USGS Logo Geological Survey Professional Paper 670
John Wesley Powell and the Anthropology of the Canyon Country


As we noted above, Powell made observations on most of the Numic-speaking bands in the Canyon Country and the Great Basin, but he knew the Southern Paiute, especially the Kaibab, Shivwits, and Uinkarets bands, best. Powell learned many things from Chuarumpeak (fig. 6), the leader of the Kaibab band, who accompanied Powell on a number of trips.

Powell was the first observer to systematically record details of the customs, practices, and beliefs of many of the Indians of the Canyon Country and the Great Basin. His early observations, at a time when many of the Indian groups were first coming into contact with whitemen, are invaluable to an understanding of the Indian cultures of the Canyon Country.

Powell intended to write a general ethnographic monograph on the "Numa," as he called the Numic-speaking peoples, paying special attention to the "Ute," by which he meant the peoples we have herein called the Northern and Southern Ute and Southern Paiute. Increasing administrative and other duties, however, kept Powell from completing the task. Several manuscripts of the intended study remain in the Smithsonian Institution Department of Anthropology archives and have recently been edited and prepared for publication (Fowler and Fowler, 1969b). The following sections are taken from those manuscripts. They represent part of the material Powell prepared on the "Ute" people of the Canyon Country and are in his words.

"Means of Subsistence"

"The food of the Utes consists of a very great variety of articles such as nuts, seeds, fruits, fleshy stalks of plants, bulbs, roots, inner bark of trees; many mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and insects. In autumn when the nuts of the piñon pine are ripening, and before they have sufficiently matured to drop from the trees, the cones containing them are gathered and thrown in the fire, where they are left until the cones are somewhat charred, and the nuts partially roasted. They are then raked from the fire and separated from the charred chaff by picking them out with the fingers when they are ready for use.

"In seasons when these are abundant, great stores are laid away, or cached, for the winter. Usually these nuts receive no further preparation, but sometimes they are slowly and thoroughly roasted in a manner which will hereafter be described in explaining the preparation of smaller seeds. The nuts thus roasted are ground and made into mush by boiling the meal in basket jars heated with hot stones. Sometimes the meal is made into cakes and baked in the ashes. Perhaps no vegetable food is more highly prized than this.

"In the region inhabited by the most southern Pai Utes two species of leguminous plants are found in great abundance; the popular names of these plants are mesquite [Prosopis juliflora glandulosa] and mescrew [Prosopis pubescens]. These shrubs bear great quantities of pods which contain small seeds like the forest locust, the pod itself though much smaller contains a saccharine substance something like the honey locust. The pods and seeds are gathered and ground together in a flour and afterward used as mush or made into cakes. Very often these cakes instead of being baked in the fire, are sun dried and kept on hand for quite a lengthy period.

"The seeds of a very great variety of weeds and grasses are used for food; the method of gathering these will first be described. They are collected chiefly by the women and children. For this purpose a large conical basket holding from two to three bushels is used; it is carried on the back with a strap over the head [fig. 5]. Into this the seeds are placed from time to time as they are collected in a smaller basket of the same shape holding about two gallons. This is carried in the left hand and the seeds are swept into it with a little fan held in the right hand.

"Sometimes where the plants bearing the seeds are very bushy the entire clump will be pulled up by the roots and is then beaten against the edge of the basket so that the seeds fall within. By these methods a large basket will be filled in one or two hours where seeds are found in abundance. The gleaner will then repair to the camp where the seeds are winnowed. This process is as follows: A gallon or more is placed in a large shallow tray and a handful or two of finely powdered charcoal or ashes sprinkled over them, and the whole is then tossed in such a manner that [as] the chaff is carried to the edge of the tray it is blown off by the wind. In this winnowing the women become quite dextrous. When the greater part of the chaff has been blown away any little remnant that may be left is blown off with the mouth. Then the ashes and charcoal dust are removed in the same way—that is by blowing with the mouth as the seeds are tossed, and the grains of charcoal are gathered on one side in a line around the bottom of the heap by deftly shaking the whole, and then raked off with the fingers. In this manner from a peck to a half a bushel of clean seed will be separated from the large basket of unwinnowed material brought in from the fields, and not infrequently a day's labor is rewarded with three or four pecks of seeds.

