Tag Archives: native


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.

Blue Elderberry Ethnobotany

ADOXACEAE – Muskroot Family
Scientific Name:
Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea (Raf.) R. Bolli
S. glauca Nutt., S. mexicana
Common Names:
Blue elderberry, pale elder, elderberry
Indian names (the vertical bars should be horizontal over the letter they follow, as should be the umlauts):
Ke|-we|’ ma:m—ke|-we|’ (+ma:m for the berry, Yuki), chin-so:k’ (Wailaki), no|-ko|m-he|-in’-e| (Concow), ba:-te|’ ka:-la|’ (Yokia), kit-ta|’ (+bu-ki|’ for the berry, Calpella, Potter Valley, Little Lake), ga-lu|’ bu-ki|’ (also the berry, Little Lake)

Berries – eaten by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). Eaten by Mendocino area Indians and Kashaya Pomo raw, dried for the winter, or sugar added and made into pies, canned, and jellied (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980).

Flowers – flower stalks are dried in the sun, then put in a bag and shaken til the flowers fall off (Goodrich et al. 1980). Dried flowers were kept in most Indian’s homes (Chesnut 1902). Made into a lotion used for fevers, sprains and bruises, or made into an antiseptic wash for itch and for open sores in domestic animals (Chesnut 1902). Taken internally by the Little Lake to stop lung bleeding in consumption (Chesnut 1902). An infusion was used to break a fever (Goodrich et al. 1980).
Inner bark – is a strong emetic, but was seldom used by Mendocino Co. Indians (Chesnut 1902).
Root – a decoction was used as a healing lotion on open sores and cuts (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Wood – the very soft pith (innermost wood) was used as tinder for firestarting with flint and steel (Chesnut 1902). The soft wood was used as a spindle stick for friction firestarting (Chesnut 1902). Sticks with the pith removed were used for making syringes or squirt guns, whistles, flutes, and clapping sticks, the latter consisting of a split stick wrapped together at one end which was held and the other end struck against the palm or leg (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980).

Habitat: open woods and canyons or moist flats of hill country along streams, 0-3070 m (Goodrich et al. 1980, Calflora).

Notes: previously in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae).
Gathering Seasons:

Flowers: early – mid-summer. Berries: late summer. Root: late summer – fall. Branches: fall. (Goodrich et al. 1980)

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.

New Map of Old North America Shows Indian Tribal Nations; what causes variation in tribe density?

Aaron Carapella has compiled all the original (self-identified) names of the American Indians on a map showing the locations of their original homes. It immediately gives a sense of the extent and variety of Indians occupying the continent.

See the full story here: The Map of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before

Or go straight to the PDF file of the map: Tribal_Nations_Map_of North America

There is a separate map for Mexico you can find in the article.


Ethnoecological hypotheses for high density of Indian tribes and populations in California and the coastal Pacific Northwest:

Like other similar maps produced before (which usually show the names colonists gave to Indians, such as “Costanoan” for SF Bay Area Indians, which just means inhabiting the coast), another remarkable feature is the high diversity of tribes in California, as well as the Pacific Coast. I’d attribute this high diversity, which goes along with notably large original populations (Heizer and Elsasser 1980), to the high diversity and productivity of ecosystems in these regions.

by Aaron Carapella

Detail of Tribal Nations map showing California and most of Nevada. Full map by Aaron Carapella

The unit of land-ownership for the American Indians was a watershed (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). Indian tribes would own both sides of a creek or river, and the mountains behind them with their tributaries, ending at the ridgetops that began another tribe’s territory (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The wrinkled topography, caused by the geologic uplift from the subduction of the Pacific plate along the coast, has led to many distinct watersheds concentrated in a small area in California and the Pacific Northwest coast.

Thus the high density of tribes may be simply a result of the division of tribal groups by the high density of watersheds. If one looks at a map of the watersheds, the tribes do seem to be at least partly corresponding to different watersheds. If the names map had higher resolution, reflecting how each of these tribes divided into smaller groups and tribelets, this hypothesis would probably be better supported.

Interestingly, larger tribe groups tend to mirror the hierarchical structure of the watersheds, claiming large watersheds (different colors in the below map), and their constituent tribes claiming smaller watersheds within (different shades of one color in the below map).


Another, related reason for the high density of tribal names and population size is the ecology of the area. The massive trees of the coastal Pacific Northwest, along with their lush understories, forming specialized assemblages in every nook and cranny of the convoluted topography, gives rise to ecosystems with a huge variety and abundance of plant and animal life, next to ecosystems that are entirely different yet close-by. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, relying upon these profuse plants and animals, therefore did not have to harvest from a large area of land to meet their needs, but could live in peace with close neighbors and at high population densities without risk of hunger.

Supporting this latter hypothesis is the recent synthetic finding of Ethnobotanists is that regions of high biological diversity strongly correlate with regions of highest linguistic and cultural diversity (Carlson and Maffi 2004, Nolan and Turner 2011).

A final alternative hypothesis is simply that by the time ethnographies were conducted to record all the names of the tribes, the areas with fewer tribal names had already been decimated, leaving few behind to have their names recorded. Although California and the west coast was indeed some of the last territory to be settled and the Indians rounded up and exterminated, this hypothesis is refutable by comparing to the east coast.

The eastern coast, the first areas to be settled and the Indians persecuted, has a similarly high density of tribal names, though somewhat more dispersed or clumped. Note also Florida and along the southeast coast there is a rather high density of tribes, and that these areas have remarkably high diversity of plant life, though are not very mountainous. These patterns, along with the general tendency for high tribal name density on the map to correlate well with mountainous areas and/or areas of high plant diversity, lends support to the watershed and/or ecological diversity hypotheses I gave above.

Further support of these hypotheses can be seen in the areas of low density of tribal names. The mountainous eastern Rockies, though dense with watersheds, have very little water. These deserts and dry forests have low plant diversity, and accordingly seem to support few tribes, at presumably low population densities. Furthermore, the midwest, the belt from Canada to Texas about two states wide, consists of flat grasslands; areas with low density of watersheds and little environmental heterogeneity. Despite its high soil fertility and productivity of grazing animals, predictably, this area also has low density of tribal names, and presumably, Indian populations. Similarly, in the far north, where boreal forest, tundra, or arctic ecosystems predominate, there is a low density of tribal names, and presumably populations, since these ecosystems are very homogenous, with low plant diversity and low productivity of plant energy.

To put it (somewhat) simply, humans are animals too, and just as how animal diversity (at the levels of genotypes, populations, and species) is directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity, so is the diversity of Homo sapiens (here presumably at the genotypic, and population / cultural levels) directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity (namely density of watersheds).



Carlson, T. and L. Maffi (eds.). 2004. Ethnobotany and conservation of biocultural diversity. Advances in economic botany Vol. 15. Botanical Garden Press, New York, NY.

Heizer, Robert F. and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of the California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Nolan, J. M. and N. J. Turner. Ethnobotany: the study of people-plant relationships. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.