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Kamotkut Paiutes reclaim ancestral homeland
Joyce Melendez works on a beaded collar for a ceremonial dress. Photos by Jordan Clary
Each year for the past six years they’ve been holding a reunion at Ram Horn Springs campground on the Smoke Creek Desert near Ravendale, land that is their ancestral homeland, for purification ceremonies and to share songs, stories and beadwork.
Madeline McIntyre said it was once known as Numu Summuth, which means People’s Gathering.
This year, however, they were in for a surprise.
The spring in the campground was bone dry.
As a result, they were not able to build their traditional sweat lodge since water is necessary, both for fire safety and as part of the purification ritual.
“We don’t know what’s wrong,” said McIntyre. “We’ve had dry years before, and this has never happened. Water is why Indian people come together. It’s very important to us.”
Gwyndelon Pancho displays some of her bead and leatherwork.
A local camper, Glenn Bell, said, “This is the first time in 32 years the spring has been dry so early in the season.”
Most speculation seemed to rest on the possibility the water was being blocked somewhere upstream.
Sharyn Blood, of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said they have no records of the spring having gone dry before.
The Kamotkut, nevertheless, made the best of the situation by enjoying one another’s company, exploring the land their ancestors have lived on for thousands of years and, in spite of their Jack Rabbit name, feasting on groundhog roasted in a pit.
McIntyre said the elders told them stories about the area and the villages that used to be here.
Four tribes overlapped in this region: Paiute, Pitt River, Washoe and Maidu.
While the boundaries shifted and changed, there were a series of interconnected villages on the Smoke Creek and Granite deserts that were distinctly Kamotkut territory.
Red Feather Andrews prepares the pit to roast groundhog. “There’s a method to eating groundhog,” said Andrews. “Anytime you take an animal, you should give the Earth a gift in return.”
They are hoping, next year, to have a rededication ceremony to officially mark the site of their former village.
Last year the BLM published “Ethnographic Syntheses of the Eagle Lake Field Office, Volume One: Synthesis and Recommendations,” which established the area as the Kamotkut’s ancestral land.
The ethnography was prepared by Penny Rucks, M.A. and Shelly Tiley, Ph.D.under the direction of Blood.
“Our history is Native American history, but it’s also American history,” said Mace DeLorme. “Each tribe has its own ancestral territory, its distinct culture and language, so to identify our land base is really important to us. It establishes that our ancestors were here, that we’re not extinct. Before, we weren’t given a voice. So claiming our ancestral land is historically significant. The BLM ethnography helps us establish that.”
It’s no secret that, throughout time, history has generally been written by the conquerors, and in the case of Native Americans, this has led to a lot of misinformation in the history books.
DeLorme said early ethnographers have generally linked the Kamotkut with the Wakakuht, the Wada Seed Eaters, of the Honey Lake Valley, although the two bands are different.
Gwyndelon Pancho, left, and Joyce Melendez work together on beading.
“We recognize our relationship to each other and we work together, but researchers didn’t understand band interactions very well. Their research was too static, when in actuality, it’s much more dynamic than they realized. That’s why the research can be misleading.”
One example of conflicting information concerns Smoke Creek Sam. Reports from early settlers depict Smoke Creek Sam as a villain, who was finally brought down in the Snake War fought between the U.S. Calvary and an alliance of Paiute, Shoshone and Bannocks.
Contemporary Paiutes, however, consider him a hero who fought to keep his people from starving.
DeLorme said they are hoping to erect a statue of Smoke Creek Sam in the near future.
Part of the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate their culture and heritage. Gwyndelon Pancho and Joyce Melendez brought out bead and leatherwork they have been working on. Both artisans continue a tradition that has been handed down through the generations.
DeLorne said, “What makes us Indians is participating in our culture.”
For the Jack Rabbit Eaters, reclaiming their land is an important part of making sure their culture survives into the future.
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