"The seeds are now ready to be roasted; for this purpose another and smaller tray is used in which two or three quarts are placed and about the same amount of live coals are raked from the fire into the tray. The woman then seizes the tray with both hands and tosses the whole mass in such a way that the coals are gently fanned and the seeds kept in constant motion, so that they cannot be burned. This process is continued ten or fifteen minutes until they are thoroughly roasted. Many of them swell and burst open so that the bulk is much increased and the seeds that were gray and brown and black when placed in the tray are now of a beautiful white color like a quantity of pop corn.

"When roasted in this way the seeds are ready to be ground. For this purpose two mealing stones are used, one a flat slab about fourteen by twenty inches in size called a mar; the other a small oblong stone more or less rounded and held in the hands: This is called a mo-a [fig. 18]. The woman when grinding sits on the ground sometimes with her legs stretched out at full length, but usually doubled back, so that her toes and front part of her foot are prone on the ground and her heels beside her haunches so that she does not sit upon her feet but quite down upon the ground. The mar is then placed between her legs, the farther edge resting on a tray called ta-kwi-o-goats. Another tray holding the roasted seeds is near by, and from it she takes a small quantity and puts it in the mar and rapidly grinds the seed into a meal, dextrously separating the finer from the coarser and unground seeds, and at the same time pushing the meal thus separated over the edge of the stone into the tray. Sometimes a little child sits by and slowly feeds this mill with a little horn dipper, while the woman works away singing merrily, or scolding her lord or screaming her orders to the household. Sometimes the meal is eaten without further preparation. In such a case, the tray is placed in the camp where the household gather about it, each one helping himself by taking up a small pinch with his thumb and two fingers and deftly tossing it into his mouth. Mark, I say 'tossed into his mouth' for it is quite rare that such food is placed there, as it is thrown in with a jerk.

FIGURE 18.—Kaibab Paiute woman working with metate and mano, grinding seeds into meal. Photograph by J. K. Hillers, 1873, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

"At other times the meal is cooked in a kind of mush, for which purpose it is placed in a basket jar, and boiled with hot stones, in which form it is usually eaten with horn spoons, without waiting for it to be cooled. It never ceased to be a matter of astonishment to me to see how this hot boiling mush could be eaten, without producing any signs of pain from burning or scalding, which seemed to be inevitable.

"A species of cactus (opuntia) is very abundant in some parts of the country and it bears a beautiful crimson apple; very juicy and quite luscious. The fruit is beset with minute spines which are barbed. In gathering this fruit great pains are taken to divest them of their armiture [sic], and a little brush is made of a bundle of wire grass for this purpose. When the spines are carefully brushed off the fruit is gathered into a basket and carried into camp where the juice is expressed from the pulp which is afterwards formed into rolls or large lumps and sometimes dried for winter use.

"The mesquelle [mescal or agave] is a very important article in the food of these people. The Indian name for this plant is yant. The season in which it is found is one of great scarcity, for it usually formed in the spring, and the regions where it is found in abundance are often called Ta-mun Ka-ni'-ga.

"The plant has a fleshy stalk or crown, from which spring a number of bayonet shaped leaves and from the lower part of the stalk, fine roots penetrate the ground. A large seed stalk rises from the centre of the crown, the last year of the life of the plant, which derives its chief nourishment from the store of material previously prepared in the crown. Early in the spring, before this plant starts its growth, this stalk is very rich, and it is then when it is gathered for food. The older the plant is before the stalk is started, the richer it will be found, but after the stalk is grown it is no longer valued.

