake, not far from where John Muir encountered and misunderstood those Mono Paiute women. | Photo: Akos Kokai, some rights reserved.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

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