Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Two:
The Native Americans and the Land

Native Americans of the Southern Sierra

At the beginning of the nineteenth century two distinct groups of people occupied the southern Sierra Nevada. In the higher mountains, and also down into the western foothills, lived hunters and gatherers remembered today as the Monache or Western Mono. West of the Monache in the lowest foothills and also across the expanses of the Great Central Valley were a second group, the Yokuts. The Monache and Yokuts were separated by language and history. The Yokuts spoke a Penutian language, which related them to many other loosely organized tribes of interior California, while the Monache language makes it clear that their ancestors were relatives of the Shoshone or Paiutes who still occupy the Great Basin east of the Sierra.

map of Native American groups
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The Monache apparently were fairly recent arrivals on the western side of the Sierra. Their language still strongly resembled that of the Owens Valley Paiute immediately east of the Sierra. Certainly, if the two groups had been separated for a long time, their two languages would have begun to diverge.

The Owens Valley Paiute, or Eastern Mono, were a well-established desert culture relying for their survival upon a variety of resources. Their main villages occupied sites near streams in the dry desert valleys east of the Sierra, where they lived largely on a diet of gathered seeds, fish, and game. Nuts from the pinyon pines that grew extensively in the desert mountains east of the Owens Valley and the eastern foothills of the Sierra were an important food staple. Rich in fats and calories, the nuts are one of the few foods of the early Native Americans of California still to be consumed in any volume today. [3]

The pursuit of pine nuts and game, as well as the summer climate of the desert valleys where they made their homes, often sent the Eastern Mono into the high mountains. The Sierra, with its pinyon-forested eastern foothills and herds of deer and bighorn sheep, certainly attracted these people. The Eastern Mono had other reasons to ascend into the high Sierra, and perhaps even cross the range, for west of the high peaks were other peoples with goods to trade. A surprising amount of Native American commerce seems to have occurred across the high ridges of the southern Sierra. From the east, the Owens Valley Paiute brought salt, pine nuts, mineral paints, obsidian, and many other critical items not obtainable west of the mountains. Traded eastward across the mountain were other unique commodities, including fresh and saltwater shells, acorns, manzanita berries, and bear skins. This trade benefited both groups and increased their contact with each other. Modern archaeological work confirms the pattern. Most westside arrow points, for example, were fashioned of obsidian that came from the east slope or desert, while desert camps, when excavated today, almost always include fragments of jewelry made from seashells.

Eventually, for reasons that today can only be surmised, some Eastern Mono people began to winter west of the Sierran Crest. In some ways the change was not a big one, for the Mono pattern had long been to winter in the lowlands and range higher during the warm summer months. Perhaps they were invited west; perhaps the west slope enticed them with its wetter but less severe winter climate; perhaps a portion of the tribe found itself cut off from the desert by an early winter and sought refuge. We shall probably never know. The date, too, of this change is not completely clear, but appears to have been about 500 or 600 years ago. Interestingly the apparent division of the Mono into western and eastern bands came at about the same time as the onset of the Little Ice Age, with its increased snowfall and resumption of southern Sierran glaciation. Changes in Native American cultures also occurred at this time, not only in the Sequoia-Kings region but also throughout the central and southern Sierra.

Whatever their initial reasons for developing winter settlements west of the Sierra Crest, the Monache successfully adapted to the available resources of their new home. Their pattern of establishing permanent villages at relatively low altitudes and then ranging much higher during the summer months fit easily to the west slope. The intense cold and heavy snow found above 5,000 feet on the west slope required that the permanent villages of the Western Mono be located in the foothill region. Central Valley village sites were already occupied by the much more numerous Yokuts, a group perhaps ten times the size of the Mono, and far too large to displace from their main residences; thus the Western Mono established over time a line of winter village sites in the middle foothills of the west slope. Several of these village sites, including Hospital Rock and Potwisha along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, are now within Sequoia National Park. Other Western Mono groups located permanent villages on foothill lands along the North Fork of the Kaweah and in the lower Kings River watershed. [4]

The Western Mono did not displace the Yokuts from their main homelands along the lower stretches of the Kaweah and Kings rivers and around Tulare Lake. But they probably did displace them from the foothill areas they previously had occupied. Certainly, as we have noted, these areas had already witnessed human activity before the arrival of the Monache. The oldest and deepest archaeological sites on the western slope generally show a significant cultural change around the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Many aspects of physical culture altered, and the brownware pottery of the desert Paiutes began to show up where none previously had been seen.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap2a.htm — 12-Jul-2004