"The plant is gathered by taking a sharp stick and driving it down with a large stone through the crown, and then the mesquelle is wrenched from the ground, and whilst it is yet on the stalk the bayonet leaves and rootlets are trimmed off. When five or six crowns are thus gathered on one stick they are carried into camp. There they are roasted in the ashes. When roasted the whole is composed of a treacle-like substance held together by a great number of fibres. They are placed on trays and cut into strips and the saccharine material is sucked out. I once heard a white man say that this way of eating the mesquelle was very much like sucking molasses with a straw broom.

"This food is considered a very great luxury by the Indians, and the time of gathering the yant is a season of great festivity. In early spring they repair to the region where it is found in abundance, and collected in great quantities. Many bushels are sometimes brought into camp by the tribe in a single day. While the women are collecting the plant the men dig a pit, and in it they build a large fire and the pit is kept full of live coals and hot ashes. Just at daybreak these embers are raked out to the sides so as to form a deep hollow in the centre and into this the crowns are thrown and covered with the coals and ashes. Stones which have been previously heated around the fire are then thrown over them, and the loose dry earth about the fire is piled over all. All this is done with some ceremony. Here the plants are allowed to remain for twenty-four hours. From time to time a woman will thrust a stick into the mound and stir it up a little as if to give vent to gases that may have generated within. At dawn the next morning the yant is ready for use and the little tribe gathers in a circle around the heap and sings the yant song and dances the yant dance, which lasts for an hour or more. Then the pit is opened and they have a great feast. This dancing and singing and feasting is continued until the whole pit is exhausted, and another collection is then made.

"Animal Food"

"The flesh of the grizzly bear is esteemed very highly, and the hunter who succeeds in killing one is considered a great hero. They are now killed by fire arms but the Indians aver that they were formerly killed with arrows, and they tell many stories of the prowess of their fore-fathers in attacking and killing these huge animals. It seems that all the men of the tribe turned out on such occasions.

"The flesh of the elk, antelope, mule deer, mountain sheep, beaver, otter, three or four species of rabbits, badger, prairie dog, porcupine, and some other animals are deemed to be good food. The wolf, fox, swift, mountain lion, wild cat and others are eaten only in times of great scarcity but when very hungry the Indian will refuse no kind of meat.

"The Indian as a hunter exhibits great patience and his success is due chiefly to this characteristic. He walks in a crouching attitude through the woods or over the plains with almost noiseless step. His practiced eye discovers the tracks or sees an animal at a great distance, and when the game is discovered he will walk around for a long distance to get in such a position that the deer will be to the windward. Great care is taken to crawl upon the deer so as not to frighten him, and for this purpose an Indian will often crawl upon the ground many hundred yards so managing that the little trees and bushes even, or the inequalities of the ground, will cover his approach.

"He never discharges his gun or shoots an arrow from a distance, but if the deer occupies some position so that he cannot get quite near enough to him without exposing himself he will lie down and gently wait until his position is changed, even though it may be necessary to wait in such a place for hours.

"When any large game is killed it is sometimes skinned, dressed, cut into pieces, and hung up on a tree, the hunter himself rarely carrying but a portion into camp. This is done very quickly and the Indian proceeds on the hunt. When he returns to camp, as he usually does without game he seems to be able to describe on which [tree] it is cached in such a way that the woman can go to it unerringly.

"When a party goes out to hunt in company he who may be successful in killing the game is entitled to the skin but the flesh is divided equally among all the people. When it is brought into camp, the successful hunter himself cuts up the game and sends the several portions to those persons to whom it should be given.

"Clubs, javelins, sling stones, and arrows were formerly used by the Indians in the hunt, but all these articles except the bow and arrow are now superceded by fire arms. They still use a small stick like a cane with a curved handle for the purpose of pulling rabbits from their burroughs.

