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Peter N. Jones

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American Indians and Plants in the Great Basin of North America
by Peter N. Jones   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2007

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American Indians and their ancestors have been living and subsisting on the natural plants of the Great Basin for thousands of years. Over time, as American Indians seasonally harvested the natural floral resources, and the resources accordingly responded to this process, a symbiotic relationship developed between the American Indians of the Great Basin, their cultural lifeway, and the regions plant life. As this relationship developed and became more intricate and complex, American Indians flourished in the seemingly sparse Great Basin desert environment for thousands of years.

Originally, many scholars viewed the possibility of this ancient relationship with some skepticism, primarily because of the early anthropological work of Julian Steward, and the overall general unfamiliarity with the Great Basin environment. Rather than according the American Indians of the Great Basin the knowledge and cultural sophistication they deserved for sustainably and symbiotically living in their homeland, scholars hypothesized that indigenous Great Basin peoples were:

1) the least developed in terms of cultural sophistication and complexity,
2) had only recently migrated into the Great Basin from more resource rich areas, and
3) had little or no knowledge of Great Basin ecology. Therefore,
4) they were a dying cultural group that required little or no consultation in contemporary Great Basin resource issues.

As researchers began to actually work with Great Basin peoples, and slowly learned the epistemic value of their traditional ecological knowledge, a very different understanding has emerged. It became apparent that the Paiute, Shoshone, and other indigenous people of the Great Basin have been in their traditional homelands for thousands of years, and that their traditional lifeways and the general Great Basin ecosystem were only recently disrupted by Euroamerican colonial processes. Further, it became clear as more research was conducted that an ancient relationship between American Indians and plants in the Great Basin existed, and that knowledge from such a relationship could offer insights into restoring the Great Basin ecosystem and other natural resources problems currently at issue.

The Great Basin is a region encompassing more than 115,800 square miles between the Sierra Nevada of California in the west and the Wasatch Range of Utah in the east. The region is bounded to the north by the lower Snake River plain in Idaho and to the south by the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Composed of a series of large, internally draining basins in which seasonal lacustrine marshes and lakes form, the Great Basin has historically provided a rich variety of resources that American Indians have relied upon for 10,000 years or more. Furthermore, these seasonally dry and sparsely vegetated basins are geographically divided by a series of north to south mountain ranges that historically provided resources in a seasonal cycle from the basin floor to the upper mountain slopes. As a result of this geography, perennial mountain streams form each spring that historically provided a number of riverine based floral resources. By knowing the environment, weather, and geography of the Great Basin, American Indians could successfully find plant resources at all times of the year. Evidence for this ancient and symbiotic relationship comes primarily from archaeological and ethnographic data, although biological data also supports these conclusions.

The archaeological evidence, which has become more refined and extensive since the time of early theories discussing American Indians of the Great Basin, argues that American Indians and plants of the Great Basin have shared an 8,000 year or longer relationship. In the eastern Great Basin, for example, the earliest evidence of people in the area comes from sites located along prehistoric lakeshores in the basin floors where people subsisted largely on seasonally available lacustrine resources. Later, evidence indicates that Great Basin peoples began to also utilize upland regions that were situated in the piñon-juniper ecozones, allowing access to sage and grass communities as well as higher montane resources. Faunal and floral macrofossils, coupled with pollen analyses from across the Great Basin, further evidences a dependence on wetland food resources augmented with small seeds from dryland plants beginning in the early Holocene (9600-7000 years ago) and continuing into the ethnographic period. Although other resources apparently fluctuated over time in the diets of Great Basin peoples, plant-based resources remained constant.

Not only was plant-life exploited for subsistence purposes, but peoples of the Great Basin also used floral resources in the construction of shelters, mats, clothing, and especially baskets. The exploitation of plant-life in the construction of baskets was so important, in fact, that it has been possible to identify at least three distinct basketry manufacturing regions. Each region had special characteristics that delineated it from other basketry manufacturing styles, such as in the northern Great Basin where at least 13 different basket wall-construction techniques have been identified over time. These include at least six different coiling techniques and seven basic twining methods such as close simple twining, close diagonal twining, and open simple twining.

Beginning in the 1800s, however, contact with Euroamericans and their cultural products (i.e., diseases, material goods, weapons, horses, etc.) resulted in a disruption of the millennia old relationship between American Indians and plants of the Great Basin. This disruption was rapid and severe, as thousands of Euroamericans entered the Great Basin to begin agricultural, industrial, or resource extraction endeavors. These processes and events, such as the now famous Comstock mining explosion, or the development of the Newlands project near present-day Reno, or the massive cattle and sheep ranching operations that took place in the early and middle twentieth century, completely disrupted the ancient symbiotic relationship between American Indians and plants in the Great Basin.

These colonizing processes of the 1800s radically changed the ecology of the Great Basin. The seasonal marshes and lacustrine resources were either trampled, drained, or consumed. Large areas were transformed into agricultural fields that produced non-indigenous agricultural products. Giant mines and their waste transformed entire mountains and watersheds, polluting the land and making it impossible for the native plants to grow. As a result of these and many other processes, the relationship between American Indians and plants of the Great Basin has been seriously tested. Unable to access traditional resources and areas, much of this relationship has been maintained through oral traditions, ceremonial and religious practices, and in the minds and hearts of tribal elders. Today, however, there may be hope for reinvigorating this ancient relationship once again.

Great Basin peoples are beginning to establish cultural programs that teach their youth ancient cultural values and knowledge. Environmentalists and resource managers are attempting to clean up mines and restore watersheds, and applied and action-oriented social scientists are advocating for the inclusion of Great Basin peoples’ voices in resource issues. Together these processes bring hope to a formally bleak picture. By working together, it is possible to once again allow this relationship between American Indians and plants of the Great Basin to flourish. Through communication, consultation, and collaboration this relationship can not only flourish, but it can be strengthened by the addition of all voices involved.

Web Site: Indigenous Issues Today

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