John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter One:

The Northern Paiute

The Northern Paiute, speakers of a Uto-Aztecan language, were also inhabitants of the upper reaches of the John Day River in the early nineteenth century. Anthropological accounts usually confine their residency to the Great Basin, but fur trade diaries document their presence in the John Day region in the 1820s and 1830s and the journals of Lewis and Clark confirm their advance toward the south bank of the Columbia as early as 1805.

Northern Paiutes occupied a vast section of northwestern Nevada and southeastern Oregon. The northern extent of their customary territory included the Crooked River in the Deschutes watershed, streams flowing into Harney and Malheur lakes in the Harney Basin, the Malheur and Owyhee drainages, and a portion of the upper John Day River. They probably held the north slopes of the Aldrich and Strawberry mountains and the bottomlands along the river in the vicinity of Dayville, Mt. Vernon, John Day and Prairie City. Authors of the definitive assessment of these Indians in the Handbook of North American Indians, however, speak of their northern boundary with uncertainty, noting: "On the north, for roughly 300 miles, it continued through an undetermined territory beyond the summits dividing the drainage systems of the Columbia and Snake rivers" (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 435-437).

Of the several groups of Northern Paiute, the Hunipuitoka (or, Walpapi), resided in the Crooked River region, while the Wadatoka inhabited the Harney Basin. Either may have made seasonal use of the John Day, especially its fishery. The Northern Paiute of the Columbia and Snake drainages engaged in subsistence activities virtually identical to their northern neighbors. They caught anadromous fish, dug for roots and bulbs, and hunted large game, especially elk and deer. In the Great Basin they depended upon rabbits, marmots, porcupine, ground squirrels, ducks, geese, trout, and lake fish. In that region their gathering activity was extensive and involved use of an estimated 150 species of plants (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 438-441).

map of Northern Paiute territory
Fig. 4. Hypothetical territory of the Northern Paiute, denoted by solid lines. Note presence along the John Day in the vicinity of Dayville and Prairie City (Ray et al. 1938: 396).

The Northern Paiutes resided in rock shelters (when available) and also constructed conical grass or tule-covered winter lodges over frames of willow poles. They covered the frames with bundles of grasses, leaving a smoke hole and providing a skin-covering for the door. In the summer they found little need for shelter, except in more modern times when they erected a four to six-pole, mat-covered or brush-covered shelter for shade (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 443).

Their clothing had great variation. In summer women normally wore a single or double apron, knee-length and suspended from a belt. They constructed the aprons from twisted and twined sagebrush bark, rushes, or the skins of ducks and coots. People living more distant from lakes made these aprons from the tanned pelts of coyote, badger, or rabbit. "This costume," wrote Fowler and Liljeblad, "along with appropriate foot-wear and basket cap, is probably the oldest in the region for women and was basic in areas where large game was scarce." In the Oregon portion of Northern Paiute country, however, the women more commonly wore buckskin dresses. Men wore breechclouts in summer and added a buckskin shirt in winter. Both men and women wore moccasins, leggings in winter, and capes when the weather was cold. The women in Oregon normally did not wear caps, but the men did, making them from the pelts of small mammals or from the hides of deer, antelope or sheep (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 444-445).

Individual decorations varied but included body tattoos, facial tattoos, ear pendants, eyebrow plucking, and face and body paint, usually reserved for dances as were bone and shell necklaces. Both men and women left their hair loose, but by the 1880s the Plateau influence led both men, and to some extent women, to braid their hair (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 446).

The family was at the center of Northern Paiute social organization. It included the nuclear family of parents and children plus widowed grandparents, unmarried parental siblings, and divorced parental siblings. The family was connected through bilateral kinship traced for three ascending and three descending generations. Groups of two or three families, usually related, made up camp groups and often participated together in the seasonal round. Such groups might become larger in winter and smaller in summer, depending on resources and the needs of the community (Fowler and Liljeblad 1986: 447-448).

Because of the necessity for a dispersed and almost constantly moving lifeway in order to survive, the Northern Paiute political organization was the family. Senior family members determined actions. Family groups, sometimes joining in camps, might act in common cause to acquire food or repel aggression. Pipe smoking was a universal act of bonding and was integrally involved in discussions and decision-making. "Headmanship seems not to have been inheritable in this region," noted Fowler and Liljeblad, "with most groups reporting that upon the death of such an individual, another was selected by consensus" (1986: 450-451).

Isabel T. Kelly during the summer of 1930 worked among the Northern Paiute to collect oral literary materials from three bands or larger groups sharing far-flung but customary geographical areas. The texts of tales of the Kuyuitikad ("Sucker-Eaters"), the Gidutikad ("Groundhog-Eaters"), and the Goyatikad ("Freshwater Crab-Eaters"), a band residing in the Summer and Silver lakes region of Oregon, made up Kelly's "Northern Paiute Tales." The literary corpus included tales of creation, origin of fire and the sweat lodge, seasons, accounts of the constellations, and a large repertoire of coyote stories (Kelly 1938).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002