"The sage plants of the territory inhabited by the Utes are the homes of vast numbers of rabbits, and they have means by which a great many of these are caught. They form a very important article of food and their skins are made into robes. The fibres of two or three species of plants are twisted into cords and with these cords large nets are made, something like a fishing seine about three feet wide and from four to six hundred yards in length. Often a number of such nets are used together. They are placed so as to enclose a semicircular piece of ground, the whole length of the combined nets often being more than half a mile. Wings of brush are then extended on either side and the whole tribe, men, women and children, turn out and surround a large space, probably several square miles, and advance concentrically toward the net beating the bushes and shouting and screaming. The rabbits are started up and they shoot at them with arrows, killing one now and then, and driving the remainder into the net where they are entangled and shot. From two or three to twenty rabbits may be caught at one drive in this way. The owner of a section of net is entitled to the skin of the rabbit caught in his portion, but the meat is divided among all the families of the tribe.

"Another little net is used. [It is] sack-like in form with its mouth pinned or staked over the burrough of the rabbit, which on coming out is entangled in the meshes of the snare.

"In seasons of the year when the skins of these rabbits are comparatively worthless for clothing, the flesh is prepared for eating by throwing the rabbit on the fire without removing the entrails or taking off the skin. The fur is soon burned off and when the body is fairly warmed through it is ready to be eaten. It is then opened and the entrails taken out. The intestines are emptied of their contents by taking the long gut between the fingers which are tightly compressed. The pouch is cut open and turned inside out. They are then put on the fire and roasted to a crisp and are considered the most desirable part of the animal except, perhaps, the brain.

"Grasshoppers and crickets form a very important part of the food of these people. Soon after they are fledged and before their wings are sufficiently developed for them to fly, or later in the season when they are chilled with cold, great quantities are collected by sweeping them up with brush brooms, or they are driven into pits, by beating the ground with sticks. When thus collected they are roasted in trays like seeds and ground into meal and eaten as mush or cakes. Another method of preparing them is to roast great quantities of them in pits filled with embers and hot ashes, much in the same manner as yant is prepared for consumption. When these insects are abundant, the season is one of many festivities. When prepared in this way these insects are considered very great delicacies.

"Earth worms gathered in the same way and treated as lizards are very often dried for winter use.

"Birds eggs are eaten wherever found and if incubation is nearly complete they are much preferred.

"Most of the tribes of Pai Utes still continue to cultivate the soil to a greater or lesser extent, raising ka-mout [Camote], corn, and squashes. The little patches of ground selected for this purpose are situated in the vicinity of springs which are utilized for purposes of irrigation. Corn is planted sometimes in the sand eighteen or twenty inches deep; two or three seeds are planted in a hole, and when the plants come up, they branch just below the ground, so that there are usually fifteen or twenty stalks and each one will often bear a small ear of corn. After planting no further attention is given to any of the crops until they are harvested.

"Doubtless in former years before the introduction of fire arms, all the Indians paid much more attention to this mode of gaining a subsistence. An old man told me this and mourned greatly the degeneracy of his people and affirmed that they were much more prosperous and happy in the old days than at the present time.

"Courtship and Marriage"

"There are two methods of marriage. One is to steal the maiden and the other is to fight for her. Even if the maiden and all her friends are willing there is always a semblence of disapproval and so it is necessary that the girl should be taken by one of three methods. There are two words for marriage, one signifying pulling, the other conquering.

"The fighting occurs when there are rivals.

"Two men desire the same girl, and it is arranged that they shall determine the matter by wager or battle.

"Each party enlists a number of his friends and that they shall determine the matter by wager or feast and dance. Then one of the suitors walks out into the plain and in boastful language challenges his rival, ending with the expression,

'Fighting is the tool by which I
gain my living, I tell you!'

"Then the rival steps forth boasting of his prowess, and of that of his friends and ending with the same expression A-near-ti-tik-a-nump-kwaik-ai-ger. 'Fighting is the tool by which I gain my living I tell you!' and the combat commences.

"No weapons are allowed and when either champion falls not another blow must be struck, but the conqueror immediately repeats his challenge, and another champion enters the ring, and so the fighting is continued until one or the other of the parties is conquered. Fair dealing in these contests is always inculcated, but it often happens that in the heat of the contest one or the other party does something which is considered against the rules and a general fight in terrible earnest ensues.

