Tag Archives: American


Crayfish Catching by California Indians

I like to free dive with snorkel and mask, and often find crayfish, which I’ve caught many times by hand (though I usually let them go). I find crayfish delicious, so I did a little research on the methods the California Indians used to catch and eat them.

Freshwater crayfish were eaten by the Indians of Northwestern California. The Yurok Sometimes caught crayfish by fastening a piece of salmon onto the end of a string tied to a pole. This bait was set in the water and when the crayfish grabbed it, they were pulled in. Instead of salmon, sometimes a ball of grass was attached, to which the claws or legs of the crayfish were entangled as they were pulled out of the water. The Karok used this method but with salmon gills as bait.

The Karok trapped crayfish by tying salmon gills above or in a basket that was set beside or under a rock, then lifting the basket out when the crayfish were feeding on the bait. Another Karok trap was a large, openwork, plate-shaped basket, with a four-foot stick attached to the center to keep the basket horizontal when lowered into a still place in the river. Salmon gills were placed on the basket as bait. Once the crayfish were lured onto the basket, it was lifted out quickly.


Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis), the only remaining native crayfish in California, is critically endangered. It’s endemic to Shasta County, where, before widespread environmental damage, it was caught by the Shasta Indians. Most crayfish in CA now are the introduced, invasive, signal crayfish (P. leniusculus).

The Shasta caught crayfish using the same type of trap, except instead of the four-foot stick, several strings were attached to the basket’s edges, and a stone was laid on it with the bait to weigh it down. This trap was used in about four feet of water in the evening. After 10-15 minutes, it was gently pulled to the surface.

Often, crayfish were simply caught by hand by the Yurok and Karok at the water’s edge. The Tolowa caught them by hand under rocks in streams while people were swimming.

The Karok roasted crayfish in ashes or hot coals till they were deep red. The Tolowa cooked them in ashes or in an earth oven. The Shasta boiled them in a basket with hot rocks.


Kroeber, A. L. and S. A. Barrett. 1960. Fishing among the Indians of Northwestern California. Anthropological Records 21(1):1-210. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

A rose by any other name would taste as sweet

California wild rose (Rosa californica) produces fruits (rose hips) in abundance. These were eaten fresh and raw by California Indians. They gathered the fruits from late summer through fall, but considered them best and sweetest after the first cold nights of fall. All rose species (Rosa spp.) have edible fruits. They taste sweet and tart. They are exceptionally high in vitamin C content. They are often dried and made into a tea. Rose petals are also edible and have a light fragrant taste.

California Foragers's photo.
California Foragers's photo.

Wood Sorrel

Redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) is a delicious, sour-sweet herb that grows in redwood forests and similar habitats in California and Oregon.

Its leaves flowers, stems, and roots are all edible and tasty. Its tart flavor is from oxalic acid, which in dietary excess can cause kidney stones. But it’s entirely safe and healthy to eat in moderation, like any other greens.

This plant was gathered to eat by the Kashaya Pomo Indians from February through September.

But before you gather the native redwood sorrel plant, please be mindful of its smaller populations. Instead, I recommend Oxalis pes-caprae (yellow flowers pictured), which is extremely abundant in waste and disturbed areas, lawns, gardens, etc., and is an invasive introduced species.

California Foragers's photo.
California Foragers's photo.

Blackberry Plant Uses

California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) is well-known as a delicious and abundant fruit. The Indians ate it straight off the vine and sometimes dried it for the winter.

But did you know an infusion of its roots are effective at stopping diarrhea? The Little Lake Indians of Mendocino County were known to use its roots in this manner. Diarrhea can quickly kill one via dehydration, so in any survival situation, this would be a great herbal medicine to remember!

 The spines of the young leaves are soft, and these young leaves are edible, although they have a quite astringent taste. They’re best brewed into a mild tea.
The fibers of the stems make pretty good cordage. When you soak them in water and lightly pound them to separate the longitudinal fibers, the spines will come off.
Another use for the fruits is as a dye.
Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) is a common invasive species in California. It’s distinguished by R. ursinus by having larger, thicker spines that are more distantly spaced on the stems.
California Foragers's photo.
California Foragers's photo.

