The People of the Tule
Can you guess which state is the home of this lake? Here are the clues:
1. Once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.
2. The terminus (ending point) for the Chinook salmon that spawned up river.
3. In 1888, during a three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were pulled from the lake.
4. During the west season, it spread out over 790 square miles.
5. It supported vast populations of deer, elk, antelope, grizzly bear, migratory birds, and aquatic life.
6. The Native Americans lived “high off the hog” around this source of plentiful food.
7. The basin of this now-dry lake resides in the western state that is plagued with desperate water shortages.
It seems a little ironic when you think about it. California, the Golden State, is the home of Tulare Lake, which is no more. The people who lived on its shores, fished in its waters, and made their homes out of the reeds (called “tules”) that grew along its banks are gone.
While researching for my Old West children’s chapter book, Andi’s Indian Summer, I discovered a delightful people: the Yokuts. These Native Americans lived in peace and harmony with nature and with each other until the Gold Rush of 1849. With no competition for food, there was very little reason to go to war with other tribes. The Valley Yokuts enjoyed life at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near Tulare Lake; the Foothills Yokuts had the same high standard of living up in the foothills, along the rivers.
When the Yokuts first saw the white men cutting down trees, splitting them, and making troughs for gold, they had no idea what it meant. They found out the hard way. Soon, more white men came. They built a fort at Millerton. Actually, they forced the peaceful Yokuts to build the fort.
Life would never be the same . . .
But let’s not dwell on that for now. Instead, let’s go back and live a day in the life of the Yokut people . . .
“When we want meat, the chief sends two, three men who are good shots with bow and arrow . . . They hide in the rocks by river, wait. Antelope, elk come. Men shoot six, eightnice fat ones. They let rest run away. We have all the meat we want,” says Kuyu Illik, born in 1828.
Meanwhile, the women are pounding acorns into acorn meal. The foothills of the Sierras are covered with oak trees, and acorns are the Yokuts’ main food supply. But these nuts can’t be eaten like a pecan or a hazelnut. Acorns hold bitter, poisonous tannic acid that must be leached out. The women pound the acorns into a fine meal. After pounding, the acorn meal is laid on grape leaves in shallow holes of a sandy hill and water is poured through it. Now it’s ready to cook!
The Yokut people made beautiful, intricately woven baskets. They used these baskets for baby cradles, acorn gathering, various games, and even cooking. The baskets were constructed so well that not a drop of water leaked out. The Yokuts heated water (or acorn mush) by plopping hot rocks in and stirring them around.
The day passes peacefully. It’s warm, so little clothing is needed. A grass or deer-hide skirt, a head band to hold back long, black, hair, a necklace made of shells, seeds, and beads, and no shoes. The grass around Tulare Lake is as soft as a fine carpet.
Later in the afternoon, the children grab an oak burl and get involved in a rousing game of “shinny,” a rough form of field hockey. The women sit around and chat as they weave baskets from tule grass in designs of the sun, moon, animals, and especially the rattlesnake design they love so much. That evening, single families slip into their homes, also made of the abundant reeds. Mud has been slapped against the sides and roof, and more grass has grown on top. When the Yokuts go in and out of their homes, they look like they are disappearing underground. Up in the hills, other Yokuts enjoy a community pole house, with the entire tribe under one roof.
Paradise did not last long for the Yokuts. Once the white man came, the Yokuts’ days were numbered, like so many other native peoples. There were once nearly 70,000 Yokuts, but by 1875 their number had dwindled to 700. The $5.00 bounty placed on the head of every Yokut Indian in California probably contributed to their near extinction. Today, about 3,000 Yokuts remain.
Andi’s Indian Summer is not a rip-roaring Old West love story, but young readers will enjoy it and also book one: Andi’s Pony Trouble. They make great Christmas gifts. And there are free coloring pages to download at www.andiandtaffy.com. We’re giving away the set to one lucky reader. All you have to do is leave a comment and share what you imagine might have been the best part of being a peaceful Yokut on the banks of Tulare Lake.