"The girls are invariably married very young, and when the elder sister is married, and she is always taken first, the husband is entitled to all the sisters as they grow up and come to a marriageable age. But the oldest son is also married first, and all his brothers as they come to a marriageable age are also entitled to his wives, so that a family of boys marries a family of girls, but usually a division of the girls is made among the boys, though this is not always the case. Still as they come up, he may have to fight for them, and may be willing to relinquish them without a fight, but such is usually not the case."

Mythology and Beliefs

Powell was very much interested in the myths and tales told by the Indians and in their conceptions of the spirit world. In his narrative of his trip in 1870 to the Uinkarets Plateau, he relates how he induced the Indians to tell their myths (Powell, 1875c, p. 667):

"Having finished our business for the evening, I asked if there was a 'tu-gwe-wa-gunt' in camp—that is, if there was anyone present who was skilled in relating their mythology. Chuar said that To-mor-ro-un-ti-kai, the chief of these Indians, the Uinkarets, was a very noted man for his skill in this matter; but they both objected, by saying that the season for tu-gwe-nai had not yet arrived. [Tales were usually told only in wintertime.] But I had anticipated this, and soon some members of the party came with pipes and tobacco, a large kettle of coffee, and a tray of biscuits, and after sundry ceremonies of pipe-lighting and smoking, we all feasted; and, warmed up by this (to them unusual) good living, it was decided that the night should be spent in relating mythology."

Powell gathered many myths and tales from the Indians, as well as their beliefs about the country in which they lived, including explanations of the boundaries of the earth and of the topography and the peopling of the earth.

"The Boundaries of the Earth"

"The region of country inhabited by the Utes has some very remarkable topographic features, and it is necessary to bring out these in order to appreciate their ideas of the form and boundaries of the world.

"These features are towering cliffs, or bold escarpments of rock, often hundreds of miles long, and hundreds or thousands of feet high. The faces of these cliffs are in many places vertical. These cliffs are the boundaries or edges of mesas and high plateaux. This region of country is also traversed by deep chasms, the channels of the streams which drain the country. These streams usually have a great depth below the general surface of the country, often hundreds and thousands of feet. The Grand Cañon, one of the features with which they are very familiar, is from four to five thousand feet in depth, and more than two hundred miles in length, and the whole country is cut by a labyrinth of these deep gorges. The Indian name for these cliffs is Mu-kwan-a-kunt. The earth they believe to be bounded on the west by such a line of cliffs. That is, by going beyond the sea in this direction, you climb to a summit of a mesa and then look off from the brink of the cliffs where the world ends. They believe too that these cliffs are very treacherous, that there are projecting rocks at the summit that are delicately balanced and that too inquisitive people in looking over the brink have fallen over and gone—ah! they know not where.

"The middle of the world is the Kaibab Plateau, the home of the Pa Utes, or true Utes as the word signifies.

"The eastern edge of the world is a line of cliffs like that on the west. It may seem strange, but in talking with them I have never been able to obtain from them any ideas of what they supposed might be the northern and southern boundaries * * * Their usual reply is, 'The ancients never told us about a northern and southern end to the ground'

"The Origin of the Cañons of the Colorado"

"Many years ago when wise and good men lived on the earth, the great Chief of all the Utes lost his beloved wife.

"Day and night he grieved, and all his people were sad. Then Rabbit [Ta-vwoats]10 (one of the dignitaries in the mythology) appeared to the chief and tried to comfort him, but his sorrow could not be allayed. So at last Rabbit promised to take him to a country away to the southwest where he said his dead wife had gone and let him see how happy she was if he would agree to grieve no more on his return. So he promised. Then Rabbit took his magical ball and rolled it before him, and as it rolled it rent the earth and mountains, and crushed the rocks and made a way for them to that beautiful land—a trail through the mountains which intervened between that home of the dead and the hunting grounds of the living. And following the ball, which was a rolling globe of fire, they came at last to the Spirit Land. Then the great Chief saw his wife and the blessed abode of the Spirits where all was plenty and all was joy, and he was glad.