Elderberry Pipes

Elderberry Pipes

Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a fantastic tree to make pipes from. (It also has edible flowers, berries, and many other uses). It’s easy to make pipes from elderberry because it’s inner pith (the central tissue of a large woody stem) is very soft and spongy. To make a pipe, the California Indians would ram the pith of sections of elderberry sticks with sharpened, fire-hardened sticks of a hard wood such as mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides). Such simple tubes of elderberry were packed with tobacco and smoked, or formed the stem of a pipe having a bowl of stone or clay.

I have not read of any Indians making pipes like mine above. I cut sticks in sections just behind a right angle bend, and on the other side of the fork, left room for the pipe stem. So after I formed a tube from the main length, I carved out a bowl from the nub of the fork, and carefully connected the bottom of the bowl to the tube with a thin tube I drilled perpendicular to the first tube. I used a long flathead screwdriver that I sharpened at the tip for the initial drilling, then cleaned out the tubes with a round bastard file. I stained the pipes with linseed oil to protect them. The staining really brings out the beautiful patterns left on the inner bark by bark beetles.

I used only dead, downed wood, so there was no need to dry or season the wood, nor cut any live tissue. The species in the SF Bay Area is Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. The first few uses, I smoked plentiful material and didn’t inhale, in order to “cure” the bowl; leaving it thoroughly burnt inside so future smokes don’t have me inhaling elderberry wood smoke. (The pic shows them freshly cut; after curing the bowls are charred black).

I have been using such pipes for smoking herbal blends for years and prefer them (for functionality) any other I’ve ever owned. I’ve made about six of all sizes. They each took about 30 minutes total work time.

Moldy sugar pine cone hanging from my bookshelf.

Sugar Pine Tree Uses of the California Indians

Pinus lambertiana Dougl. – Sugar Pine

The sugar pine is a titan amongst its august congeners. It is the tallest (70′-200′) and heaviest pine species in the world. It also has the longest pine cones in the world, reaching over two feet long.

It’s range is thick in California and Oregon in the Sierras (reaching Carson City, NV), Northern California mountains, and the Cascades. It’s also found in the coast range of Big Sur, the mountains of Southern California, and into Baja California. Its preferred habitat is slopes in yellow pine forest and red fir forest (Calflora.org). It occurs from 390-9710 ft (Calflora.org), but is more common at higher elevations, about 2500-9000 ft. (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Throughout its range, Indian tribes found the sugar pine tree very useful, even for a pine tree, which are generally species with many edible parts and uses.

The most important resource this species provided were its seeds / pine nuts. These were gathered in the summer (Goodrich et al. 1980). When gathered in sufficient quantity, the large seeds from the long cones are as highly esteemed as those from the Digger pine, Pinus sabiniana (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907). Sugar pine nuts were known to be eaten by Mendocino area Indians, Northern Maidu, Shasta, and Kashaya Pomo (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907, Goodrich et al. 1980). The nuts were eaten fresh or dried for winter (Goodrich et al. 1980). Stored nuts were eaten whole or pounded into a flour and mixed with pinole, a blend of dried and powdered grains and small seeds (Goodrich et al. 1980).

To remove cones from a high tree limb, the Kashaya Pomo used a deer antler lashed to the end of a straight pole (Goodrich et al. 1980). As with other pine species, trees were probably also climbed to cut down branches with cones and shake down cones, in addition to simply picking off the ground.

The pine nuts were steamed in an earth oven by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). A hole was dug, a fire was burned inside it to heat a layer of rocks at the bottom, then the coals and ashes were raked out (Dixon 1907). Then the pine nuts, wrapped in leaves, were placed on the hot rocks (Dixon 1907). Then water was poured in, more hot rocks placed on top, and the whole covered with earth, allowing the oven to steam for several hours (Dixon 1907). The nuts were then dried and stored (Dixon 1907). When wanted to eat, the nuts were pounded fine, winnowed, and made into small cakes (Dixon 1907). Often powdered pine nuts were mixed with powdered salmon (Dixon 1907).

The sap of sugar pine tastes sweet; that is what gave the tree its common name. The sap was eaten and chewed as gum or candy by the Northern Maidu (Dixon 1905), Shasta (Dixon 1907), Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980), and Wintu (Jacknis 2004). It was gathered from spring through fall (Goodrich et al. 1980).

