As I age, technology accelerates and I find myself needing to spend more and more time tending to upgrades, acquiring more conveniences and of course dealing with the diabolical business plan that renders your perfectly working system obsolete while banishing the old. You must buy in and these gadgets are not cheap so you must have the money to buy in or be marginalized. Tools and process make it easier to accomplish a task, or should, but lately I find myself struggling with digital technologies and investing too much time fussing with it. What happened to the simplification that they promised? Even in my own, once rural, hometown we’ve been swamped in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity. Perhaps we can realistically only manage so many devices and accounts before it gets to be too much.
As a writer and photographer, I’m in front of a screen for a varying number of hours daily. Add to that reading for research and pleasure and some “social” media and I’m already spending too much time hanging out with glowing screens. I need to hike and joke and ponder and eat with friends; to see them smile and enjoy their spontaneity and off-handedness. I have to make room for that camp-fire like experience (not virtual, mind you) where we share each other’s warmth and radiance. Working together is another kind of high that amplifies camaraderie, bonding and accomplishment. This is fundamental to the human experience and can’t be bought or upgraded but it is renewable.
A trend I've noticed since social networking software became common, is the infantile nature of many of the interfaces – our local government is addressed as “mynevadacounty.com, and then there’s “myucdavis”, etc. Is this a healthy attitude toward government, public education or democracy? With this perspective perhaps we could personalize the Preamble to the Constitution with “Me the person …” or simply “My Constitution …” I’ll only be annoyed temporarily because soon algorithms will learn my preferred interaction style and talk to me like Wendell Berry or Lucinda Williams. By the way, algorhythms is a good name for a band. The whole topic is more silly than insidious – let’s leave it at that.
Speaking of music, it’s one of the things that defines us as humans because we engage in music as a social activity. Humans use music as a mechanism for community bonding in a way that seems to be quite unique. In contemporary settings we often sit listening politely to music which is fine for cerebral music but me, and most of my friends, crave gatherings where song and dance are almost indistinguishable. We need this and our entire bodies, including our minds, recognize this. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar sees two other key aspects of culture that stand out as being uniquely human. One is religion and the other is story-telling (Human Evolution, 2014).
As I turn now to the thousands of years of habitation in our beloved Yuba River watershed my “Word” program keeps insisting that Nisenan is Nissan and only highlights the commodification of everything, even language, in contemporary culture. It might be difficult to convince a lurking algorithm that in my small world I actually use the word Nisenan, the indigenous people of this place, far more than Nissan.
When archaeologists and anthropologists discuss technologies, they include hand-tool use and thought-systems sophisticated enough to effect landscapes for mutual benefit. Among the earliest tools were digging sticks, which I’ll return to. Other “primitive” technologies include the atlatl, a method of amplifying the velocity of spears and darts and basketry and netting with a vibrant tradition of excellence in form and function. The winnowing of grass seeds and the technique of leaching tannic acid from large, storable and nutritious acorns are ideas that fed the local people for thousands of years.
This is salt collected from the Nisenan by Steven Powers in 1876. It's evaporated brine that has been roasted to improve its flavor.
Stored at the Lowie Museum, UC Berkeley.
Probably the oldest and longest used technology in California's Yuba River country was the fire-hardened digging stick – Nisenan women were seldom seen without one. It was used to get at bulbs roots and tubers known by botanists as geophytes. Many of these plants, like brodias, produce beautiful flowers. As the Nisenan and others harvested they loosenedand aerated the soil, divided the plants’ underground storage parts and left behind small cormlets, bulblets or fragments in the soil, stimulating regrowth. As a result, these plants were prolific – white people called them “Indian potatoes” and had no idea that their patterning was deliberate.
The digging stick was also used to reach things on the ground, to reach above, as a lever, as a fire tender, for self-protection, as a walking staff and it had many other functions. Use of the digging stick was so widespread that miners indiscriminately and disparagingly called the foothill Indians “Diggers”. Trask’s 1853 map shows a place called Digger Bar on the South Yuba, just upstream from Missouri Bar. This is intriguing – was it named for Indians or miners? Was it originally a Nisenan fishing camp and then a placer mining site? It’s supremely ironic that the miners, who incessantly dug at gravel banks and rock ledges, called the native people diggers.
Yankee Jims 1902, North Fork of the American River
Beyond all that, land-based traditional people like the traditional Nisenan realized that that humans are part of the cycle of life and the environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin. Anthropologist and Rarámuri Indian, Enrique Salmón describes this as "kincentric ecology" whereby indigenous people are affected by and, in turn, affect the life around them. These interactions enhance and preserve the ecosystem. “Without human recognition of their role in the complexities of life in a place, the life suffers and loses its sustainability.” The kin, or relatives, include all the natural elements of an ecosystem. Interactions that result from this "kincentric ecology" enhance and preserve the ecosystem. According to Salmón, “Without human recognition of their role in the complexities of life in a place, the life suffers and loses its sustainability (Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship: 2000). To live well on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada the Nisenan, their ancestors and neighbors required access to two or three ecosystems. It was essential to recognize patterns and associations that occur in response to climate and are exhibited in plant and animal behavior. To live fully was to move with the ripening of plants and the migrations of animals. Add to this, opportunities for feasting, trade and socializing and you can begin to see how satisfying and rich the Nisenan way of life was prior to colonization.
Julia Parker, Pomo
Practicing acorn preparation in the Miwok/Paiute tradition