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

The Western Mono

If the Monache brought new technology to the west slope, however, they also were forced to adapt to different natural resources. In this shift they inevitably looked to many of the techniques already developed by the long-time residents of the less arid western foothill environment. Many different plants were present, and many familiar ones missing. The staple pinyon nuts occurred only in a few isolated areas, but several varieties of oak provided often enormous annual crops of nutritious acorns. The technology was different, however, for, unlike pine nuts, the acorns had to be treated to make them edible. Acorn meal ultimately became the single most important food staple for the Monache. Similar shifts in hunting habits were required for different game.

Over several centuries the Western Mono effectively adapted to life west of the Sierran crest. By the time Europeans arrived on the scene, the Monache had divided into approximately six distinct bands, united by language but by no apparent political structure. Three of these bands were north and west of present Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and are not a part of our story; the other three lived in or near areas that are now part of the two parks. The Wobonuch lived in the foothill country west of Grant Grove that drains mostly north into the Kings River. South of the divide between the Kings and Kaweah rivers, occupying the upper foothill valleys near the head of the North Fork of the Kaweah, resided the Waksachi. Occupying the remainder of the Kaweah watershed were the Potwisha (also variously spelled Patwisha or Balwisha).

To the west of all the Monache, on the floor of the Great Central Valley itself, Yokut bands dominated, as they also did in the Tule River mountain country, the next Sierran drainage south of the Kaweah. In the Kern River country, well south of what is now national park land, the Tubatulabal, another Paiute-Shoshonean group, made their permanent homes. [5]

The Potwisha are the best known and remembered of the Monache bands in the parks region. Apparently, they ranged throughout the watersheds of the Marble, Middle, East, and South forks of the Kaweah. The western boundary of their world, which they shared with the Yokuts, was approximately where Terminous Reservoir is today. The Potwisha exploited their native range in a thoroughly omnivorous fashion. No plants were cultivated for food, although some plant manipulation, including use of fire, may have been helped increase yields. Actually, there was little in either the plant or animal kingdoms that was not occasionally consumed. Acorns were the staple of their diet. Several species were consumed, but general preference went to the nuts of the black oak (Quercus kellogii) of the upper foothills. Acorn crops varied annually in abundance and quality, and the various Monache bands learned to store the nuts in specially designed granaries. Because they contain tannic acid, acorns required water leaching before they could be consumed. This usually was accomplished through a process that began with grinding them into flour and then continued through a hot-water treatment to the resulting flour. The deacidified flour was then used to make gruels and cakes. Many other plants were used seasonally, including pine nuts, yucca, and manzanita berries.

Hunting provided another critical food source, and many creatures were pursued. Larger mammals were sought with the bow and arrow. Bows commonly were made of California laurel, although more elaborate ones of western juniper reinforced with deer sinew also were fabricated. Obsidian for arrow points usually came through trade from the Owens Valley area. The addition of certain substances to arrowheads resulted in poisoned points, which were not uncommon. Sun-dried deer liver, sometimes fortified with rattlesnake venom, was the most common toxin. Deer provided the most useful targets, being relatively plentiful and having many useful parts, but various other animals also were taken. Through the year, deer might be taken by arrow or trap, bears ambushed as they came out of winter dens, migratory fish forced into weirlike woven traps, and small rodents smoked out of their tunnels. Generally the environment provided abundant food during much of the year. [6]

Befitting the usually gentle climate, housing and clothing were simple. Small domelike thatched shelters or conical houses of cedar bark were most common. Villages of any size normally had sweat houses, which were sometimes so popular that groups had to alternate using them. During warm weather, clothing was limited to a few small garments worn below the waist, and moccasins were used only for longer journeys. The largest known Potwisha village apparently occupied the narrow river terrace along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah now known as Hospital Rock. Located at an altitude of 2,700 feet, the site offered a nearly perfect combination of the elements important to Western Mono life. Several types of oak forest, including black oak, grew nearby. The same variety of plant communities provided excellent habitat for game. Immediately below the camp flowed the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, with excellent fishing. Camp water came from the river and from a spring and stream that flowed across the village site. Nature had even provided extra shelter in the form of a talus boulder nearly sixty feet long with a natural cave beneath it.

From their Hospital Rock camp, the Potwisha pursued their seasonal search of food. Individually and in family bands, they wandered widely across the landscape, following traditional foot trail routes they shared with other mountain creatures. During summer and fall Monache often moved into the higher mountains. Here, just as many others have since, they escaped the late summer heat of the lower canyons while they harvested acorns and late summer berries, hunted, and traded with desert Indians who had come into the high country from the east. Throughout the region of the two parks, evidence of summer mountain camps can still be seen. Bedrock mortars, conical holes worn into the rock by the repeated grinding of acorns, pine nuts, and other seeds, are the most common sign of these camps. At major foothill village sites, more than a hundred mortar holes can sometimes be found. Smaller sites are scattered throughout the mid-altitude forests, where modern visitors often discover them. The Wobonuch and Waksachi apparently moved up in summer to areas that include modern Dorst Campground, Grant Grove, and Kings Canyon near Cedar Grove. Bedrock mortars at the sites provide irrefutable evidence. The Potwisha also moved up; their mortar sites are still visible at Giant Forest and Mineral King, among other places.

We can only estimate the total number of Monache to inhabit the parks region. More than fifty years ago pioneer an thropologist A. L. Kroeber of the University of California opined that the Western Mono could not have totaled more than 2,000 individuals in the early nineteenth century, with the Eastern Mono of the Owens Valley region numbering perhaps twice that many. Thus, Kroeber concluded, the total world of the Monos probably did not exceed 6,000 persons. The Yokuts, having the rich biological resources of the Central Valley wetlands to draw upon, were much more numerous. Kroeber estimated 15,000 to 20,000, and some recent estimates are much higher. [7] All this leads to the main question of this chapter, how did these people perceive, react to, and affect the lands that are the subject of this book?


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap2b.htm — 12-Jul-2004