One form of this sap was valued as a medicine. The sugary exudation on partially burned bases of trees was valued for cathartic properties (Chesnut 1902). The sap was also used in making whistles (Goodrich et al. 1980), forming the crucial seal for generating sound. Just as other pine trees, its sap had many different uses as a sealant or mastic, such as hafting obsidian blades to wood handles or arrowheads to a shaft.

Although such a use for this particular species goes unmentioned in ethnographies I have studied so far, the inner bark of all pine trees is edible, and furnishes a easily-gathered, calorie-rich food.

Sugar pine logs were used by the Shasta for making dugout, square-ended canoes (Dixon 1907).

Like many other pine species, the sugar pine boughs and needles were commonly used to cover the floors of dwellings and pad beds (Barrett and Gifford 1951). However, Sugar pine boughs were specifically excluded from use as thatching, despite boughs of other pine tree species being commonly used for thatching (Barrett and Gifford 1951). I can only conjecture a higher ratio of sugar to terpene content compared to other pines makes the sugar pine needles more susceptible to decay, making it inferior thatching material.

This tree was also sometimes host to the Pandora moth (Carolin and Knopf 1968). The Pandora moth caterpillar was a crucial, abundant food of the Paiute and other Sierra Indians.


Barrett, S.A. and E.W. Gifford. 1951. Miwok houses. In The California Indians: a source book. Edited by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple.

Carolin, V.M. Jr. and J.A.E. Knopf. 1968. The pandora moth. USDA Forest Service Forest Pest Leaflet 114: 1-7.

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Dixon, Roland. B. 1907. The Shasta. American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 17(5).

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

Jacknis, Ira J (ed.). 2004. Food in California Indian culture. Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

The Make and Use of Redwood Canoes by the Yurok Tribe

Fallen redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) logs were hollowed with fire to form canoes by Pacific coast Indians of northwestern California (e.g. Yurok) that were sold to other tribes (Powers 1877, Chesnut 1902). Redwood trunks for canoes were gathered by the Yurok from the bar across the mouth of the Lower Klamath, or all along the coast where redwoods grow (Powers 1877). Redwood (and it’s relatives such as bald cypress) is known for having insect-repellant wood. It is also quite soft and easy to carve.

They were burned by the Yurok to suitable lengths, (one made in 1968 was 18 ft long x 3.5 ft wide x 1.5 ft deep) and the ends kept blunt rather than pointed (Powers 1877). To burn them into shape, pitch was spread on the area of wood to be burned, and when it was burned sufficiently deep, a piece of raw bark was clapped upon the burning area to extinguish it (Powers 1877). By this method, and with scraping and polishing with stones, the sides and ends were reduced to be very thin and smooth, with appreciable symmetry and elegance (Powers 1877). At the stern, a small, neat bracket was burned and polished out to serve as a seat (Powers 1877). Before metal tools, this work was completed by two Indians in five or six months (Powers 1877).

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Such a canoe could carry five tons (Powers 1877). They were used for shooting dangerous rapids and surf, in sea during stormy weather, and regularly traveling the 44 mile round-trip from the Yurok village to Crescent City to bring back merchandise (Powers 1877). For collecting shellfish, they were used to go to small offshore islands a mile distant, upon which they jumped from their canoes despite dangerous rocks and surf (Powers 1877).



To keep the canoes from cracking in the sun, when not in use, they were turned upside down on the sandy beach and their bottoms were cleared of adhering barnacles, seaweed, and other matter by singing with burning reeds or bundles of sticks to loosen the pitch and scrape off the matter, i.e., they were breamed (Powers 1877). Or they were hauled into damp and shady coves, or thickly covered with leaves and brushwood (Powers 1877). If they become cracked, holes were bored through the wood on both sides next to the crack with a deer antler, and withes were passed through these holes, being tightened by twisting them with sticks (like a tourniquet), closing the cracks better than caulking (Powers 1877).

They are still made by the Yurok in our age, mainly for ceremonial use and display, but sometimes for regular use. One is on display at the Thomas H. Kuchel visitor center at Redwood National Park. See this Redwood National Park handout for a little more info: http://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/yurok%20canoe.pdf

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580


Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Powers, S. 1877. Tribes of California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.