Ahjumawi Fish Traps
Native Fish Traps Along the Shore of Ahjumawi
Lava Springs State Park
John W. Foster
Senior State Archaeologist (Retired)
Please visit the Ahjumawi Fish Traps Photo Gallery
From ancient times there have always been suckers. In fact, they say there's one born every minute. Well, it doesn't happen by accident. In this case I'm referring to the Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidentalis), which thrives in the clear fresh waters of the Fall River drainage in northeastern California. This fish, typically detested by Anglo settlers and essentially unmanaged as a "trash fish" by the State officials, is of paramount importance to the native Pit River Ajumawi (their preferred spelling), who developed efficient tools and techniques for its capture. This paper will briefly describe the environmental setting and ethnographic context of the Ajumawi fish traps, account for their construction, maintenance and use, and present implications for understanding how Ajumawi subsistence practices involve not just the harvest of a fishery resource, but its propagation and active management as well.
The native Ajumawi traditions are not just fishing, but managing a fishery.
Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park (ALSSP) is one of the unpolished jewels of the State Park system. It is situated in the western portion of Fall River valley of Shasta county, along the shores of Big Lake and the Tule River, a short distance upstream from its confluence with the Pit River. It is an undeveloped park of magnificent beauty as well as rich cultural history.
The state park is composed of a vast lava field on the north extending many miles beyond the park boundary. This is the result of a geologically recent flow, perhaps 2,000 years in age, resulting in a landscape of sharp-edged rock, craters, pressure ridges and lava tubes. The aqueous setting is as soft as the land is harsh.
Where lava meets lake is a zone of critical importance. The lava flow collects rainfall over a vast area. It percolates through the broken rock, collects in great volume and issues through a series of reliable cold-water springs into the lake. These occur mainly along the shore, although several important flows can be detected in the main body of the Big Lake itself.
Fishes documented in ALSSP include the Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidentalis), rainbow trout (Onchnrychus mykiss), Sacramento squawfish (Ptychocheilus grandis), as well as Tui chub, largemouth bass, and rough sculpin (Dreyer 1988:12; Moyle 1976). Of particular focus here is the sucker. This boney fish can reach a size of 18 inches and weigh five pounds or more. It spawns primarily between late January and early June, with the heaviest activity being in February. The fish move up the Tule River to Big Lake from the Fall River. They collect in large schools, spending much of the daylight hours in large congregations. As evening approaches, they tend to move into the shallows where spawning is done in the flows of cold spring water (Moyle 1976:212).
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No excavations have been done within the park, and Fall River Valley prehistory is poorly understood at this point. Some information can be extrapolated from the few excavations of the surrounding region. The Lorenzen site, located in Little Hot Springs valley some 7 miles distant, revealed an archaeological record of some 3,000 years (Baumhoff and Olmsted 1963). More recent studies by Manuel (1983) on Beaver Creek, about twelve miles away from Ahjumawi, and at Lake Britton, a distance of some ten miles, have produced evidence of a 5,000 year occupational record and demonstrated gradual change in material culture through time (Peak and Associates 1984 and Kelly et al. 1987).
A series of important archaeological sites and features have been documented within the state park. Although more complete studies are needed, a full complement of sites is included in the inventory. Three major housepit villages are situated along a thin band of shoreline along Big Lake's northern margin. Interspersed between them are other smaller middens and a large cupule boulder.
The lava field has only partially revealed its ancient past. A series of rock walls, trails, cairns, sacred spots and lava tube burials have been identified. The walls may be related to hunting or defense, others to spiritual pursuits. A well-developed trail leads across the lava to hot springs on the other side of the valley.
The Ajumawi are one of nine bands of the Pit River Indians who occupied a large area of northeastern California. The Pit River Nation stretches from Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak on the west and south to Goose Lake and Eagle peak on the north and east (Olmsted and Stewart 1978:Fig.1). Their name translates to "River People," an appellation given them due to their heavy riparian orientation (Olmsted and Stewart 1978:235).