10The animal characters all had human personalities and could talk in the mythical "ancient times," but their descendents are said to have lost these attributes. Powell used the Indian names for the characters in the myths; for example, "Ta-vwoats" or Rabbit. For clarity the English names have been substituted with an indication in brackets of the Indian name.

"Now when they had returned Rabbit enjoined upon the chief that he should never travel this trail again during life, and that all his people should be warned not to walk therein. Yet still he feared that they would attempt it so he rolled a river into trail—a mad raging river into the gorge made by the globe of fire, which should overwhelm any who might seek to enter there.

"The Origin of the Mountains, Valleys, [and] Cañons"

"Originally the surface of the Earth was a smooth plain, but one day Coyote [Shin-au-av] told Hawk [Kusav] to place the latter's quiver at a short distance from where they stood that it might be used as a mark, at which he would shoot. Then Coyote sent an arrow from his bow which struck the quiver, but glanced and plowed its way about the face of the earth in every conceivable direction, digging deep gorges and cañons, making valleys, plowing up mountains, hills, and rocks. In this way the water courses were determined and the hills and mountains made and huge rocks were scattered about the country.

"Origin of the Pai-Utes"

"The Pai-Utes have a number of stories about an Old Woman of the Sea, many of which I have not been able to understand. One has been told me several times, and it is believed the substance has been obtained.

"Old Woman of the Sea [Si-chom-pa Ka-gon] came out of the sea with a sack filled with something and securely tied. Then she went to the home of the Shin-au-av brothers [Wolf and Coyote] carrying her burden with her, which was very heavy, and bent her nearly to the ground. When she found the brothers she delivered to them the sack and told them to carry it into the middle of the world and open it, and enjoined upon them that they should not look into it until their arrival at the designated point and there they would meet Rabbit [Ta-vwoats], who would tell them what to do with it. Then the Old Woman went back to the sea disappearing in the waters.

"Wolf gave the sack to Coyote and told him to do as the Old Woman had directed, and especially enjoined upon him that he must not open the sack lest some calamity should befall him. He found it very heavy and with great difficulty he carried it along by short stages and as he proceeded, his curiosity to know what it contained became greater and greater. 'Maybe,' said he, 'it is sand; maybe it is dung! who knows but what the old woman is playing a trick!' Many times he tried to feel the outside of the sack to discover what it contained. At one time he thought it was full of snakes; at another, full of lizards. 'So,' said he, 'it is full of fishes.' At last his curiosity overcame him and he untied the sack, when out sprang hosts of people who passed out on the plain shouting and running toward the mountain. Coyote overcome with fright, threw himself down on the sand. Then Rabbit suddenly appeared and grasping the neck of the sack tied it up, being very angry with Coyote. 'Why,' said he, 'have you done this? I wanted these people to live in that good land to the east and here, foolish boy, you have let them out in a desert.'

"There were yet a few people left in the sack and Rabbit took it to the Kaibab Plateau to the brink of the Grand Canyon and there took out the remainder where the food was abundant on the cliffs, and herds of game wandered in the forests.

"These are the Pai-Utes, the true Utes, the others have scattered over the world and live in many places."

Powell collected other data on the Ute, Southern Paiute, and other Indians of the Canyon Country and the Great Basin. Much of it consists of vocabulary lists, lists of chiefs and headmen, myths and tales, and miscellaneous notes. It is lamentable that Powell never found time to complete his intended monograph on the "Numa." He clearly knew more than he wrote down, but the knowledge died with him.

Nevertheless, Powell called attention to the anthropology of the Canyon Country—the silent ruins of past cultures, as well as the historic tribes—and to the need for systematic study of these cultures and peoples. Others have heeded the call and taken up the work. The Canyon Country and adjacent areas are one of the best known areas of North America anthropologically. A large part of the accumulated anthropological data was gathered by employees of Powell's Bureau of American Ethnology, who continued the work begun by Powell. The knowledge gained by these persons, as well as by later workers from many other institutions, serves well as a fitting monument to Powell—the first anthropologist of the Canyon Country.

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Last Updated: 13-Jan-2009