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Shasta

Subsistence

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The primary animal foods for the Shasta living along the river drainages were fish, principally salmon, trout and mussels. Fish were taken using nets and basket traps. For those groups living in the high country, animal protein was obtained through the hunting of deer (a staple), elk and bear. All Shasta groups hunted other small mammals and rodents (Moratto 437-438). Crickets and grasshoppers were also an important food source in the Shasta Valley. There is some disagreement as to whether or not the Shasta consumed mountain lions and wildcats or just hunted them for their fur (Silver 216).

Hunting was done by men with "sinew-backed bow and obsidian-tipped arrow[s]" (Moratto 437). Other methods of hunting included tracking and driving game into enclosures, pitfalls and deadfalls; bear and rodents were smoked out and birds were caught using basket traps (Silver 216). Kroeber reported that the Shasta kept and trained dogs for hunting (294). Deer were hunted by driving them into nooses hidden in brush fences or into a circle of fire where they were then clubbed or shot using bow and arrows. Deer where also stalked by hunters wearing deerskin decoys. The decoys were constructed of complete deerskin hides with the heads stuffed. Hunters had a variety of deerskins to use depending on the season, for example, during the summer months when the deer would have velvet on their antlers the hunter would use a stuffed deerskin head with mink wrapped around the antlers to simulate the velvet (Dixon 431, Renfro 39).

Photograph of mule deer by Sherry Ballard
Mule Deer
© 2000 Sherry Ballard, California Academy of Sciences

Fishing was done primarily by men using a variety of methods: nets, spears, hooks and lines, "a-ka-hik" (weirs), basket traps and fish drives (Renfro 36). Another important method of fishing was the use of platforms and long handled nets. The fishermen would stand on platforms erected over favorite pools and eddies and catch the fish in triangular shaped nets attached to long poles. During salmon runs it was possible for a man to catch enough fish in one day to feed the family for a week (Smith). Women assisted in fish drives by beating the water to drive the fish into weirs and traps; in the case of the Klamath River Shasta, the women floated on rafts while beating the water to drive the fish towards spear wielding fishermen (Renfro 37).

The Shasta observed a number of rituals and TABOOS concerning salmon fishing on the Klamath. Although the Shasta did not perform the First Salmon Ceremony themselves (as did many other Northern California tribes), they did have a rule that required the use of a line rather than spear to catch the first salmon of the season, and they also did not fish until after the Kammatwa people had caught the first salmon and conducted the salmon ritual. Although they fished and stored salmon, the Shasta did not eat any of their salmon catch until after the Karuk performed the White Deerskin Dance; those who ignored this taboo risked being killed. Other taboos forbid the consumption of the first fish by youths, or in the case of the Klamath River Shasta first fish were taboo to adolescent females (Silver 216-217). Other taboos required men to remain celibate when net fishing and cooking of fish was prohibited by menstruating women (Renfro 36).

Salmon was roasted and eaten fresh, or split, smoked, dried and stored for future use. Nothing was wasted, even the Salmon bones were crushed and stored for soup making at a later time (Kroeber 294). Large animal meat was cooked by boiling, baking in earth ovens or broiling over coals. Smaller mammals were roasted, and insects were baked or parched (Silver 217).

As in most of prehistoric California acorns were the primary plant food; acorns were so important that anthropologists have coined the term "acorn economy" when referring to aboriginal California Indian subsistence. There are a variety of oaks species within the Shasta's territory; the California Black Oak (Quercus californica) was favored over the white oak (Quercus garryana); however, the most prized acorns came from the tan oak (Quercus densiflora) that they had to acquire through trade with people living on the Klamath. Acorns contain tannic acid, which makes the untreated acorn inedible. In order to remove the bitter tannic acid and make them palatable, Indians processed the acorns by leeching them. The Shasta leeched acorns by pouring water over the acorn meal, which was placed on a layer of sand atop pine needles laid on a wooden platform. Black oak acorn meal was then dried and stored, or if there was a surplus, it was traded with neighboring groups. Dried foods were stored either outside in pits or inside "in baskets or twined tule sacks" (Silver 217). Live Oak and white oak acorns were buried whole in mud and left until they turned black at which time they were cooked or roasted and eaten whole (Kroeber 293 Silver 217).

Photograph of tan oak acorns by Brother Alfred Brousseau
Tan Oak Acorns
© 2000 Brother Alfred Brousseau, California Academy of Sciences

Other vegetal foods included berries, fruit, nuts, seeds, greens, pine nuts, and roots. Manzanita berries were used to make a cider beverage, while Sugar Pine nuts were steamed in earthen ovens then dried and stored for later use in making cakes or mixing with dried powered salmon (Kroeber 294).

Digging sticks were used to dig up roots while long poles were used to knock acorns from the oak trees. The Shasta were known to use fire to increase seed production by burning areas, which stimulated new growth (Anderson 95-96). Women did most of the gathering of vegetal foods, but the men and children helped them during the all-important fall acorn-gathering season.

The Shasta shared their food with all the members of the village, with each getting an equal share. The hunter was responsible for butchering his kill while his wife would distribute the meat. This food sharing is typical of all hunter and gathering societies; the Shasta would shun anyone who did not share their food with the rest of the village (Dixon 431, Renfro 40).

 

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