The Ajumawi band recognized the Fall River valley, Tule River and a small section of the Pit River just below the great falls as their home range. At the latter spot, prior to Shasta Dam construction, they had access to salmon and steelhead, but beyond, squawfish, eels, pike, suckers and trout were relied on. The vast Tule River marsh afforded large quantities of birds, and deer and acorns were important foods, but they were truly river people. As Voeglin recorded:
Suckers were a primary food and the Ajumawi developed efficient fishing techniques to harvest this resource. These attracted the attention of early ethnographers. Dr. John Hudson, collecting for the Field Museum about 1902, acquired tule blinders, leggings and sandals, nets, basket weirs and a spear fashioned from bone prongs attached to a long willow pole (Barter 1990). Throughout succeeding decades, new equipment has been added with spear tips, for example, pounded and shaped from pitch forks or hay forks, but traditional methods and social customs have persisted to the present day.
The real Achomawi were River Indians; they stayed around the river, fished; every man had a canoe and belonged to the river. They went out (hunting) for a little while, then returned to the river" (1942:58).
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Stone Fish Traps
Within the State Park and on nearby stretches of the Tule River are some of the best examples stone traps made by Ajumawi fishermen. They are ingeniously simple and efficient devices to capture suckers. The traps can also be effective for trout, who will congregate at times with the suckers, but these game fish will occasionally leap the stone walls to freedom while suckers, being bottom dwellers, are not prone to this behavior (Moyle 1976). A total of ten stone traps have been documented within the park -- five at Ja-She Creek, three at Crystal Spring, one at Lava Spring, and a large example at the far northern point of Big Lake near the large midden site.
In all cases the traps utilize the flow of cold water springs emerging from the lava and the propensity of suckers to seek these areas. There is a good deal of variation in trap construction, but some common elements can be pointed to. A massive outer wall in deeper water tends to occur at the larger traps. It typically forms an impoundment, connecting two points of land. Water depth may be 50-150cm and the stone wall is built up to the lake level using three courses of lava stones or more. A central opening measuring 20-50cm is designed to allow suckers to enter. It can be closed with a keystone (which can sometimes be seen underwater) or a log, dip net or canoe prow. The outer wall and opening serve to concentrate the spring outflow as it enters the lake, making a strong attraction flow to the spawning suckers.
Within the stone enclosure there is sometimes found a series of rock alignments forming an inner chamber. There invariably lead to a strong spring flow. They are constructed from lava rock near the spring itself. This exposes a layer of smaller vesicular gravels over which the spring waters issue. The most complex trap within the park is constructed at Crystal Spring. Here an elaborate maze of interior channels, chambers, rock piles and outer wall direct the spawning fish into very shallow water. During the peak-spawning season, the preoccupied fish can be touched from the bank as they deposit eggs on the gravels.
Several years ago the author was allowed to observe traditional sucker fishing as practiced by Mr. Floyd Buckskin at Ja-She Creek. It follows the pattern described by early ethnographers and summarized by Evans' treatment of this subject.
As evening approaches, preparations are made for sucker fishing. Nets and spears are readied, and arrangements for transportation to the traps was made. In earlier times this would not have been a problem since Ajumawi families would be living near stone traps. By 9 or 10 pm, the sucker fishing would begin. There was a general prohibition against loud or drunken behavior when harvesting suckers. This was serious business and proper care was advisable lest high winds or rough water be encountered. Loud noises were thought to scare the fish and produce bad results (Evans n.d.:19).
The men would approach cautiously with an elder who owned rights to a particular trap directing the harvest. The first order of business was to close the outside enclosure opening. A special board or stone might serve this function. If canoes were used, one might be placed in the opening to block escape of the fish to deeper water. At this point torches would be lit to reveal the fish. A large trap might contain several hundred. (When we were there in 1987, the light revealed hundreds of fish.) The leader might strike the first fish, then other men would carefully wade in and spear them, tossing selected specimens up on the bank. Young boys age ten or twelve might be allowed to spear suckers with their own equipment (Evans n.d.:18). Others would gather them in baskets. Women might also join in, scooping out fish with their hands or using spears or basket scoops. The catch was loaded into baskets or gunny sacks in the boats (or cars).
When an adequate supply was taken, the trap was reopened and fish were allowed to resume their spawn. Occasionally, it would be left closed until the following day, but great care was taken to allow the spawn to be successful.
According to Evans' informants, it was not unusual for an expedition to take one hundred fish or more from a given trap. Individual specimens might weigh 4 to 7 pounds...quite a haul. As many as three or even six trips might occur during the spawning season, depending on the availability of fish and water conditions. The fish were cleaned by gutting and scaling with the heads attached. They were then sun-dried or smoked over a wooden frame. The catch would be shared with relatives and sometimes traded to neighboring groups for venison or acorns. Once dried, the fish would last for several months or "the beginning of summer" in a typical year As Evans was told: "When you had suckers and acorn, you didn't even need bread." (n.d.:25).
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Ajumawi Fishing and Resource Management
Now typically fishing is seen as a subsistence activity among aboriginal groups. It is that, of course, but in this instance, it is more. What is represented by the stone fish traps at Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park is a form of resource manipulation that involves managing the sucker population as a fishery. That is to say, improving spawning conditions for the resident suckers as well as enabling their selective harvest. This is a reasonable conclusion given the following:
1) If the stone traps were simply designed to catch fish, they would only need the outer wall, because when that is plugged, there is no escape for the spawning suckers. Constructing the inner chamber walls serves to expose ideal spawning gravels to the spring outflow, and direct that stream to attract the fish from the main body of Big Lake.
2) The Ajumawi place a strong emphasis on maintaining the traps, keeping them clear of debris. According to Floyd Buckskin, this was among the most important responsibilities in traditional life. The stone traps need regular care and rebuilding. The walls tend to collapse, and this covers the essential spawning gravels. The emphasis on maintaining these gravels strongly implies that more than fishing is involved.
3) The resident rainbow trout in Big Lake also benefit from this management activity. They are fall spawners, and by February, are in a weak post-spawn metabolic state with very little food available (T. Taylor, personal communication). Our studies demonstrate the trout feed on sucker eggs during this period. And therefore, by enhancing this spawn, the Ahjumawi are also having a positive effect on the trout. More research needs to be done on the nature of sucker-trout ecology, but the institutional view that suckers compete with trout for food, should be called into question. Its just possible that Ajumawi knowledge concerning this relationship, at least at Big Lake, surpasses that fishery biologists.
But wait, you might say, we invented "resource management." We trace it back to John Muir and the conservation movement. After all, it's the name of my organizational unit in State Parks. How could it have been applied by an aboriginal group? Well perhaps its a problem with our hunter/forager model. Perhaps we have not seen this complexity for what it really is among Native California cultures. The bias is now being recognized. As Kat Anderson has written:
This anthropological view is changing rapidly. The imprint of native cultures on the vegetation of California, from the Sierra and foothills (Anderson 1993a, 1993b) to the Santa Barbara channel (Timbrook 1995) is now being recognized. Through regular burning, pruning, tillage and planting, native California groups actively manipulated their environment to make it more productive. They adapted to, but also managed their plant resources and landscapes.
It has been widely assumed that California Indians were casual inhabitants who drifted from place to place, their former range left vacated until another group accidentally wandered in. Therefore the effects of human occupance were soon erased, like the marks of a light storm, or the tracks of birds and squirrels.
This paper argues that Ajumawi fish traps preserved at Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park are also an example of active resource management. The native inhabitants are concerned with propagating as well as harvesting these important fish. When one considers the timing of the sucker harvest (and spawn), during the deep winter, its caloric value and the deeply held traditions which surround it, it is perfectly understandable why suckers form such a significant subsistence element. After thousands of years, is it unreasonable to think the Ajumawi -- the River People -- were managing this vital fish population to insure their own survival?
These observations rely on previous work carried out at Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park by Bill Dreyer of CSU Chico and Nancy Evans of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Much of it was funded through the Department's Statewide Resource Management Program. I am also indebted to Tom Taylor, former Fishery Biologist with DPR, who served as my dive partner and collaborator in an underwater view of suckers and stone fish traps. He graciously read and commented on an earlier version of this paper. Steve Moore, State Park Ranger at Ahjumawi, freely shared his knowledge with us. Eloise Barter's summary of fishing equipment adds important historical perspective. Finally, the insights conveyed by Floyd Buckskin, a native Ajumawi resident, on fishing and the place of this activity in traditional culture have been crucial to any interpretations made herein. The errors, of course, are my own.
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